Naomi Shemer: First Lady of Israeli Song

Song writer and composer Naomi Shemer, 74, died yesterday at Tel Aviv's Ichilov Hospital after a long illness. Shemer, who won the Israel Prize, was one of the most important Hebrew songwriters since the founding of the state - many of the hundreds of songs she wrote formed the very bedrock of Israeli culture.

Sagui Ben-Nun, Gidi Avivi
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Sagui Ben-Nun, Gidi Avivi

Song writer and composer Naomi Shemer, 74, died yesterday at Tel Aviv's Ichilov Hospital after a long illness. Shemer, who won the Israel Prize, was one of the most important Hebrew songwriters since the founding of the state - many of the hundreds of songs she wrote formed the very bedrock of Israeli culture.

Shemer will be laid to rest today at 6:00 P.M. at Kibbutz Kinneret, where she was born. She is survived by her husband, two children, four grandchildren, a brother and a sister.

Shemer took her first musical steps in sing-alongs at Kibbutz Kinneret, of which her parents were founders. She served in the entertainment troupe of the Israel Defense Forces Nahal Brigade.

In 1955 she left the kibbutz for musical studies at Jerusalem's Rubin Academy of Music. Later, she returned to the kibbutz to teach rhythm and to write children's songs. Shemer eventually moved to Tel Aviv, where in 1956 she wrote the words to the musical Hamesh-Hamesh (Five-Five), first performed by the IDF Central Command entertainment troupe and later by Haohel Theater.

At this time she married her first husband, the actor Gideon Shemer, father of her daughter Lali. In 1957 she wrote the words to the first show of the Batzal Yarok troupe, starring Haim Topol. Among the songs she wrote for the troupe was Zamar Noded (Wandering Troubadour). The song Hoopa Hey, which she wrote for the IDF Central Command entertainment troupe won an international song contest in Italy in 1960. In 1963 she wrote Hurshat Haecalyptus (The Eucalyptus Grove) for a musical marking the jubilee of Kibbutz Kinneret.

Shemer's music linked the ordinary to the festive, the landscapes of Lake Kinneret to the White City of Tel Aviv, her own biography to the history of Israel between war and peace.

Shemer's longing for the landscapes in which she grew up wove itself flawlessly into her ability to listen to new tones and unexpected voices. The connection to childhood gave many of her songs a charm and innocence. At her best she was able to balance all of her loves and write songs that sketched the tension between past and present without attempting to resolve that tension too glibly.

Her love of the landscapes of her childhood led her easily to the songs of the poet Rachel, who wrote of Lake Kinneret, the Golan and the Jordan. But she was equally at home in expressing the beauty of the cityscape of Tel Aviv.

Songs of war

In the mid-1960s, Shemer and her husband separated and she moved with her daughter to Paris, where the language influenced her songs, including Ha'ir Ba'afor (The City in Gray). When she returned to Israel, she married the attorney Mordechai Horowitz, the father of her son Daniel.

Shemer reached the pinnacle of her career in 1967 when she wrote the legendary "Jerusalem of Gold," regarded by many as Israel's second national anthem. The song was commissioned by then mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, for the Israel Song Festival, and was performed by Shuli Natan. At the end of the war, Shemer added another verse to the song which began, "Back to the wells and to the fountains, within the ancient walls..." During that time she also wrote Anahnu Shneinu Meoto Hakfar (We are Both from the Same Village), addressing the casualties of war.

After the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Shemer wrote Lu Yahi (May it Be). Over the years, many more of her songs made references to the reality in Israel, among them her translation and setting to music of Walt Whitman's "O Captain, My Captain" after the murder of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

In 1987, Shemer was awarded the Israel Prize for her contribution to Israeli music, and over the years she was awarded four honorary doctorates. Shemer also served as chair of the Israeli entertainers' union and a member of the Hebrew Language Academy.

Shemer held a special position when Israeli rock rebelled against traditional Israeli music. On one hand she symbolized innocence and, in her tendency to write in the first person plural, a style of the past. On the other hand, Shemer offered artistic outlets and ways of dealing with issues and some of her images found their way into the works of the generation that came after hers.

Immortal legacy

"We have had a great privilege that a giant like Naomi Shemer has lived and created in our generation," said Education Minister Limor Livnat yesterday. "A woman of gold who was able to weave the milestones of the life of the country into her songs and with her giant talent to express the rebirth of Israel in its land. Naomi has left us an immortal legacy of Hebrew works on which many generations of Israelis will be raised."

"I am very sad, and miss her already," said fellow songwriter and friend Ehud Manor. "Naomi was an especially charming woman. I miss our phone conversations about rhyming and language. I have admired her ever since I heard her first songs. She was unbelievably sensitive and intuitive. I believe she was the most important artist in the history of Hebrew song."

Another close friend of Shemer, entertainer Rivkah Michaeli, said Shemer was known as Israel's foremost writer of folk songs, "but when you look at her works as a whole, you can see that her sad songs of the individual are a big part of her."

Among these was "Atzuv Li Lamut Be'emzta Tammuz" [I am Sad to Die in the Middle of Tammuz"] - and she did die in the middle of Tammuz [the current Hebrew month.]



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