A few days before her death last June, songwriter, poet and Israel Prize laureate Naomi Shemer confessed to a friend that she had based the melody to her renowned song from 1967, "Jerusalem of Gold," on a Basque lullaby.
Shemer told composer Gil Aldema that she had used the Basque lullaby unwittingly and that when she realized what she had done, she panicked. "I consider the entire affair a regrettable work accident - so regrettable that it may be the reason for me taking ill," she wrote to Aldema, another Israel Prize laureate who initiated the composition of the song. "You are the only person in the world - besides my family - who should know the truth about `Jerusalem of Gold,' and here is the truth," Shemer wrote.
In 1967, Aldema asked Shemer to write a song for that year's song festival, and Shemer came up with "Jerusalem of Gold," named after a piece of jewelry given by Rabbi Akiva to his wife, Rachel. The song was first heard at the song festival in Jerusalem on the night after Independence Day, and immediately enchanted its listeners - thanks, in part, to its rendition by Shuli Natan, a then unknown singer who Shemer insisted was the one best suited to singing the song.
In her letter to Aldema, Shemer wrote that she had heard the Basque lullaby sung by a friend, Nehama Hendel, in the mid-1960s. "Apparently, at one of these meetings, Nehama sang the well-known Basque lullaby to me, and it went in one ear and out the other," Shemer wrote.
"In the winter of 1967, when I was working on the writing of `Jerusalem of Gold,' the song must have creeped into me unwittingly," she wrote. "I also didn't know that an invisible hand dictated changes in the original to me. ... It turns out that someone protected me and provided me with my eight notes that grant me the rights to my version of the folk song. But all this was done, as I said, unwittingly."
Three weeks after the song festival, the Six-Day War broke out, and the paratroopers who reached the Old City of Jerusalem sang the song on the Temple Mount and alongside the Western Wall. From that moment onward, "Jerusalem of Gold" became something of a national anthem and Shemer's most famous song.
After the war, Shemer added another verse that begins with the words: "We have returned to the water cisterns..."
Over the years, Shemer was frequently asked if she had used the Basque song, but always angrily denied doing so. At the end of her letter to Aldema, she wrote, "My only comfort is that I tell myself that perhaps it is a tune of the Anusim [Spanish or Portuguese Jews who were forced to convert and kept Jewish practices in secret, called by the insulting term Marranos by the Christians] and all I did was restore past glory. Now you, Gil, know the truth, and I permit you to publish it."
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