If you are anywhere near my age, it is astounding to think that it has been 50 years since the Six Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem. Two generations have grown up never knowing a divided Holy City.
As we mark the anniversary on the Jewish calendar on the 28th of Iyyar, May 24th, let us not forget what it was like before 1967, when Jews gathered at certain spots just to gaze from afar at the Old City, sometimes risking their lives from sniper fire.
Let me remind you by telling you the story of a song. The story was told by Linda Gottlieb in the December 1967 issue of the Reader’s Digest, “The Song That Took a City.”
On May 15, 1967, the Binyanei Ha’Uma, the Jerusalem Conference Center, in west Jerusalem was filled to capacity for the annual song festival for Yom Ha’Atzma’ut. Five of the country’s top song writers had been commissioned to create songs. Mayor Teddy Kolleck of Jerusalem had suggested that someone write a song about Jerusalem. Only one writer took up the idea: Naomi Shemer. Gottlieb writes, “As she went about her daily activities, she thought about how her Polish parents spoke of their own birthplace of Vilna as “the Jerusalem of the Diaspora” — as if every other city could only be second-best. She remembered the colors, the sounds, the silent mood of Jerusalem, her childhood visits to biblical places, closed forever to her since 1948. She thought, too, of a story from the Talmud, how Rabbi Akiva thanked his wife for her support and sacrifice during his years of study. He gave her a “Jerusalem of gold,” a gold brooch hammered out in the shape of the ancient city, to be worn as a symbol of her devotion.”
And so Yerushalayim Shel Zahav became her title. It was a song of loss, of nostalgia for the Old City now blocked by Jordanian arms. She wrote, “Jerusalem of gold, of copper and of light,” and then quoted the medieval poet Yehudah Halevi, “Let me be a violin for all your songs.” She wrote:
The cisterns are dry,
The marketplace is empty.
We cannot visit our temple in the Old City,
Where winds wail in the rocky caves.
We cannot go over the mountains to the Dead Sea
By way of Jericho.
Your name burns my lips like a seraph’s kiss,
Let me not forget you, O Jerusalem of gold.
The night of the song’s debut, it was sung last. A young girl, Shuli Natan, unknown to the general audience, walked out and sang with just a guitar as accompaniment. At the end, the audience applauded for nearly seven minutes, and then demanded to hear it again.
Meanwhile, Gamal Abdul Nasser was mobilizing his troops to put pressure on Israel. As Israel prepared for battle, Naomi Shemer’s song was played over and over on the radio.
A high member of the armed forces called to invite Miss Shemer to sing her song for the troops stationed around Jerusalem. Although she does not often perform, she accepted. Many of the faces in her audiences she recognized — doctors, lawyers, people she saw every day in the small country of Israel. Some, she remembered, had fought in 1948 and 1956. They stood about her in a circle, with only the headlights of a truck breaking the blackness of the night, and she sang to them. Loudly, with determination in their voices, the soldiers joined in the refrain.
And then, on June 5th, the war began. Naomi Shemer helped by singing for the troops. On Wednesday, June 7th, while in the Sinai, she heard the news, “The city of Jerusalem has been taken!’ Listening to the radio, she heard the announcer describe the soldiers’ block-by-block advance into the Old City. “Now some of the troops were advancing toward the Western Wall. Then, in the background, indistinctly at first, there was the sound of a song, or, rather, a hymn, sung by what sounded like hundreds of men, in hoarse voices, gasping for breath between lines: Yerushalayim shel zahav, v’shel nechoshet v’shel or, halo lechol shirayich ani kinor. Naomi Shemer, crouched by the side of an Egyptian wall, listened to the broadcast. She heard the announcer’s description of the tanks and trucks coming into the city, many of them plastered with banners reading, Yerushalayim shel zahav. Tears ran down her cheeks.
And then she realized that she would have to rewrite the second stanza of her song. There was no more separation, no more nostalgia. Later that evening, at that camp in the Sinai desert, she stood up and told her audience: “I shall sing for you a stanza that I have just added to ‘Jerusalem of Gold,’ because when I first wrote the song, Jerusalem was just a beautiful dream for us. And now it belongs to us!”
And she sang:
We have come back now to the water cisterns,
Back to the marketplace.
The sound of the shofar is heard
From the Wall in the ancient city,
And from the rocky caves in the mountains,
A thousand suns are rising.
We shall go now to the Dead Sea,
By way of Jericho.
That, to me, is what Jerusalem is about: our unbroken love song of longing and hope that weaves words and music from the Psalms to Naomi Shemer, that turned the compass of our hearts ever towards Zion. There are others who revere and admire Jerusalem, but only we Jews pray towards her and sing to her. And let our song be strong and ever fresh, joyous and grateful — and never broken.