The iconic (and canonic) Israeli song, yerushalayim shel zahav (Jerusalem of Gold), a prime example of the SLI (Songs of the Land of Israel, or shire eretz yisrael) genre, was written by Israeli composer and singer-songwriter Naomi Shemer (1930-2004).
Shemer, an influential voice in the canon of Israeli mainstream and popular culture, rightfully deserves her own entry in the Encyclopaedia Judaica, authored by dr. Gila Flam, head of the Music Department of the National Library of Israel and “Music in Israel” Skype guest. (Note that links will only work with an account that allows access to certain electronic resources):

SHEMER, NAOMI (Saphir; 1930–2004), composer, song writer, and performer. Born at kevuẓat Kinneret, she studied at the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem Academies of Music. Among her teachers were Frank Peleg , Ilona Vinze-Kraus, Joseph Tal , and Abel Ehrlich . She returned to kevuẓat Kinneret as a music teacher and there she composed her first songs especially for children. In 1956 she moved to Tel Aviv. Her songs, to most of which she composed both lyrics and music, became very popular and are considered as part of the Israeli song canon. In 1967, after being commissioned by the Israel Broadcasting Authority to write a song for the annual song festival, she wrote Yerushalayim shel Zahav, which immediately became popular. It became the theme song of the Six-Day War and achieved international fame. In many Reform movement services and among both Ashkenazi and Sephardi congregations in Israel and the Diaspora, the song was introduced into the liturgy for special occasions, such as Friday evening, the last hakkafah on Simhat Torah , and the synagogue service on Israeli Independence Day. Considered to perfectly express the love of the nation for Jerusalem, the song was proposed in the Knesset as a new Israeli national anthem. By the mid-1980s there was not an Israeli singer or ensemble that had not performed one of Shemer’s songs. Nicknamed the “national songwriter,” she demonstrated a unique ability to express the national mood. Although her first works were published in the 1950s, her first book of songs, Kol ha-Shirim (“Complete Songs”), did not appear until 1967. Later publications included four additional song books (1975, 1982, 1995, 2003), as well as various collections for children. As a singer, she recorded a selection of her own songs. Her honors included the Israel Prize for Israeli song (1982), Jerusalem Prize (1983), and honorary doctorates from the universities of Jerusalem (1994) and Beersheba (1999). (Flam, Gila. “Shemer, Naomi.” Encyclopaedia Judaica. Ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. 2nd ed. Vol. 18. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. 457-458. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 13 Oct. 2013).

The song was presented at the Israel Song Festival of 1967, which

took place amid the growing tensions on Israel’s borders that led, three weeks later, to the Six-Day War in June of that year. The winning song was a sentimental love song, performed by Mike Burstyn, which was soon forgotten. The event, however, entered collective memory because of one of five new songs especially commissioned by the ma[y]or of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek. [including] “Yerushalayim shel zahav” […]. Performed (outside of the competition0 by Shuli Natan, who accompanied herself on acoustic guitar, the song “that changed the country forever” in Dan Almagor’s words, expressed almost prayerlike longing for the city, as though anticipating the eruption of national sentiment few weeks later, when the Old City of Jerusalem was brought under Israeli control. Interestingly enough, this was one of the first modern Israeli songs abut Jerusalem written from a national, rather than a traditional religious, perspective. (Regev and Seroussi. Popular Music and National Culture in Israel. UC Press, 2004: 117).

A YouTube user posted a recording of this original performance of the song by then 20-year-old Shuli Natan (born 1947):

The lyrics of yerushalayim shel zahav have been translated into English a number of times. They can be found on the website of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as searched on HebrewSongs.org, and even on an entire website devoted solely to this song, created by Yael Levine, whose translation appears below:

The mountain air is clear as wine
And the scent of pines
Is carried on the breeze of twilight
With the sound of bells.

And in the slumber of tree and stone
Captured in her dream
The city that sits solitary
And in its midst is a wall.

Jerusalem of gold, and of bronze, and of light
Behold I am a violin [Hebr. kinor] for all your songs.

How the cisterns have dried
The market-place is empty
And no one frequents the Temple Mount
In the Old City.

And in the caves in the mountain
Winds are howling
And no one descends to the Dead Sea
By way of Jericho.

Jerusalem of gold, and of bronze, and of light
Behold I am a violin for all your songs.

But as I come to sing to you today,
And to adorn crowns to you (i.e. to tell your praise)
I am the smallest of the youngest of your children (i.e.the least worthy of doing so)
And of the last poet.

For your name scorches the lips
Like the kiss of a seraph
If I forget thee, Jerusalem,
Which is all gold…

Jerusalem of gold, and of bronze, and of light
Behold I am a violin for all your songs.

The lyrics of yerushalayim shel zahav offer a Hebrewist re-actualization of the poetic tradition of the Book of Psalms, and are crowded with biblical imagery drawn from the Hebrew Bible itself, as well as from Hebrew poetry from late antiquity and early-modern times. In the song, the poet (embodied by two women: composer Naomi Shemer and performer Shuli Natan) speaks in the first person, singing the ancient glories and present demise of the city of Jerusalem, accompanying herself, like a modern-day female King David, on the biblical instrument, the kinor–a Hebrew word of biblical origin, which in modern Hebrew refers to the violin, as reflected in most English translations of the original lyrics.

