Friday, June 22, 2007

Naomi Shemer

Israel is such a young country. You still have some people, some of the great people, who were there even before it was a country, who were there from the beginning. You have those artists who really created the Israel we now know from scratch, be it music or movies or books, even news anchors. Even if you don't share their political views, it's still them, you know. Those people you can't not admire, because they've been there forever. They're the real Israel. They're who you grew up with.
And, in a country as young as Israel, there comes a time when that generation of creators start to slowly fade away, and as nature takes its course, to die. We're not used to this. It's still a shock when one of the "great ones" die. We didn't think. We didn't tell you how much you meant to us. You all were supposed to stay forever, right? I'm thinking of people like Ehud Manor, Ofra Haza, Shoshana Damari, Uzi Chitman, Yossi Banai, and some others whose names don't come to mind right now.
But the one I miss most is Naomi Shemer.

Naomi Shemer wrote lyrics to music, composed music to lyrics, translated songs into Hebrew, invented new creations, and she did it with a kind of magic. She wrote of the beautiful Israel, of the Israel as I always imagine it, as I always remember it. She created for kids as well as adults. She would write a song about the Sinai desert, and you could feel the grains of sand between your toes (בהאחזות הנח"ל בסיני). She would write a song about a couple walking together under an umbrella, and you'd get shivers down your back because the raindrops were right there, falling on you (שנינו יחד תחת מטריה אחת). She had such a noble Hebrew vocabulary, so precise and so delicate and so strong.

So many of the songs everyone in Israel knows by heart were written by her in one way or another. People don't even realize how almost everything was touched by her in one way or another.

But it's not only her songs that I admire. It's her Israelity. She loved Israel, and you could feel it with every one of her notes. She wasn't religious but had a very deep respect for religion. There are some beautiful songs of hers that talk about passages from the bible. She had such an easy way of writing songs to children but without dumbing them down. Songs she translated from French are even more beautiful and poignant in Hebrew than the originals, but without changing the meaning at all, not even for one sentence. (I'm thinking in particular of the song "Ahava bat Esrim - אהבה בת עשרים" sung by the greatly missed Yossi Banai, which is a translation of Jacques Brel's "La Chanson des Vieux Amants"). She translated the Beatles' song "Let it Be" after the Yom Kippur War, a quiet song which echoed the heartfelt prayer that all Israelis were feeling at the time.
She wrote the first part of "Jerusalem of Gold" mere weeks before the Six Day War. She was asked to write a song about the city, so she wrote about the beautiful city, enclosed within her walls, all alone. She was criticized for that once, because in the song she says "The city marketplace is empty, no one is going down to the Dead Sea by the road of Jericho any more...". The criticism was because Jerusalem was not in fact empty. If it was emptied of Jews, it's because the Jordanian troops came in. Arabs lived in the Old City that once flourished with Jews.
Her answer fills me with pride. I can imagine her, very calm, very posed, yet very assertive in the words of her reply. Even for this reply, I can't translate the beauty of her words, but I will give you the general translation.
This criticism angers me very much. It's as if a man misses his loved one, and goes to his psychiatrist, Amos Oz (uh, ultra leftist is a kind description), and he tells him "Don't worry, she's not alone in bed"... A world that is empty of Jews is for me a dead planet, and an Eretz Israel who is empty of Jews is for me empty and deserted.

Here's the original in Hebrew, for those who understand and can appreciate.
זה מעורר בי זעם נורא, הטיעון הזה. זה כאילו בן אדם מתגעגע לאהובתו והוא בא אל הפסיכיאטר שלו, עמוס עוז, ואז הפסיכיאטר אומר לו 'אל תדאג, היא לא לבד במיטה'... עולם שהוא ריק מיהודים, הוא בשבילי כוכב מת וארץ ישראל שהיא ריקה מיהודים היא בשבילי שוממת וריקה

She died three years ago, in the month of Tamuz. That's God's sarcasm for you. A few years before she wrote a song called "Sad to die in the middle of the month of Tamuz - עצוב למות באמצע התמוז", about the sadness of dying before one's time. It is a regular during Israeli Memorial Day, and it was used in the commemorative CD for Itzhak Rabin.

I could list so many of her songs which I love, which I would recommend for you to listen in order to fall in love not only with her, but with Israel, for she was and always will be the real, the beautiful Israel. There are so many that in fact I could just list her whole discography. I'm afraid that if I try to show here a video of one of my favorites, then it'll just diminish the ones I don't show.

So instead, the song of hers that I will present here will be a song sung by me, Moishe Oofnik. She wrote for everyone, and also for kid's shows. This song's lyrics were written by Omer Hillel, a children's author whose books I grew up on, and Naomi Shemer put the words to music. It's a sweet song about a child asking millions of questions, as all children do, such as "What do the trees do? And the houses? And the birds?".
If one day I have the time, I might write the words in all three "languages" (Hebrew, English, and Phonetic Hebrew, if you wish to sing along but can't read Hebrew letters).
Moishe asks Kippi all these questions, and the sweet hedgehog kindly answers. Then the grouch gets grouchy and complains that there are too many questions, so Kippi offers to both ask and answer. This is as nostalgia as it gets for me.

Naomi Shemer, al kol ele, for all of this and for all you stood for, you are greatly missed.

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