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How a famous Beatles song became Jewish

Israeli musician Naomi Shemer, left, and Paul McCartney on the Beatles ‘Let It Be’ album cover. Photos courtesy Creative Commons

(RNS) — Warning: this post is about rock music.

I know, I know: that’s all I seem to write about lately.

Just stick with me on this.

In 1970, the Beatles released their famous song “Let It Be.” The composer was Paul McCartney, and it is considered one of his greatest compositions, as well as one of popular music’s most beloved songs.

When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be,
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.

My father never liked the Mother Mary part. He thought that Mother Mary referred to Mary, the mother of Jesus. That was not true. Paul McCartney wrote the song in memory of his mother, Mary, who died when he was 14. During a difficult time in his career, he had a dream of his mother, in which she said to him: “It will be all right, just let it be.”

Fast-forward three years.

In the summer of 1973, 45 years ago, the Israeli songwriter Naomi Shemer wanted to write a Hebrew version of that song. Two months later, the Yom Kippur War broke out. At that moment, “Let It Be” became the starting point for something new.

Egyptian military trucks cross a bridge laid over the Suez Canal on Oct. 7, 1973, during the Yom Kippur War/October War. Photo courtesy Creative Commons

You realize that the phrase “let it be” can have two meanings.

Paul McCartney intended for “let it be” to mean “just let it happen. Whatever will be will be all right.” That philosophy is an outgrowth of the 1960s: “Let it flow. It’s all good. It’s cool. Whatever.”

But Shemer noticed something about the phrase “let it be.” If you translate that phrase into Hebrew, it has an entirely new meaning.

You get lu yehi — a wistful “if only.” Not: let it be. But: let there be.

So, when Shemer wrote her version of “Let It Be,” she changed the meaning of that phrase from “whatever” to “if only.” She turned that phrase into a prayer. Lu yehi, ana, lu yehi.

What does ana mean in Hebrew? Please, Please, God.

There is yet a white sail on the horizon,

Set against the dark and heavy clouds,

All that we ask for, let it be,

And if in the windows by evening,

The festive candles should flicker,

All that we ask for, let it be.

Let it be, let it be,

Please — let it be,

All that we ask for, let it be.

Shemer wrote that song, a prayer for peace, in the first days of the Yom Kippur War. Rather than Paul McCartney’s acceptance of what is, Shemer calls out for what could be.

The Jerusalem Post’s Lahav Harkov tells the story: Shemer wrote the song for the famous Israeli singer Chava Alberstein, who had wanted to perform it at an event for pilots’ wives.

“At first, she kept the Beatles’ tune, but her husband, Mordechai Horowitz, on a reprieve from fighting in the war, said: ‘I won’t let you waste this song on a foreign tune. This is a Jewish war, and you should give it a Jewish tune,'” Harkov wrote.

(First, what is up with “I won’t let you…”? Second, the history of Jewish musicology reveals that there is no such thing as a purely Jewish tune. The most popular melodies of Adon Olam and Ein Keloheinu come from German drinking songs. The melody to “HaTikvah” is but another version of “The Moldau” by the Bohemian composer Bedřich Smetana.)

A draft of the lyrics includes a verse about someone “bringing news standing at the door” to tell a family that a loved one has died, according to the Post. Shemer removed that verse. It was too sad, her daughter Lely Shemer told the Post.

Naomi Shemer ultimately did write her own melody for the song. Alberstein performed the song on Army Radio and for Israeli soldiers. (She was certainly not the only popular artist to entertain Israeli troops. The late Leonard Cohen went to the battlefront to sing.)

“Lu Yehi” became the unofficial anthem of the Yom Kippur War. Shemer related that when Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff David Elazar first heard the song after the war ended, it made him cry, Harkov wrote.

Naomi Shemer was the first lady of Israeli song and poetry. She died in 2004 at the age of 73.

But, in fact, “Lu Yehi” was not her most famous song.

That would be the iconic song “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav,” “Jerusalem of Gold.”

(By the way, on the subject of using non-Jewish melodies for Jewish songs: Shemer had attended a concert in Israel in 1962 by the Spanish singer Paco Ibáñez, in which he sang a Basque folk tune. She used the melody for “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav.”)

Those two songs — “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” and “Lu Yehi” — reveal two very different aspects of the Israeli soul and the Jewish soul: majesty and humility.

“Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” is about majesty. It is about Israel’s victorious recapturing of the Old City of Jerusalem in the Six-Day War. “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” looks back on a quick war that ended in triumph.

But “Lu Yehi” is about humility. “Lu Yehi” looks toward a war — that will end in ambiguity.

Yes, Israel ultimately won the war, but it lasted far longer than anyone would have wanted or expected. The Arabs attacked Israel on Yom Kippur, because they surmised they could take Israel by surprise on the holiest day of the year. For years after the war, there were lingering questions: Was Israel prepared for that war? Had Israeli intelligence known an attack was imminent?

And so, the Six-Day War — and “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” — symbolized majesty.

Six years later, the Yom Kippur War — and “Lu Yehi” — symbolized humility.

Majesty and humility: those are the twin poles of the Jewish psyche.

Finally, about the change that Naomi Shemer made in the understanding of “Let It Be”:

Paul McCartney’s “Let It Be” was about resignation, even a sense of world-weariness. Whatever will be, it will be all right.

Judaism stands opposed to that worldview. If anything, the Jews have never been the mellow kids on the block. If anything, our worldview has been lu yehi — let it be — let us create the future that we need.

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.