The Hebrew Month of Tammuz
by Stan Schroeder
As Jews, we are the beneficiary of two calendars. We are familiar with the secular (Gregorian, named after Pope Gregory) calendar that we use in everyday life in the US. We are less familiar with the Hebrew calendar, although we use it for Jewish holidays and yahrzeits. Like the secular year, the Hebrew year consists of 12 months. Hebrew months are lunar months, beginning with the new moon. The year is adjusted to a solar year by adding an extra month (Adar II) seven times in a 19 year cycle. The current Hebrew month, Sivan, started May 26. The next Hebrew month, Tammuz, starts June 25, four days after the beginning of summer.
It has another significance that has to do with the yahrzeit of Naomi Shemer, the Israeli songwriter who is most famous for writing Yerushalayim Shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold) in 1967. She wrote another song in 1979, Emtza Tammuz(Middle of Tammuz). In it she writes how sad it is to die in the middle of Tammuz, perhaps thinking of her own possible death. (See the lyrics in the right hand column.) She eventually died of cancer in Tammuz in 2004.
Naomi Shemer (married name) nee Naomi Sapir was born in Kvutzat Kinneret July 13, 1930. Her parents, Rivka and Meir Sapir, were founders of the Kibbutz. Since she was a child she participated in singing and poetry reading evenings. At the age of six, with her mother's encouragement, Naomi began piano lessons. When she grew older she went to learn at musical academies in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. A few years later she returned to the Kibbutz where she taught little children music.
In 1953, she joined the IDF and served in the Nachal Brigade. It contains the prestigious IDF entertainment troupe. After she was discharged, she teamed up with composer Yochanan Zarai to help write the musical Chamesh-Chamesh (Five Five). In 1954 she married actor Gideon Shemer and in 1956 gave birth to their daughter, Halleli.
She was invited to write for the first show of the band Batzal Yarok (Hebrew for Green Onion). This enabled her to start putting her words to her own music. Her first song that she both wrote and composed was The Long Path in 1957 and was a major success.
In 1960, Shemer wrote many songs for Nachal's entertainment troupe that were all immediate successes. All through the early sixties, Shemer wrote many songs for different groups and musicals, each one broadening her fan base. Around that time Naomi separated from her husband and went with her daughter to Paris. She came back to Israel before 1967 and was married to lawyer Mordechai Horowitz. In 1969 she gave birth to their son, Ariel Horowitz, who is now an Israeli singer-songwriter.
One of the pinnacles of Shemer's career was in 1967 when she wrote the song Yerushalayim Shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold). The idea for the song came from Mayor of Jerusalem Teddy Kollek, who wanted a special song written about the city hosting the Israel Song Festival that year. The song was an instant success at the festival. Three weeks later the Six Day War broke out, and East Jerusalem and the Old City were recaptured. Shemer then added a new verse to the song describing the situation after the war. In the months after the war the song became a sort of second national anthem.
Naomi Shemer won a battle over cancer in the late seventies. At this time she wrote the song Emtza Tammuz (Middle of Tammuz) in which she foresaw her death during the Hebrew month of Tammuz. Around 20 years later, the cancer returned, and eventually led to her death June 26, 2004 during the month of Tammuz. She was buried on the Kibbutz where she was born and raised. In accordance with her wishes there was no eulogy at her funeral. Instead several of her songs were sung.
Statements by prominent Israelis after her death summarized her contributions to Israel and those of us who love the land and its inhabitants.
"Naomi Shemer's Hebrew songs left bookmarks on the country's history," said President Moshe Katsav. "Her songs expressed an intense love for the country and for the people of Israel. The words of her songs are her legacy, and they will accompany us forever."
Education Minister Limor Livnat instructed schools around the country to devote part of their studies that day to Shemer's lifetime work. "We have had a great privilege that a giant like Naomi Shemer has lived and created in our generation," Livnat said. "Naomi has left us an immortal legacy of Hebrew works on which many generations of Israelis will be raised," she said. "The kingdom of Hebrew song has today lost its queen."
