Plagiarism never sounded so good

It was the most moving moment of a most moving week: marching through the streets of Jerusalem with thousands of other Jews, all standing shoulder to shoulder and singing as one, “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav.”

I was there to cover the 2003 United Jewish Communities’ General Assembly at the height of the second intifada. Israelis were dying in terrorist attacks. Tourists had stopped coming. Those were tough days in Israel.

But an armada of American Jews — including contingents from all three Bay Area federations — came to show support for the nation. Standing there in Zion Square, Naomi Shemer’s wonderful song brought tears to my eyes, my throat too clenched to sing out loud.

Now, according to a report in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, we learn that Shemer, who died a year ago, made a startling deathbed confession: She admitted in a letter to pilfering the melody to “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” (“Jerusalem of Gold”) from a Basque lullaby.

She said she did it by accident, conceding she first heard the melody in the mid-1960s and that it had gone “in one ear and out the other.” In 1967, when asked to compose an entry for the Israel Song Festival, she came up with the classic tune, the Basque melody having “crept into me unwittingly.”

The song took off immediately, becoming something of an alternate Israeli national anthem in the wake of the Six-Day War, cementing Shemer’s reputation and helping her win the Israel Prize.

Reading the news story, I felt at first a flare of indignation. How could Shemer have carried this secret for so long and not spilled her guts earlier? Why did she wait until the end of her life to confess? Why didn’t the Basque Lullaby Council speak out right away?

As a musical plagiarist, Shemer is in good company. Beatle George Harrison was once hauled into court for allegedly ripping off the melody to “My Sweet Lord” from the Chiffon’s doo-wop classic “He’s So Fine.” Even “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem, may have been cribbed. (Some think it sounds suspiciously similar to “Ma Vlast” by Bohemian composer Bedrich Smetana.)

It didn’t take long for my ire to subside. For one thing, this secret must have tormented Shemer for years.

I know what it’s like to bear that kind of burden. When I was 10, along with all the other kids in the fourth grade, I took a written fire safety test. Afterwards, as the teacher went over the questions in class, I blithely erased my incorrect answers and scribbled in the correct ones. Guess what? I got the highest score.

They named me “battalion chief” of my school. They gave me a little brass badge at an after-school ceremony and had me represent my school at a districtwide picnic for all of us junior battalion chiefs. For years afterwards I couldn’t look at that badge without feeling a wave of guilt-induced nausea.

Not exactly plagiarism, but close, and it felt bad. I’ll bet Shemer felt similar twinges every time she heard the song.

But I want to exonerate Naomi Shemer. I believe her when she said her deed was accidental. More importantly, the story of art throughout history is one of borrowing, lifting, renovating, occasionally improving and, very rarely, creating something utterly original.

While there is theoretically an infinite combination of the 12 tones of the scale, most melodies sound like something heard a thousand times before. (Exhibit A: The songs on your favorite pop radio station.)

I don’t think it matters that Shemer borrowed her melody from the Basques. The Basques probably borrowed it from the Celts who probably borrowed it from the Visigoths.

The fact is “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” is one of those works of art which transcend human error. It’s a stand-alone masterpiece that pierces the heart as few melodies do. Together with Shemer’s beautiful — and original — lyrics, the song is a musical badge of honor for Jews around the world.

If you don’t know the song, go and find a recording of it today. It will make you cry, even if you’re one of those stoical John Wayne types. And as the tears fall, whisper a little prayer of gratitude for Naomi Shemer.

She may have borrowed the melody, but she repaid the world a thousandfold with her song of gold.

Dan Pine lives and kvetches in Albany. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.