There was a curiously painful and moving slant to today's Hebrew classes. Much of the session was devoted to Yom Yerushalayim - the annual celebration recalling the reunification of Jerusalem during the Six Day War of 1967.
Although we students were told of the city's great importance to Moslems and Christians as well as Jews, the final part of the morning was dedicated to listening to and singing songs about Jerusalem, especially Yerushalayim Shel Zahav - the song regarded as Israel's second national anthem.
Later, I read how composer, Naomi Shemer, came to write the piece. Below is my paraphrase.
I am now beginning to understand why the ulpan (Hebrew course) teachers feel a special bond, both with the melody and the woman who first sang it. Not only do the throat-catching melody and elegiac lyrics capture the essence of the city's biblical past and fraught present but when Shemer chose her, Shuli Natan was a serving soldier teaching Hebrew to immigrant women!
Yet the real story of the song began when Shemer was among five people invited to compose a song for the 1967 Israel Song Festival.
This had begun during the the early 1960s and was broadcast on the radio as the main programme on Yom Ha'atzmaut - Israel Independence Day. (Television came to Israel some years later).
Jerusalem's then Mayor Teddy Kollek requested that the songs be related to Jerusalem and performed on Independence Day 1967.
Gil Aldema, producer of the festival, had searched the archives of Kol Yisrael Radio but found only half a dozen recordings of songs concerning Jerusalem written by Israeli poets and composers since the turn of the century.
None of them composed after the establishment of the State mentioned that the city was divided or that Jews could not approach the Kotel (Western Wall of the Second Temple).
Shemer's four colleagues refused to compose a song on the proposed theme. She, too, was taken aback but agreed, having a special affinity to Jerusalem.
Shemer struggled long and hard with her composition and at one stage even asked to be released from the commitment. But Aldema told her to continue, adding even that the theme did not have to be Jerusalem! But to his colleagues he said: "Now she will write about Jerusalem". That very night, Jerusalem of Gold was born.
Then Naomi Shemer happened to hear Shuli Natan sing. It was just after she had written Jerusalem of Gold and she was debating who should sing it. When she heard Natan sing, she decided that it would be her.
The song was an instant success and some days later as the army began mobilizing its reserves the song served to encourage the soldiers.
The Six Day War broke out on Monday, June 5, 1967 and The Old City of Jerusalem was captured by the Israel Defence Forces on June 7. When the war broke out and Jerusalem was freed, the song became an immediate unofficial anthem.
During the liberation of the city, the soldiers burst out singing Jerusalem of Gold at the Western Wall. Television producer Yossi Ronen, noted that "the excitement reached its peak." Rabbi Shlomo Goren, chief rabbi of the IDF, blew the shofar, and recited prayers.
Shemer and Natan had travelled south and joined the effort to raise the soldiers' morale. Shemer also heard these voices, wrote the last stanza in El-Arish on the day the Old City of Jerusalem was freed, and sung it that evening before soldiers.
Shemer and Natan later travelled the world performing and promoting the song. Jerusalem of Gold has assumed the place of a classic and is regarded as a national symbol.
Shemer died in 2004 but I understand that Shuli Natan lives in Ra'anana with her husband and five children.
I love the late Ofra Haza's version so I've pasted videos each of her and Natan singing Yerushalayim Shel Zahav and included an English translation of the lyrics to help you soak up the atmosphere. Enjoy!
JERUSALEM OF GOLD
The mountain air is clear as wine
And the scent of pines
Is carried on the breeze of twilight
With the sound of bells.
And in the slumber of tree and stone
Captured in her dream
The city that sits solitary
And in its midst is a wall.
Jerusalem of gold
And of bronze, and of light
Behold I am a violin for all your songs.
How the cisterns have dried
The market-place is empty
And no one frequents the Temple Mount
In the Old City.
And in the caves in the mountain
Winds are howling
And no one descends to the Dead Sea
By way of Jericho.
But as I come to sing to you today,
And to adorn crowns to you (i.e. to tell your praise)
I am the smallest of the youngest of your children (i.e. the least worthy of doing so)
And of the last poet (i.e. of all the poets born).
For your name scorches the lips
Like the kiss of a seraph
If I forget thee, Jerusalem,
Which is all gold...
We have returned to the cisterns
To the market and to the market-place
A ram's horn calls out on the Temple Mount
In the Old City.
And in the caves in the mountain
Thousands of suns shine -
We will once again descend to the Dead Sea
By way of Jericho!
Now, back to work!