We in the Western world are sometimes isolated from the cultural richness found elsewhere. Here is exhibit number one. Perhaps Israel’s greatest songwriter was Naomi Shemer. Naomi Sapir was born in 1930 in a kibbutz, Kvutzat Kinneret, near the Sea of Galilee, and was immersed in Israeli culture from the beginning of her life. Her musical talent was evident early on when she led community singing on the kibbutz. After studying at the academy of music in Jerusalem, she returned to the kibbutz to teach music and write children’s songs. When drafted into the Israel Defense Forces, she served in an entertainment troupe and wrote several songs for the command all while continuing her studies at the Rubin Academy in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv. After discharge, she married Gideon Shemer and they lived in a kibbutz, then later in Tel Aviv. She continued to write musicals and songs, all which were imbued with a love of her homeland. In 1967, she wrote a love song to a city, “Jerusalem of Gold” for the annual Israel Song Festival in Jerusalem. This earned her the Song of the Year award and revived public excitement in the previously ho-hum attitude toward the festival. From this, she was crowned with the unofficial title of “First Lady of Israeli Song”. The song was instantly popular and functioned as a second national anthem during the 1967 Six-Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem. Her marriage ended in divorce and she married attorney Mordechai Horowitz in 1969. When she was awarded the Israel Prize in 1983, the judges wrote: “The Israel Prize is awarded to Naomi Shemer for her songs, which everyone sings, because of their poetic and musical merit and the wonderful blend of lyrics and music, and also because they express the emotions of the people.” She continued to write up to her death of cancer in 2004 and was buried at her birthplace. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said “Using marvelous lyrics and melodies, she succeeded in connecting us to our roots, to our origins, to the beginnings of Zionism.” In 2005, Shemer was voted the 6th greatest Israeli of all time in an online poll conducted by an Israeli newspaper.
Now the story of “Lu Yehi (All We Pray For)”: In 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, she wrote “Lu Yehi”, written to the tune of the Beatles’ “Let It Be” melody. It became the theme song of the Yom Kippur War and expressed national feelings both at the front and at home. It is a prayer for continued safety and growth in the shadow of black clouds and darkness. One hears the sound of shofar and drums. Instead of singing “Let it be”, the song uses the refrain, ‘May it be”. It prays to God, “Grant tranquility and grant strength to all those we love. All that we seek, may it be, may it be”. Her husband, Mordechai, felt the words deserved their own melody, so she wrote a new melody on her way to a television program and performed it for an audience that night. Though most of her songs were secular, this one would certainly qualify as a hymn. How sad that we in the Western world don’t know about her.