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Jewish Journal

Naomi Shemer, Israeli Folk Musician, Dies at 74

by Dan Baron

July 1, 2004 | 8:00 pm

It was a sign of folk singer Naomi Shemer's importance to Israel's national psyche that her death relegated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the inside pages of the nation's newspapers.

Saturday's death of Shemer, at the age of 74 from cancer, spurred Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to open his weekly Cabinet meeting with a eulogy and the Education Ministry to order all schools to spend an hour in the classroom remembering Shemer.

"Using marvelous lyrics and melodies, she succeeded in connecting us to our roots, to our origins, to the beginnings of Zionism," an emotional Sharon said at the Cabinet meeting. "Today, when we part with Naomi Shemer, we bow our heads in sorrow and are grateful for the wonderful gift Naomi gave us."

Perhaps best known for her song "Jerusalem of Gold," or "Yerushalayim Shel Zahav," a paean to Israel's capital written shortly before Jerusalem's Old City was captured by the Israelis in the 1967 Six-Day War, Shemer penned and performed countless songs that captured the national mood and drew on her kibbutz upbringing.

Set to guitar, the melody of "Jerusalem of Gold" and the haunting descriptions of Jerusalem's ancient edifices resonated for Jews worldwide. In the Soviet Union, it inspired hope among Jewish refuseniks.

"It was the most Israeli thing we could think of, and we knew that in Israel the song had become something of a national anthem," recalled Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet political prisoner and now Israel's minister for Diaspora affairs.

"Al Hadvash Ve'al Haoketz" -- "Of the Honey and the Bee Sting" -- spoke of the joy and sorrow that invariably intertwine in Israeli lives. In 1973, Shemer composed "Let It Be" -- "Lu Yehi" -- an Israeli version of the famous Beatles tune, to inspire optimism in an Israel demoralized by the heavy losses of the Yom Kippur War.

Following the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in 1995, Shemer translated American poet Walt Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain!" into Hebrew, put it to music and dedicated it to Rabin's memory.

The messages of Shemer's songs still hold currency in Israel today. Her songs enjoyed a revival in public singalongs after the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000.

Shemer won the prestigious Israel Prize in 1983 just a year after speaking out against the government's evacuation of Sinai settlements as part of Israel's peace accord with Egypt. The award was a sign that Shemer's popularity spanned even fierce political differences.

Shemer was born in 1930 in Kibbutz Kinneret. She began playing piano at age 6, and she was writing songs in her 20s.

She studied at music schools in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, but Shemer returned to her kibbutz roots in the army, spending her years of compulsory military service as a musical coordinator for shows put on by the Nahal Corps at new settlements and kibbutzim around the country.

She went on to write dozens of Israeli favorites as well as numerous children's songs.

Her last work, composed as she lay dying of cancer during the last two years, was a tribute to Israeli astronaut Col. Ilan Ramon, who died in 2003 in the breakup of the space shuttle Columbia.

"The death of Naomi Shemer has for some years hovered like a little black cloud, a possibility, in the 'light blue yonder' about which she was composing even in her first songs," commentator Doron Rosenblum wrote in Ha'aretz. "And even back then, the occasional hint came up of a possible end, or parting one day from the light blue adventure of our lives in this land."

Shemer was buried Sunday evening at Kibbutz Kinneret, her birthplace, overlooking the lake about which she wrote so many songs. She asked that no eulogies be delivered at her funeral and that mourners instead sing three songs, including her famous "Eucalyptus Grove," or "Churshat Ha'Icalyptus."

After her death, Israeli President Moshe Katsav said, "In her song, Shemer bequeathed us landmarks in the life of the country. Her songs voiced a great love for the state and the people of Israel."

Shemer is survived by her husband, the poet Mordechai Horowitz, two children and four grandchildren.

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