The end of the Six Day War (the history of which can be studied through a wide variety of conflicting resources, among which two Twitter feeds, one in Hebrew, chronicling its events as if they happened in real tweet-time, and the official English Twitter account of the Israeli National Archives, became available only very recently) granted Israelis and Jews from the world over access to the Old City of Jerusalem (which had been denied during the Jordanian occupation (1948) and subsequent annexation (1950) of the city). Following Israel’s victory, Jews were once again allowed access to the Old City, and could pray at the Western Wall and restore the many synagogues and the Jewish Quarter.

In the aftermath of the war, Naomi Shemer added two new strophes to the song, reflecting Jewish return to the Old City:

We have returned to the cisterns
To the market and to the market-place
A ram’s horn (shofar) calls out on the Temple Mount In the Old City.

And in the caves in the mountain
Thousands of suns shine
We will once again descend to the Dead Sea
By way of Jericho!

This version of her song became truly iconic of the Israeli experience. Shuli Natan began performing it throughout the world, and, of course, in Israel. Below are video recordings of a 1968 performance in France…

…and of a 1986 appearance on Israeli television (note the background of the TV set, depicting details of the Citadel of David in the Old City):

In 1993, the song was included in the soundtrack of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List

The powerful symbology of the nexus that the inclusion of yerushalayim shel zahav in this Hollywood movie established between the Holocaust, the founding of the State of Israel, and the Six Day War, did not go unnoticed, along with its anachronism. In Israeli showings of the movie, the song was apparently replaced by Eli Eli (lyrics by Hannah Senesh, 1921-1944).

By 1998, yerushalayim shel zahav had become part of the national patrimony, and could be performed by Yemenite-Israeli pop star Ofra Haza in the course of the national celebration commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel, at the Hebrew University Stadium. (Note the “orientalist” vocal embellishments inserted by the singer at the end of the performance):

The process of canonization of yerushalayim shel zahav continued over the decades, since its original performance in 1967, and even took place in roundabout ways.

As Dalia Gavriely-Nury noted in 2007:

In May 1968, Knesset Member Uri Avnery proposed a law designating the song as Israel’s official national anthem and raised his proposal again 35 years later. (Dalia Gavriely-Nuri, “The Social Construction of “Jerusalem of Gold” as Israel’s Unofficial National Anthem,” Israel Studies 12/2, Summer 2007: 104-120; note: the online sources mentioned by the author are not available).

Avnery’s proposal was everything but nationalistic, and warrants some attention as it exemplifies the political uses (and appropriations) of popular culture.
Avnery, a former member of the Israeli parliament and a political activist, first attempted to use Yerushalayim shel zahav against Israel’s official national anthem, Ha-tikvah (The Hope) while at the Kenesset:

I thought that if I proposed Naomi Shemer’s song as a national anthem, I might be able to build a consensus for the idea of changing the existing one. I was not happy with several nationalist phrases added to the song, but I believed that we could change that along the way. (Uri Avnery, “Death of a Myth,” 14/05/05, http://zope.gush-shalom.org/home/en/channels/avnery/1115987772/, accessed on 10/13/2013).

In 2005, shortly after her death, it became public knowledge that Naomi Shemer had “unwittingly” used a Basque lullaby as the source for the melodic line of her song. Israeli reporter and writer, Tom Segev, reported about this in Haaretz.

View this document on Scribd

Following additional reporting by Haaretz staff, it appears that the lullaby was performed by Spanish singer, Paco Ibáñez (b. 1934), in a concert that took place in Jerusalem in 1962:

Ibáñez said yesterday that he was saddened to hear of Shemer’s guilt feelings over basing the song on the Basque folk melody and not admitting it. “It is a shame. She had no reason to feel guilty,” he said yesterday. “True, I think she heard the song from me, but that’s life and that’s how I see it. It wasn’t even a secret. I spoke to friends about it and mentioned it in conversations with people. I didn’t speak to Naomi Shemer since then because I didn’t see her again, and it didn’t really matter to me. If I had seen her, I certainly would have mentioned it, but of course, without anger.” Ibáñez said his mother would sing the lullaby to him when he was little and sat in her lap. He recorded the song, which is based on a folk tune, in his volume Songs I Heard from My Mother. Ibáñez said he first heard Shemer’s song in the summer of 1967, shortly after it was written. He immediately recognized it as his song, “Joseph’s hair.” “I didn’t consider this plagiarism but rather felt a lot of empathy for Shemer. Was I angry? Not at all. On the contrary, I was glad it helped in some way.” (Idit Avrahami, Nurit Wurgaft, “Shemer had no reason to feel bad, says Basque singer of copied tune, Haaretz, May 6, 2005, http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/shemer-had-no-reason-to-feel-bad-says-basque-singer-of-copied-tune-1.157853, accessed 10/13/2013).


The singer continues to perform the song as part of his repertoire: 

Despite Ibáñez’s statements, Shemer’s posthumous admission has since given rise to a series of accusations, which at times turn into veritable indictments against the “authenticity” (or lack of) of Israeli culture as a whole.  
Avnery, for example, renewed his proposal to promote yerushalayim shel zahav to the role of Israel’s national anthem immediately after Shemer’s “appropriation” hit the news cycle, this time with the intent of attacking Israel’s own “myths,” including those connected with the Six Day War:

Israel is a country built on many symbols and myths. What could be more symbolic than the destruction of the myth of the Six-Day war, now followed by the collapse of the myth of “Jerusalem of Gold”, that war’s symbol in song? (Uri Avnery, “Death of a Myth,” 14/05/05, http://zope.gush-shalom.org/home/en/channels/avnery/1115987772/, accessed on 10/13/2013).

The saga continues…

 

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