Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Kinor or Bore?

Naomi Shemer died on Saturday, and if you're like most of us, you were humming Yerushalayim Shel Zahav before you reached the end of this sentance.

Why does that song touch us? The tune is unimpressive. The words are too dense to be parsed by anyone non-fluent in Hebrew. And it's not even the best of Namoi Shemer's three famous songs. That honor goes to Al Kol Eyleh. (The worst of the the big three, Lu Yehee, is a treacly derivitive of the Beatle's Let It Be)

So why Yerushalayim Shel Zahav? The histroy of the song, written first as a hymm to a divided city, and then, a few shorts months later, revised to celebrate a great victory, is wonderful, of course, but other songs have great histories. Maybe the glory of the song is the way it weaves talmudic and midrashic material into something new, something now. (A fine example of this also occurs at the end of Al Kol Eyla when the compser pleas "Hashivenu v'ashuva el ha'aaretz hatovah.)The title metaphor is wonderful, too. Anyone who has been to Israel understands instantly why Jerusalem is described as a city of gold, and, on deeper reflection, the metaphor suggests the city's holiness, its rich history, and the vestaments of the priest who once reigned there supreme.

But does all of this - the history, the language, the rich source materiel, the deathless metaphor - does all of this add up to a great song? Or is it, at bottom, just sentimentalism? Do we like the song because it reminds us of a better time, a time when Israel was younger and innocent, and we were, too? Do I like the song because I can remeber singing it as a second grader, when my only worry was would I beat my sister to the good spot on the ottoman in front of the TV? Because I can remeber hearing it on a bus radio in Jerusalem when I was living something like klal yisroel in the desert? Is it really just a bad sentimental song?