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‘Yerushalayim Shel Zahav’ Today

And the song’s Yehuda Halevi connection

Marc Tracy
May 11, 2010

Two things to enhance Liel Leibovitz’s podcast on the classic “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav.”

• Really interesting comments popped up since the podcast was published yesterday morning. “Asher” argues that when he first heard it, in Jerusalem right before the Six Day War, the words had different meaning than they do now:

I think the anachronistic criticism of their “politics” misses the point that it was originally not about the actual Jerusalem across the border in Jordan, but about the mythic Jerusalem of Jewish dreamers in exile. Hence the references to Yehuda Halevi, and the fittingness of the sad melody. Nobody could have imagined in May 1967 that the Old City would ever become accessible to Jews again. Even we living then in the sleepy little town of western Jerusalem, with its still pristine mountain air, on the quiet edge of no-man’s land, felt permanently exiled from the historical Yerushalayim, and were understandably oblivious to the daily lives of its unknowable Jordanian inhabitants. That was the sense in which the song spoke, as in Lamentations, of the city being desolate.

And “Qais” informs us that his family translated the song into Arabic [sic]:

Yesterday may grandmother told me, when she was playing in Jerusalem in the old city, in 1937 in her childhood, it was glorious city, the sun was shiny, her grandfather owned a small restaurant for Hummus and Falafel … she told me that in 1967 the Jews destroyed her neighbors houses and exiled her and her family to Jordan, after few years the Jews closed her Grandfather restaurant, she told me that some day she and her sister visited her remained relatives in the old city, her tears reached her chin, when she saw a Jews people settled in her child hood house, she told me I felt a pain in my throat that I want to cry but I can’t, it’s the feel when you see your home and you can’t enter it.

Thus we translated this song into Arabic; we listen to it every day from 1967 till now. Now it’s a destroyed city, now it’s an empty, nobody comes to the “temple” mount.

• As for the connection between the song’s lyrics and the poetry of Yehuda Halevi, Hillel Halkin had this to say in his new Nextbook Press biography:

On May 15, 1967, the nineteenth Independence Day of the state of Israel, Egyptian forces entered Sinai in large numbers after weeks of growing military tensions. That evening, in celebration of the holiday, a song festival attended by prime minister Levi Eshkol and army chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin was held in Jerusalem’s National Auditorium. The hit of the evening was a lyric called “Jerusalem of Gold,” written for the occasion by the librettist and composer Naomi Shemer and sung to a haunting minor-key melody by a wispy-voiced vocalist named Shuli Natan. The second line of its refrain of “Jerusalem of gold, of copper, and of light, / To all you songs I am a lute” was taken from Yehuda Halevi’s “Zion! Do You Wonder?”

Three weeks later, the Six Day War broke out. On its third day, the old walled city of Jerusalem, with its golden Dome of the Rock and Temple Mount, fell to Israeli troops. Wet-eyed paratroopers sang “Jerusalem of Gold” at the Western Wall. The war’s unofficial anthem and one of the most popular Israeli songs ever written, it marked the moment, one might say, at which Yehuda Halevi went from being a national poet to a fully nationalized one.

Song Cycle [Tablet Magazine]
Yehuda Halevi [Nextbook Press]

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.

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