JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:
And now a cultural story with political overtones. "Jerusalem of Gold" is one of Israel's best-known songs. It became almost the second national anthem after the 1967 war when Israel defeated the armies of three Arab states, captured East Jerusalem and reunited the holy city. So many Israelis were stunned this month when the composer of "Jerusalem of Gold" acknowledged she had based the melody on a Basque lullaby. NPR's Linda Gradstein has this report.
(Soundbite of song)
Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing in foreign language)
Unidentified Woman #2: `Jerusalem of gold, of bronze, of light, for all your songs, I am a violin.'
LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:
The music and lyrics were credited to Naomi Shemer, one of Israel's most-famous poets and songwriters. And when it first came out, it touched Jews deeply, according to Stuart Schoffman, a columnist for the leading Israeli newsmagazine, The Jerusalem Report.
Mr. STUART SCHOFFMAN (The Jerusalem Report): It was something about the sentiment about coming back, about the beauty of the city. It was deeply, deeply evocative. And so it went for a long, long time, and the song became enormously popular, not only in Israel but among Jews around the world.
GRADSTEIN: The song was first played at a West Jerusalem music festival just weeks before the 1967 War. In the aftermath of the conflict that left all of Jerusalem under Israeli control, the song was seen as almost prophetic. Noga Tarnopolsky is the cultural affairs correspondent for New York's leading Jewish newspaper, The Forward.
Ms. NOGA TARNOPOLSKY (The Forward): The war both broke up Jerusalem and then unified Jerusalem, and so this song had an added glow, you know, of--this kind of representative of a certain moment, not just a pretty tune, which it always was. But it came representative of a certain ethos of the moment.
GRADSTEIN: And Naomi Shemer became a national icon. So Israelis were stunned recently when the Ha'aretz newspaper published a letter Shemer sent to a close friend just before her death last spring, in which she acknowledged for the first time that the song was based on a Basque lullaby. In the past she'd angrily denied the suggestion. In the letter, Shemer insisted the plagiarism wasn't intentional. She said she considered the entire affair a regrettable work accident, so regrettable that it may have caused the cancer that eventually claimed her life.
There's no denying the common theme shared by the two songs. Here's the Basque lullaby as sung by Paco Ibanez.
(Soundbite of the Basque lullaby)
Mr. PACO IBANEZ: (Singing in foreign language)
GRADSTEIN: And here's the beginning of "Jerusalem of Gold."
Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing in foreign language)
GRADSTEIN: Shemer's letter sparked debate in Israel, not least among musicologists, who argued over the definition of plagiarism. But Menachem Grenit(ph), the director of entertainment for Israel Radio, says it's far from an exact science.
Mr. MENACHEM GRENIT (Israel Radio): You hear music from here and from there. Sometimes you hear something, and you're sure you invented it. It happens to musicians all along the way, you know. John Lennon stole a song about--from Chuck Berry he didn't know about, you know. When he realized, he was surprised. And, you know, there's a famous song by Paul Simon. It's called "American Tune." It's Bach.
GRADSTEIN: In fact, Israel's national anthem "Hatikva" is clearly based on an old Moldavian folk song that was featured in the "Moldau" suite by the Czech composer Bedrich Smetana.
Like everything else in Israel, the controversy over "Jerusalem of Gold" took on political overtones. Over the year Shemer had become associated with the Israeli right wing, and several of her best-known songs were seen as a defense of Israel's expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. One famous song, "For All This,"(ph) "Alkol Ayla,"(ph) was written after Israel's pullback from Sinai in 1982. It includes the line, `Don't uproot the planted. Don't forget the hope. Return me to this land.'
Jerusalem Report columnist Stuart Schoffman says many of Israel's left-leaning artistic community felt betrayed by Naomi Shemer, and the controversy over plagiarism was a way to attack her.
Mr. SCHOFFMAN: What it did was it opened up an opportunity to take a big, fat swipe at a woman who is not only a national icon but somebody who was specifically a nationalist icon, who was a representative figure of the triumphalist right.
GRADSTEIN: The Forward's cultural correspondent, Noga Tarnopolsky, says she doubts the controversy will tarnish the way most Israelis remember Naomi Shemer.
Ms. TARNOPOLSKY: In certain media crowds, especially left-wing media crowds, she's being attacked after her death as a plagiarist when, in fact, all she did was take the kind of initial opening syncopation and then made her own song out of it. And I think that's a tremendous talent.
GRADSTEIN: Most music critics say that "Jerusalem of Gold," which Israelis have listened to for almost 40 years, will continue to be played.
Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.
LUDDEN: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
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