June 26, 2004 Update

Letters from Israel

Motzaei Shabbat, June 26, 2004

Dear family and friends,

Israel is mourning the passing of its most loved songwriter, Naomi Shemer. The author of anthems such as "Jerusalem of Gold", "Tomorrow", "Lu Yehi" and "Al Kol Eleh", she seemed a legendary figure, the unofficial chronicler of a nation's moods, fears and hopes.

Her music, her words have accompanied me my entire life, from the children's songs my mother taught me, to the patriotic and memorial songs I sang in my school choir, to the jaunty hit playing on the radio when my future husband first talked about marriage.

On hearing the news of her death, her songs flooded my mind. Over twenty years ago, "Emtza HaTammuz" foresaw her own death:

It's sad to die in the middle of Tammuz
Just when the peaches are plentiful
When all the fruit is laughing in its basket
And upon your summer and your harvest, hoorays have fallen.

It's sad to die in the middle of Tammuz
But in the middle of Tammuz I shall die
Towards the orphaned fruit-gardens
Hooray after hooray will surely fall
And upon your summer - and your harvest - and upon all -

It's sad to die in the middle of Tammuz.

(excerpted from Naomi Shemer, "Emtza HaTammuz", 1979 - my free translation)

Just as she predicted, Naomi Shemer died this morning, on the seventh day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, just as the orchards and markets are overflowing with the juiciest summer produce - peaches, plums and nectarines smiling invitingly from their baskets.

For me the bittersweet heartbreak in that song typifies Shemer. Throughout her work, her passion for life, her desire to grab it with both hands, is clearly apparent. Yet throughout, she seemed unafraid of death, even her own death, only rueful that she would miss life.

She wrote the most optimistic, uplifting, sad songs I know of. Even her most mournful lyrics usually contain a kernel of hope, of consolation, of continuation, even after the worst tragedy of all.

Looking back it is striking how many of her most well known songs touch on her own mortality. In the early days of her career, back in the 1950s, she had a hit with the semi-autobiographical song "Noa":

Noa was born in a field between stones and grass
Noa washed her face in the dew
And plucked a daisy from the field...

Noa wandered far from the grass, from the stones
The dew wiped away from her curls
A hundred daisies watched after her....

Noa is there in the field between stones and grass
The dew sings her a final song
And the daisies of the field with their beautiful petals
Weep for her...

(excerpted from Naomi Shemer "Noa", 1958 - my rough translation)

To me it seemed that she was simply someone who was comfortable with the natural cycle of the world. Just as she was inspired by the landscape and by nature, so she could accept that each life had its end, part of that simple, eternal way of the world, and this is where her optimism came from.

Perhaps encapsulating her view of life and her understanding of her legacy, is "To sing is like to be the Jordan":

To sing
Is like to be the Jordan:
You start up top in the north
Young, chilled, bubbling and cheeky
You hear birds in the thickets
And each one of them is
A bird of paradise
To sing
Is like to be the Jordan

Your days
Rush like the Jordan
Like it you flow south
On the banks wild grasses grow
But onwards-onwards-onwards
Flow your waters
For your days
Rush like the Jordan

Your end is
To perish like the Jordan
To be gathered slowly into the Dead Sea
In the lowest place on earth
At the peaks of the snowy mountains
In a jubilant tumult
After you
Your songs are trickling on
To sing is like to be the Jordan

(Naomi Shemer "Lashir Zeh Kmo Lihiyot Yarden", 1972 - my free translation)

Shemer was born and grew up in Kibbutz Kvutzat Kinneret, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. From the kibbutz you look over the lake and see the towering Golan Heights and snow capped Mount Hermon, and nearby the River Jordan flows south from the lake, down through the Jordan Rift Valley. The region features in many of her songs, most famously in 1963's "The Eucalyptus Grove".

It was a landscape she felt at one with, one which shaped her love of the Land of Israel, her closeness to nature, but also her view of the world, her feeling that life was stronger than everything, that just as the seasons constantly renewed, so even after we are gone, our legacy, our mark on the world, will continually renew itself and feed new life.

This closeness to the natural cycles of the Land of Israel, coupled with her deep knowledge of the bible, its text also steeped in natural imagery, is part of what made her work so Israeli, so uniquely part of this country and so closely tied both to ancient Israel and to the modern state.

In part this is why she touched such a chord among Israelis, becoming our unofficial "national songwriter". In her prolific career she wrote just about every type of song: bright nonsense songs for army entertainment troupes and musicals, simple children's songs, patriotic epics, translations of French chansons and Yiddish ballads and acres of whimsical love songs. But the lyrics which most touched the nation were usually these bittersweet, optimistic songs about living in this often unpredictable part of the world.

The refrain of "Emtza Tammuz", "And upon your summer and your harvest, hoorays have fallen", comes from Isaiah 16. Yet it blends seamlessly with the modern Hebrew imagery, just as she herself, a secular Tel Avivian from a kibbutz, was nevertheless equally at home with the bible and the teachings of Rabbi Nahman of Breslav or Reb Menahem-Mendl of Kotsk.

For me her crowning glory was the way in which she used Hebrew language. The most able poetic translator, let alone my poor attempts, cannot do justice in trying to convey her work to the English reader. A member of the Academy of the Hebrew Language, she was one of our nation's most capable wordsmiths, her words strong enough, deep enough, to stand as poetry in their own right, even devoid of the beautifully stirring melodies she composed for them.

I saw her live in concert many times. As a child my mother took me to several of her one woman performances. Just she and her piano looked very small on a huge stage, yet filled the entire auditorium with the most vibrant energy.

A few years ago, despite her ill health, she went on tour again, accompanied by three other performers. This time she was clearly weaker, remaining seated, letting her companions sing many of the numbers. Yet still, when she spoke, when she sang, you felt invigorated by her bright enthusiasm, her passion for life, her frank straightforwardness, that humorous twinkle with which she faced illness and death.

I cannot but help thinking of her with joy, of her tremendous joie de vivre, someone who knew how to live. In 1988 the State of Israel celebrated its fortieth anniversary, but the first intifada was at its height. A mood of national depression cast a damper over the festivities. Shemer responded with the following song:

My celebration went out
To perform in the streets
At high-noon

They caught her,
The guards who wander the town.
Why do you dance
And why does your voice rejoice?

Better that you should sing protest songs
That's what goes these days
That's what goes

My celebration replied -
I will dance and sing
Until my soul departs
Because my joy
Is my protest
And that
Is the real

(Excerpted from Naomi Shemer, "Al Rosh Simhati", 1988, my free translation)

May her memory be blessed.

Have a good week,


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Copyright 2004 by Leiah Elbaum.