Former Prime Minister (now President) Shimon Peres said Naomi Shemer was a rare example of Israeli consensus. "Few people have been able to unite the nation with their personality, with their actions and creations, and with sadness at their deaths," Peres said. "She left us with song, taught us to mourn, and to rejoice as a nation, and as individuals."
"Naomi Shemer's death is a great loss," said actor Shaike Levy, who as part of the entertainment troupe performed many of Shemer's songs. "There are composers whose creations flow like a river. There are others whose works are like a fountain. But with Naomi Shemer it was like rain, because we all got wet," he said.
Her closeness to the natural cycles of the Land of Israel, coupled with her deep knowledge of the Bible, its text steeped in natural imagery, made her work so Israeli. Her songs are uniquely part of this marvelous country that is so closely tied both to ancient Israel and to the modern state.
Board Meeting Dvar Torah Shemot (January 7, 2015)
by Stan Schroeder
This week we start the Book of Exodus, the core story of the Jewish people. In Hebrew, the books of the Torah and the weekly portions are named after the first significant word therein. So, both the book and the parsha are named Shemot, meaning “names”. The parsha starts by telling us, “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob…” The names, starting with Reuben and ending with Asher, are then listed. We are then told that Joseph dies and eventually a new king (Pharaoh) arose who didn’t know about Joseph.
What he did know was that the Israelite people had become numerous and prospered. He told the Egyptian people that they must deal shrewdly with the Israelites, so that they will not be able to fight with our enemies against us in the event of war. The Israelites were forced into hard labor overseen by taskmasters to oppress them. However, the Israelites continued to increase in number. The Pharaoh decided to instruct the Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah to kill all the boys born to Hebrew women and allow the girls to live.
We are then told the classic story of a birth of a boy to a Levite couple. The mother hides him for three months and then places the baby in a basket and puts the basket in the reeds near the Nile. She tells her daughter to watch and see what happens. Wouldn’t you know it, but none other than the daughter of the Pharaoh goes down to the river bank to bathe at that time. She spots the basket, has it fetched by her handmaidens, and arranges with the baby’s sister to have his mother be his wet nurse. And the rest, as they say, is his story. At this point, all the characters in the story are unnamed.
Some commentators say that the fact they are unnamed signifies how dehumanizing life had become for the Israelites. I think it teaches us that any Israelite family at the time could have had this experience. And, moreover, each of us could have a profound impact on what God, later in the parsha, calls “My people”.
The Pharaoh’s daughter names the boy Moses (Moshe), meaning to draw or pull out of water. Names and naming are an intrinsic part of the Torah. Going back to the Creation story in the Garden of Eden, Adam named all the animal species, and established dominion over them. Names have significance and are often symbolic of achievement, such as Abram becoming Abraham and Jacob becoming Israel. We name our children after loved ones, attempting to perpetuate their memory and the qualities they embodied.
Our congregation’s name is also significant, Shir Ami, Song of My People. As I mentioned, Exodus 5:1 relates that Moses issues the command in the name of the God of Israel to Pharaoh: Shalach et-ami v’yakogoo lee bamidbar – Let My people go that they may hold a festival to Me in the wilderness. God is declaring the people of Israel as His people according to His covenant. Each of us must have a covenantal relationship with the Jewish People, so that I, for instance, can say my People.
Shir means song. What is a song? Words set to music, meant to be sung. Later in Exodus we read the Song of the Sea (Shirat HaYam) sung by Moses and the Israelites after crossing the Sea of Reeds. The Song of Songs (Shir HaShirim), attributed to King Solomon, extols the virtues of erotic love and/or a second interpretation of God’s love for Israel. Today we also have Hatikvah (The Hope) as the national anthem of Israel and symbolic of the relationship of the state of Israel to the Jewish people: in other words Zionism.
We can choose whatever song that gives meaning to our Jewish values. Many of us sing for the better part of two hours at our Contemporary Shabbat service. Our Social Action Committee, with song leader Claire Silverman, sings at the West Valley Healthcare Center. We had a delightful program of Jewish song by Cantor Mike Stein last October.
Congregation Shir Ami gives us the opportunity to live up to our name.