Naomi Shemer, who has died of cancer aged 73, embodied the Israel dream as perhaps no other composer and lyricist had done. Her greatest international hit, Jerusalem The Gold, first performed in the tumultuous summer of 1967, was, for many, the natural outcome of a string of songs that celebrated the return of the Jews to their historical homeland and language after 1,900 years of exile.
There was something almost oracular about Shemer’s work, as though she represented the feminine side of Zionism, an earth mother come to reclaim her rightful heritage, not with arms and violence, but with poetry and song; not with the fist, but with the heart.
Born on kibbutz Kinneret, in the Galilee, to European immigrant parents from Vilna, Shemer trained at the Tel Aviv Academy of Music, which aimed at integrating western and Jewish musical traditions. She took her classical training back to her kibbutz school, where she composed songs for her young charges. In addition, she began to accompany kibbutz sing-songs, which may help explain her lifelong ability to reflect popular moods.
Her work reflected a new spirit of adventurism and boldness. Her first widely popular song, A Wandering Singer, was set in a major key, which had her listeners aghast: “A Jewish melody in a major key – it was unheard of!” Shemer joked, reflecting on the “revolutionary” flavour of the song.
Her work is characterised by flowing melodies that echo, on the one hand, her father’s Hassidic roots and, on the other, her favourite classical composers, notably Bach. Her ability with lyrics was equally integrative: “I juxtapose biblical references with words from everyday street language,” she said. “We have 3,000 years of Hebrew, why not use it?”
A member of Israel’s prestigious national committee for the Hebrew language, Shemer included in her songs not just references to flowing streams, wheat fields and apple-strewn orchards, but also to cement, skyscrapers and labourers, as well as to the Temple, the Sabbath and the yearly round of biblically based festivals. Though she was nominally secular, she admitted that the Bible was her bedside reading. In her hands, time itself collapsed, as the temporary nature of human life was subsumed by nature, history and the Bible.
Despite a metaphysical bent, her lyrics are typically tangible and exact:
“When mother came here, young and beautiful/ father built her a house on a hill/ the Springs have passed, half a century has gone by/ in the meantime, the curls have whitened/
“But on the shore of the Jordan, it is as if nothing has happened/ the same silence, the same backdrop:/ a eucalyptus grove/ the bridge/ the boat/ and the smell of a salt plant on the water.”
Shemer’s army experience also inspired songs, many of which she wrote expressly for army entertainment groups. Again, her precise language captures the specific feelings of soldiers. In Lights Out, she writes: “Night comes/ to the desert/ From the campfires, smoke rises/ and the sound of the drums are muted, silent/ Over the desert, the moon shines and its face is like blood.”
The last line of the same song says: “Grant peace to our tents/ in the desert” – a sentiment evoking both the prayer book and the Bible, and yet reflective, too, of contemporary Israel.
Shemer’s approach may have been focused on her particular tradition, but she was never narrow. She was influenced by the French chanson tradition (she lived in Paris for a short while) and set other poets’ works to music, among them Rahel (near to whose grave she herself is now laid) and Shaul Tchernikovsky.
During the Yom Kippur war, she penned Lu Yehi, openly borrowed from the Beatles’ Let It Be. In response to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, she translated Walt Whitman’s famous poem O Captain, My Captain and set it to another haunting melody. Ultimately, her talent was irrepressible, reflecting well the title of another of her songs, To Sing Is Like Being The Jordan River.
Shemer’s burial was broadcast live by national television, a tribute to the sense that the nation had lost an artist who spoke to its very soul. She is survived by her husband Mordechai Horovitz, daughter Lili and son Ariel.
Naomi Shemer, songwriter, born 1930; died June 26 2004