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Song Cycle

The many lives of ‘Jerusalem of Gold,’ an Israeli anthem

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(Photoillustration by Abigail Miller/Tablet Magazine; photo by David Rubinger)

In May 1967, at the annual Israel Music Festival in Jerusalem, a song was born. Singing to a live and radio audience of millions, Shuli Natan debuted “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav,” or “Jerusalem of Gold.” With elegiac music and patriotic lyrics by Naomi Shemer (with a sentence or two borrowed from Yehuda Halevi), it immediately won the hearts of many in the audience; three weeks later, after the Six-Day War and the unification of Jerusalem under Israeli rule, the song gained the status of a near-national anthem. On Jerusalem Day, celebrated this year on May 12, it’s inescapable. But the song has its detractors, and it comes with some surprising historical baggage. Tablet Magazine’s Liel Leibovitz tells the story. 

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“Rich and strange,” that captures it doesn’t it? Seriously though, it’s a moving song and it does tap into the prevalent mood Israelis have had for decades: this is our capital, united forever, eternal. Even secular people feel that way to some extent, at least in the geopolitical sense of having an undivided capital city. But politics aside, it’s a good song. Do we doubt that the people of the other monotheistic faiths see J’ru in such a transcendent way? If you think I’m not being properly chauvinistic, well, not my problem.

Martin says:

I have had problems with this song for over 40 years. It is a great work of art but it has a strong political content, with which I disagree. How can we go down to the Dead Sea by the Jericho road without holding onto the occupied territories? The song cemented the connection between religion and military triumph that led to the settlement endeavour. I love and hate the song.

Fran and David Woolf says:

We still love the song and it still brings a lump to our throats and tears to our eyes.

Joel says:

So let me get this straight, just because a believing Jew was thought of his city as desolate because he could not have access to the temple mount he is a racist, but it was ok for Arabs to massacre the Jewish inhabitants of East Jerusalem in 1947.

This another attempt to delegitimize Jewish identity and values.

Jeffrey M. Goldman says:

Martin- After all, don’t forget how the Arabs have pined for Jerusalem, Hebron,etc. since the time of Mohammed as they bow and pray towards Mecca. You, my firend, are a self-hating Jew. Have someewish pride. What the hell are you afraid of!

Ann Chalmer says:

Many of the melodies that we think of as miSinai, or as the essential melodies of our tradition have been borrowed from other cultures. It is not surprising that Shemer was influenced by a Basque folk melody, and it only reinforces the long established tradition of melodic borrowing and reshaping.

Asher says:

I was in Jerusalem in 1966-67 as a “junior-year abroad” student, and listened to the song festival on my transistor radio, alone in my dorm room. Like everyone, I was simply stunned by Shuly Nathan’s plain, unadorned performance of this hauntingly beautiful new song. Though it was not entered in the competition, the song floated high above everything else presented that night. I bought and still have the single that was issued some weeks later (after the war?), but to my disappointment it was a subsequent studio recording that lacked a quality I thought I remembered from the original live performance — perhaps an ethereal, wispy quavering in the voice, unless that was just the tone of my cheap little radio. I never thought I would hear that performance again, until this podcast came along. (Where is the live recording archived, and how can one obtain it?) As for the words, which certainly were a great part of the song’s power, I think the anachronistic criticism of their “politics” misses the point that it was originally not about the actual Jerusalem across the border in Jordan, but about the mythic Jerusalem of Jewish dreamers in exile. Hence the references to Yehuda Halevi, and the fittingness of the sad melody. Nobody could have imagined in May 1967 that the Old City would ever become accessible to Jews again. Even we living then in the sleepy little town of western Jerusalem, with its still pristine mountain air, on the quiet edge of no-man’s land, felt permanently exiled from the historical Yerushalayim, and were understandably oblivious to the daily lives of its unknowable Jordanian inhabitants. That was the sense in which the song spoke, as in Lamentations, of the city being desolate.

Qais says:

It’s a wonderful song.
We translated this song into Arabic; we listen to it every day from 1967 till now.
Yesterday may grandmother told me, when she was playing in Jerusalem in the old city, in 1937 in her childhood, it was glorious city, the sun was shiny, her grandfather owned a small restaurant for Hummus and Falafel, she told me there were too many people visited it from inside Palestine and from the outside, she told me because they were living in a home near the Dome of the Rock, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, there were visitors from all over the world and from all the religions, she told me that in 1967 the Jews destroyed her neighbors houses and exiled her and her family to Jordan, after few years the Jews closed her Grandfather restaurant, she told me that some day she and her sister visited her remained relatives in the old city, her tears reached her chin, when she saw a Jews people settled in her child hood house, she told me I felt a pain in my throat that I want to cry but I can’t, it’s the feel when you see your home and you can’t enter it.
Thus we translated this song into Arabic; we listen to it every day from 1967 till now. Now it’s a destroyed city, now it’s an empty, nobody comes to the “temple” mount, that when my grandmother visited it there were no original peoples.

