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Naomi Shemer

Composer and songwriter best known for 'Jerusalem of Gold'

Wednesday 30 June 2004 00:00 BST

Naomi Shemer wrote the kind of songs Israelis wanted to hear: warm, patriotic, nostalgic, rooted in childhood memories and an idealised biblical landscape.

Naomi Sapir, composer and songwriter: born Kibbutz Kinneret, Palestine 1930; married first Gideon Shemer (one daughter; marriage dissolved), second Mordechai Horowitz (one son); died Tel Aviv 26 June 2004.

Naomi Shemer wrote the kind of songs Israelis wanted to hear: warm, patriotic, nostalgic, rooted in childhood memories and an idealised biblical landscape.

Soldiers were comrades, never oppressors. The land "belonged" to the Jews. In a verse she added to her "Jerusalem of Gold" after the 1967 war, she wrote: "The market square is empty." Critics pointed out that it was not empty at all, just full of Arabs. But her talent, as composer, lyricist and occasional performer, was never disputed.

Even the singer Hava Alberstein, who disagreed with her politics, eulogised her as "an artist at the level of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen". Another popular songwriter, Ehud Manor, said this week:

She is the single most important figure in the history of Israeli music. There were a few titans, but they were all either composers or poets. She was the first to marry words and music with such power, and she did it to perfection.

She was born Naomi Sapir in 1930 in Kibbutz Kinneret on the south-western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Her parents were among the community's founders. She did her military service in the army entertainment troupe, the cradle of Israeli show business. In 1955 she left for Jerusalem to study music at the Rubin Academy, settling afterwards in Tel Aviv.

At first she was a jobbing lyricist, writing the words for other people's musicals. One such show starred the young Haim Topol. On a return visit to Kinneret in 1963, she wrote one of her first hits, "The Eucalyptus Grove". At her request, it was one of four songs sung at her funeral in the kibbutz cemetery. Another was "My Kinneret", her setting to a poem by Rachel Bluwstein, Israel's most enduringly popular poet and a contemporary of her parents, who is buried close by.

But Shemer won a wider, international audience with "Jerusalem of Gold", which was commissioned by the Mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, for a song contest just before the Six Day War. What began as a nostalgia trip for Israelis barred from the Old City became the anthem of a triumphant return.

Chastened Israelis embraced another of her songs, "Lu Yehi", inspired by the Beatles' "Let It Be", in the soul-searching wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Later in that decade, Shemer supported the Gush Emunim settlement movement, which she celebrated as a continuation of the pioneering spirit that had moved her parents' generation. The settlers adopted her composition "Do Not Uproot What Has Been Planted" as a battle hymn, though its tune and lyrics were so catchy that its appeal spread far beyond the expansionist right.

After the evacuation of Yamit and other settlements from Sinai under the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, she lost her appetite for the struggle. "We have relinquished our flagship - the commandment to settle the land," she said.

In 1996, on the first anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, she translated Walt Whitman's "O Captain, My Captain" (written after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln) and set it to music. Rabin was murdered by an unreconstructed "Greater Israel" fanatic for ceding land to the Palestinians.

In 1983 Naomi Shemer was awarded the Israel Prize for her contribution to music.

Eric Silver

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