Naomi Shemer, The First Lady of Israeli Song

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.

Hildegard and the Vitruvian Man

While listening to DaVinci’s Ghost, an audio book on Leonardo Da Vinci and his Vitruvian Man (You know, his drawing of the naked man in the circle and square doing jumping jacks), I was surprised to hear an extensive discussion of Hildegard of Bingen and her own Vitruvian Man.  As background, Vitruvius was a scholar and contemporary of Caesar Augustus.  He wrote a 10 volume work on architecture which included a celebration of man (not woman) as a microcosm of the macrocosm of the universe.  Man, in his perfection, was a little universe that reflected the entire of creation.  Perfection would require man to have perfect proportions, all done mathematically.  You can see Leonardo’s Vitruvian man as a model of proportional perfection.  Hildegard took this in a more spiritual direction.  Needless to say, she didn’t restrict “man” to the male portion of humanity, but to all peoples.

More background on Hildegard, whom I discussed in my book, Sisters in Song:  This remarkable woman, born in 1098 in the Rhine Valley, was tithed by her parents to the church.  She became a nun, and in the process, became quite educated by the standards of the day, or perhaps any day. She corresponded with Bernard of Clairvaux, Popes Anastasius IV and Adrian IV, the Holy Roman emperor Frederick Barbarossa, and the German king Conrad III.  In the Middle Ages, it was believed the holiness of others could overcome one’s own shortcomings merely by association.   Thus, there was extensive correspondence from those same people to her.  She traveled to various monastic communities and gave sermons in which she reprimanded lax clergy.  Few women could claim such privilege.  She wrote on natural science, medicine, theology, and music, among other things.   She is the first identifiable person to have written both words and music to sacred song.  Seventy-five of her songs are extant.  Her analogies and metaphors were quite deft.  As an example, her rich imagery included jewels as crystallizations of liquids in her hymn  “O ignee Spiritus, laus tibi sit” (“O fiery Spirit, praise be to you”)  Christ’s wounds were identified with jewels and the image includes the transformation of humankind’s wounds, or sins, into jewels, or virtues.   Song was important to her.  When her convent was placed under interdict for refusing to exhume the body of an excommunicated nobleman from their cemetery, they were barred from any music.  She wrote the prelates that music and song have a high place in divine worship and in the divine plan.  Those who silence any in praise of God are wrong.  She wrote they “Must use the greatest vigilance before stopping by decree, the mouth of any assembly of people singing to God.  You must beware lest you are ensnared by Satan, who drew man out of the celestial harmony and the delights of paradise”.  The interdict was lifted.

Back to Vitruvian Man.  She experienced visions that the church accepted as messages from God.  In many visions, she saw the figure of a human being, arms outstretched, within a circle which was within a square.  “Humanity stands in the midst of the structure of the world.  . . . humanity is powerful in the power of its soul.  Its head is turned upward and its feet to the solid ground, and it can place into motion both the higher and lower things.”  For Hildegard, a living cosmology included the element of art, both visual and aural.  We can hear this in her antiphon, “O quam mirabilis” (“For the Creator”) which says, “When God looked on the face of the man whom He formed, He saw all his works whole in that same human form.”  To her, singing the words revealed their meanings directly to the soul.  And singing could be done only through a physical life.