This Jerusalem Day, Sing the Better Song

No song is more associated with Jerusalem than Naomi Shemer’s “Jerusalem of Gold”. Some even consider it an unofficial national anthem. And there is much to recommend it. The lyric is populated with evocative inter-textual images, drawn from sources such as the biblical Lamentations, the Babylonian Talmud, and the medieval Spanish Hebrew poet Yehudah Halevi. And these are set to the infectious lilt of an inadvertently borrowed Portuguese lullaby that Shemer heard a few months prior to her composition. (When this was brought to her attention, she conscientiously sought out the Portuguese artist who had performed it here and he was very gracious.) Its composition is also linked closely to Jerusalem Day, as she began writing it months before the war in 1967 and completed its final redemptive verse just after the Old City was taken by the IDF.

But the song is also problematic for anyone who seeks a truly liberated and united Jerusalem, a city “knit unto itself”, as the Psalmist envisions. For it depicts first a desolate Jerusalem, with “dried up…water cisterns”, its “market square so empty”, and with no one to “visit The Temple Mount”. The problem here is the poetic erasure of an entire people. Jerusalem’s water cisterns were not dried up and in fact were drawn from, just not by Jewish hands. Its market squares were not empty. And the Temple Mount was populated daily with worshipers…at the mosques. In her final verse, added after the war, Shemer reverses this mythic desolation depicting the Jewish return in first person plural that revives, even resurrects the ghostly city. There is no room in Shemer’s song for non-Jews, even though they were always here and indeed today constitute a third of the city’s population. Yet they are integral to its history, its aesthetics, and its functions. Can a city truly be liberated and united if it renders a third of its citizens invisible, a community that certainly does not feel the least bit liberated or united?

We have a better option. In the 1970s, the great playwright, lyricist, and literary scholar Dan Almagor wrote a song entitled “The Guardian Of The Walls”, which was set to music by Benny Negri and recorded in 1977 by the Entertainment Troop of the IDF’s Central Command. (Full lyrics and video below.) Whether intended or not, it serves as an antidote to the triumphalist and exclusivist aspects of Shemer’s anthem. It represents the first person perspective of a young soldier on guard duty on the Old City’s walls. Standing “in the rain”, he sees the city as if it rests in his “open palm” and looks “upon her, in love”. While he notes that he always comes here “just to look”, today he is “on duty”. From this poignant setting, comes the refrain in which he asks:

Yes, yes, who dreamed back in the classroom,
when we learned to recite: “Upon your walls,
Jerusalem, I have set guardians”,
that the day would arrive and
I would be one of them,
that the day would arrive and
I would be one of them?

As inter-textually deft as Shemer’s lyric, Almagor riffs on a famous verse from Isaiah 62, which envisions a restored Jerusalem whose protection is organized and authorized by God, who sets upon its walls guardians, all day and all night. This image is so powerful that it was transformed into a metaphor in rabbinic literature with the city of Jerusalem representing the Torah and its guardians the scholars of the sacred text that has sustained the Jewish people. But this metaphor never canceled out the redemptive vision of returning to the earthly city, reviving it, and guarding its glory and its justice. Countless Jews down through the centuries fantasized in their darkest, most vulnerable moments that they would one day be honored with standing guard upon the city’s walls. Just as this young soldier does, the wonder of it overwhelming him.

Indeed, the chorus works on two levels, both accessing this profound transhistorical mythography and illustrating much more intimate and immediate historical context. For the young soldiers who first recorded the song were children in 1967. This generation could still marvel at remembering their school lessons, memorizing this verse from Isaiah while separated from the Old City by a treacherous no-man’s land, now come to pass. The dreams of their childhood meld with those of untold generations who dreamed this dream in far flung diasporic locations. Negri celebrates this musically, setting the word “Jerusalem” in an ascending five-note, exuberant fanfare. The final line, struggling to believe the realization of the dream, is brought home through its repetition. Indeed, we all dreamed, but who could have dreamed it would come to pass?

Almagor’s second verse is almost a refutation of, and certainly an alternative to Shemer’s natonalist exclusivity. Where she dries up the cisterns, evacuates the marketplace, and sweeps away the non-Jews frequenting the Temple Mount, Almagor has his young soldier revel in the sounds generated by his non-Jewish neighbors, the din of the “peddler’s calls and carts”, the “voice of the muezzin” calling Muslims to prayer, and the “ringing of the [church] bells” calling Christians to worship. But then reality intrudes. He is pulled abruptly from his revery ass he remembers he must listen for “the blast of a grenade”. Almagor’s Jerusalem is multicultural, charged with lived life, and riven with violent conflict that could erupt at any minute. This is a realist, not purely imagist Jerusalem, the same one that very much still exists today. Almagor’s lyric has all the mythic profundity and historical consciousness of Shemer’s, but here applied to the experience of a vital Jerusalem still in need of restoration.

Almagor’s final verse has his young soldier shivering at nightfall, determined to keep his post throughout the night like the guardians envisioned by Isaiah. Jerusalem’s “walls and gates” are now washed in moonlight. And he wonders “when will the day come when we will no longer need guardians, when we will no longer need guardians?”

Where Shemer’s lyric trumpets nationalist fulfillment, Almagor’s humanist, yet still deeply Jewish lyric embraces the romance of prophetic Jerusalem no less, but is also enmeshed in its vexed reality. He ultimately takes his cue from the prophet’s vision of ultimate restoration, redemption, resurrection, and historical consummation; that paradox of Jerusalem, over which inconceivable amounts of blood have been spilled, but which still provides us with an unparalleled promise of future justice and peace.

This year, let us take Almagor’s song as the one that represents this city, loved like no other, and make it our civic hymn and anthem. Let us revel in its vitality, diversity, its glory, and let us focus on a better future that fulfills its promise. The soldier asks us who would have dreamed that he would become the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, which had seemed completely unrealistic in his classroom, but here he is. If this part of the prophetic dream can come true, how can we refuse the possibility of its ultimate fulfillment?

The Guardian Of The Walls

I stand upon the wall, stand in the rain all by myself.
And the whole Old City
rests in my open palm.
I look upon her, in love.
I come up here always just to look.
But now I am here on duty,
but now I am here on duty.

Yes, yes, who dreamed back in the classroom,
when we learned to recite: “Upon your walls,
Jerusalem, I have set guardians”,
that the day would arrive and
I would be one of them,
that the day would arrive and
I would be one of them?

I stand upon the wall;
stand and listen to the sounds.
The sounds of the market,
the din of the peddlers’ calls and carts.
And here is the voice of the Muezzin;
here the ringing of the bells, but I must listen
if there is a blast of a grenade,
if there is a blast of a grenade.

Yes, yes, who dreamed…

I stand upon the wall,
trembling with cold and see
the sun has already set.
I guard the whole night through.
The moon in its fullness washes
walls and gates…when will the day come
when we will no longer need guardians,
when we will no longer need guardians?

About the Author
Ori Weisberg is a writer, editor, and translator. He holds a Ph.D. in Renaissance English Literature from the University of Michigan and has taught at academic institutions in the US and Israel. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and three very attractive children.