Honest Broker says:

It captures a moment. Since then Jerusalem is no longer of gold but of bigoted Haredim, occupation with few right etc. It was destroyed before because of sinat chinam by JEWS against Jews and there are strong forces using words like self-hatred, and seething religious hatred of Muslims and other Jews who may cause it to be destroyed again. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

Martin says:

Hi Jeffrey M Goldman,
Thank you for educating me as to my true nature. You clearly know me well. I am writing to you from my apartment in Israel, having recently fulfilled my lifelong zionist dream by taking Israeli citizenship. Perhaps, as a self-hating Jew, I should give this all up. Anyway, you have taught me another important lesson. This is the last on-line comment I will ever make. Your sinat chinam is too much for me.

Hey Martin —
Don’t go away. There are others who take heart from your comments. I love the song, and I love the city, and I will admit to the lump in my throat and sometimes a tear when I hear it. But the occupation will drain much that has sustained us over these 2000 years, and will probably lead us into another period of exile. Sinat chinam indeed.

I think Shemer explained that the Old City and the Kotel, devoid of Jews, was a mournful place. The emptiness she referred to reflected this 19 year reality as well as the historically tenuous position of the Jews in their holiest city for the past 2000 years. You want to view this as a negation of the Muslim and Christian presence there? Go ahead if you must, but the joy felt at the reunification of Jerusalem had more to do with the notion that Jews were now completely free to worship in and have access to their most important city. The mourning over Jerusalem was over. That was the salient point of this song which never had anything to do with Arabs. Its prophetic spirit captured the period’s zeitgeist perfectly and still resonates deeply to this very day.

Qais says:

We can’t ignore the history, read the Middle East history between the medieval centuries and the end of the Ottoman Empire, you will certainly see the freedom of worshipping, but now a day you indeed see the Israeli armies disallowing the Arabs from worshipping inside the Al Aqsa Mosque, and almost the Christians suffer from the worshipping limitations.
Arabs never ever hated Jews, in history you can see that they worked together, to achieve their goals, they respected each other, and there was always a religious tolerance in the Arabic cities, till now.
There was no time Jerusalem was empty, dark, or destroyed city.
I Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem, and for liberty of its people, including Jews, Christians, and Muslims, May God bliss this land.

Nolan says:

To say that Arabs never hated Jews is denial to the extreme. Read the Qur’an. The Hadith and Covenant of Umar are prime example of Arab views and reflect Arab treatment of the dhimmie Jews and Christians. Reading of the distant past history mirrors the attitude and conduct of Arabs towards Jews in the more recent past.

The myth that Jews lived in an idyllic world in the muslim dominated Middle East depended entirely on the whim of the ruler. Those halcyon days were rare indeed.

The song and the artist age gracefully together: Last night I had the pleasure of hearing Shuli Natan perform at Shai Agnon’s house in Jerusalem, as part of their Jerusalem Day celebration. She gave a lovely performance of songs about Jerusalem, some in Yiddish and some in Spanish. After an hour, she playfully thanked the audience for not having asked her to play “Jerusalem of Gold”. She then performed her signature song, but failed to reach the high note on “Anu Kinor” at the end of the song! Undaunted, she sipped some water, and announced she would try again. This time the notes came out beautifully.

Brian says:

One of my favorite songs of all time, not only because of the beautiful lyrics, but because the melody of the verses – it always melts my heart.

Brian says:

I also must say I’m disappointed that you did not include any mention of what many consider to be the definitive version of the song, Ofra Haza’s cover.

Brian(Tel Aviv) says:

I agree with the other Brian, Ofra Haza’s version is the best…..

lamicofritz says:

Thank you Liel for this very interesting contribution on a very beautiful song. Obviously there are ways of reading it’s text in a mythical way, wich is alright, but also in ways contrasting it with the present situation after the war or even now. A lot of people in the discussion contributed to understanding both ways, thank you Martin, Quais and Ck especially. As for Mr. Goldmann, I don’t know what to think of you! How is it, that your “Weininger-complex-detector” goes berserk every time somebody reflects on the condition of Jews or Israel in a more self-reflected or self-critical way? Who are you to be entitled to call everybody dissenting from your own position ” self-hating Jews”? Read Yeshayahu Leibovitz- of blessed memory-, who himself a strictly observant Scholar on chemistry, medicine and Halakha was thoroughly repulsed by holding on to the Westbank, and spoke of the cult surrounding holy places in terms like the “diskotel”. You may not subscribe to some thought others have, but discuss the subject not the people participating in the discussion. We are all deserving of a little more seykhel than calling each other derogative names!!!

I really enjoyed this podcast. I loved hearing about the development of the song, and also about its detractors. So interesting! Thank you!

KArel jan Stolc says:

In spite of its derivating from a certain basks lullaby, this song is for me concentration of the essence of Israel country character – nostalgic sleepy atmosphere of wide infinite hot Negev desert, misty dreaming Dead Sea, old heavy smell of tragic bloody Masada history, fragrant orange orchards under pricky slopes of thistles, grey racems of fruit on olive patriarchas in Getzeman Garden, burned lorries along the Jerusalaim road, the fingers of cypruses tuching the sky, beautiful girls with Negev in their ayes…… Eretz Israel is the wonderful country of wonderful people; this song sings about it – Israel is in the song – I see, feel, hear, smell, taste it there.

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I’ve said that least 4530457 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean


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Song Cycle

The many lives of ‘Jerusalem of Gold,’ an Israeli anthem

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