This article was translated by John R. Bopp
Today, May 14, is the day when Israel celebrates their Declaration of Independence. It was on May 14, 1948 when David Ben Gurion, in an emotional speech, declared the birth of that nation.
We believe, then, that it is a good day to comment on a curious link between Basques and Israelis, this time, by song. We’ve already brought you the story of how Basque and Israeli resistance fighters came and worked together at the end of the Second World War: it was when Navy Captain Esteban Hernandorena Zubiaga became a hero to the State of Israel.
On this occasion, we’re not talking about acts of heroism, but rather one decidedly simpler, that of how a popular Basque song ended up becoming a symbol of Israel. The story involves famous composer, poet, and Israel Prize winner Naomi Shemer, the author of several very popular Israeli songs. This occurred when, in 1967, she decided to write a song dedicated to Jerusalem to present it at a song festival. She wrote “Yerushalaim Shel Zahab (Golden Jerusalem)”, which became a hit for singer Shuli Natan. It was such a big hit that, a few months after its debut, it was sung by Israeli parachutists during the Six Day War, when they entered the Old City of Jerusalem and reached the Temple Mount and the Western Wall. From that moment on, it became a symbol, to the point that there were petitions to make it the national anthem.
The songwriter denied her whole life that her song had been based on the Basque popular melody, despite being asked repeatedly about the uncanny resemblance between her song and a version of a popular Basque melody as performed by Paco Ibáñez on his album Oroitzen, which was a collection of songs that he had heard sung by his mother as a child. In this case, it was the tune “Pello Joxepe”, a popular Navarrese song that has been covered many times.
In 2005, on her deathbed, via a letter she wrote to her friend Gil Aldema, she admitted that she had known the song and that it may have, subconsciously, influenced her when writing her song. She admits that at the beginning of the ’60s, she had heard it sung by Israeli singer Nehama Hendel, who himself may have heard it sung by Paco Ibáñez when he held a concert in Israel in 1962. In the letter, she admits that the Basque melody had been the basis for her song, and she asked her friend, once she had passed away, to make that public. This goes to show just how important her sense of plagiarism was.
Gil Aldema carried out her last request, as can be seen in reports we’ve collected from the newspaper Haaretz, when the news broke in Israel. It was quite a sensation. Luistxo Fernandez (who we’ve cited before) brought it up on his blog, “El Mapamóvil”.
We’ll leave you with reports from the period, which were published in the Israeli daily Haaretz; the Paco Ibáñez version, which was known in Israel; a Mikel Laboa version with a poem by Juan Frantzisko Petrirena, “Xenpelar” (1835-1869) with lyrics, as it seems that the text is perfect for celebrating Israeli Independence Day; and a version by the songwriter herself. We’ll also leave you with a Facebook entry from Havtajá, the Basque-Israeli Friendship Association, where we found this story thread.
Haaretz -5/5/2005 – Israel
In letter, Naomi Shemer admitted lifting ‘Jerusalem of Gold’ tune
A few days before her death last June, songwriter, poet and Israel Prize laureate Naomi Shemer confessed to a friend that she had based the melody to her renowned song from 1967, “Jerusalem of Gold,” on a Basque lullaby. In the letter obtained by Haaretz, Shemer told composer Gil Aldema that she had used the Basque lullaby unwittingly and that when she realized what she had done, she panicked.
Haaretz -5/5/2005 – Israel
Naomi Shemer lifted `Jerusalem of Gold’ melody from Basque folk song
A few days before her death last June, songwriter, poet and Israel Prize laureate Naomi Shemer confessed to a friend that she had based the melody to her renowned song from 1967, “Jerusalem of Gold,” on a Basque lullaby. Shemer told composer Gil Aldema that she had used the Basque lullaby unwittingly and that when she realized what she had done, she panicked. “I consider the entire affair a regrettable work accident – so regrettable that it may be the reason for me taking ill,” she wrote to Aldema, another Israel Prize laureate who initiated the composition of the song. “You are the only person in the world – besides my family – who should know the truth about `Jerusalem of Gold,’ and here is the truth,” Shemer wrote.
Haaretz -6/5/2005 – Israel
Shemer had no reason to feel bad, says Basque singer of copied tune
A famous Basque singer, Paco Ibanez, sang the Basque melody on which “Jerusalem of Gold” is based, at a performance in Israel in 1962. It is possible that Naomi Shemer heard it then. Ibanez said on Thursday that he was saddened to hear of Shemer’s guilt feelings over basing the song on the Basque folk melody and not admitting it. “It is a shame. She had no reason to feel guilty,” he said Thursday. “True, I think she heard the song from me, but that’s life and that’s how I see it. It wasn’t even a secret. I spoke to friends about it and mentioned it in conversations with people.
Paco Ibañez – Pello Joxepe
Mikel Laboa – Ihesa zilegi balitz (Si fuera legítimo huir) (If it were legitimate flee)
Naomi Shemer – Yerushalayim shel zahav