“Lu Yehi”: Between Fragility and Hope

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Rebecca Cypess

I visited Tel Aviv’s Kikar Ha-Hatufim (Hostage Square) 88 days, nine hours, and one minute after Hamas’s horrific attack in Israel on October 7, 2023. I know that length of time so precisely because of the enormous digital clock that looms over the square. If the clock conveys the profound urgency of the hostages’ plight, the square itself offers a space for meditation, reflection, and the insistent, prayerful demands of the here-and-now that stand apart from the quotidian experience of time.

The renewed relevance of the song “Lu Yehi,” written by the iconic Israeli composer Naomi Shemer (1930-2004) during Israel’s Yom Kippur War 50 years ago, captures this paradoxical sense of time at Hostage Square, where the song seems to be on everyone’s lips. Israel sustained terrible losses during the Yom Kippur War, and Shemer’s song effectively became the prayerful anthem of the nation. Today, as Israel and worldwide Jewry continue to grapple with the horrors of the October 7th attack, and as the list of casualties from the ongoing war grows, Shemer’s song resonates with renewed urgency. During my brief but heartbreaking visit to Hostage Square, I heard numerous versions of “Lu Yehi” sung by people from a range of ages and backgrounds. Some renditions sounded insistent and confident, while others were halting, uncertain, and strikingly fragile.

The  history of the song and the meaning embedded in the lyrics explain why it resonates so strongly in a post-October 7th world. Shemer initially conceived of “Lu Yehi” as a cover—a Hebrew version of the Beatles’s “Let It Be.” Yet, as Wendy Zierler explains, the result was a “linguistic and cultural translation” that was anything but literal. “Instead,” as Zierler writes, Shemer created “a distinctively contemporary Israeli song of prayer. Even in the places where she borrowed directly from the imagery of the Beatles song, she transformed it into a more Jewishly resonant… form.”[1] This transformation can be seen in a comparison of the lyrics of the two songs. Jeffrey Salkin points out that Paul McCartney’s “Let It Be” conveys a dispassionate, detached approach to world events, as if to say, “whatever happens, it will be fine”:[2]

When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me,
Speaking words of wisdom, “let it be.”

For McCartney, troubling times call for stoic acceptance. By contrast, Salkin shows, Shemer’s “Lu Yehi”—“May it Be So”[3]—pleads for a better world:

There’s a white sail yet on the horizon,
Against the black and heavy clouds,
All that we request, may it be so.
And if, in the evening windows,
The light of the holiday candles flicker,
All that we request, may it be so.

In Shemer’s lyrics, national prayer—not traditional liturgy, but deeply Jewish in its literary allusions and its aspirational mode—has the capacity to change the world[4]. Shemer does not accept the world as it is but imagines what it could be.

As reported by the Jerusalem Post, it was Shemer’s husband who insisted that she discard the Beatles’ melody and create her own: “I won’t let you waste this song on a foreign tune,” he said. “This is a Jewish war, and you should give it a Jewish tune.” With this advice, he was encouraging Shemer to create something original, something new to meet the distinctly difficult moment in which Israel found itself. But what, precisely, did he mean by “a Jewish tune?” Perhaps, in this case, a “Jewish tune” meant nothing more than a tune created by a Jewish artist, living in the context of a dreadful war against Jews in Israel, praying and expressing hope against all odds.

Shemer alluded to that sense of hope in the third stanza of her poem: “What is the sound of distress that I hear? The sound of the shofar and the sound of drums (tupim). All that we request, may it be so.” Like so much great Hebrew poetry, Shemer’s lyrics evoke the biblical. The poet’s question is a near-exact quotation of Moses’s words atop Mount Sinai when he heard the chaos of the golden calf, and both the shofar and the drums have military connotations. At the same time, the symbolism of these instruments reaches beyond the military to conjure dreams of redemption. Both the shofar and the drums have military connotations, to be sure, but their symbolism reaches beyond the military to conjure dreams of redemption. The shofar is a symbol of God’s eternal covenant with the family of Abraham , who slaughtered a ram instead of his son at the Binding of Isaac, and it will ultimately announce the arrival of the Messiah. Shemer’s reference to tupim recalls the music that Miriam and the other Jewish women made after crossing the Red Sea: “Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, picked up a tof, and all the women went out after her with tupim and meholot (timbrels)” (Exodus 15:20). At the end of a period of slavery—of generations of oppression and loss—the tof was an instrument of national redemption.

Because of its association with Miriam and the other women at the Red Sea, the tof bears a gendered connotation that may have resonated with Shemer. Midrashic commentaries on Exodus noted how strange it was that the women possessed musical instruments at all. The Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael (15:20) explains that the presence of musical instruments confirmed that the Jews had faith that the redemption would come: “They were righteous people, certain in the knowledge that the Holy One, Blessed is He, would perform miracles and triumphs. At the time when they left Egypt, they prepared their tupim and meholot.” Rashi deviates from the Mekhilta slightly, attributing this faith to the women in particular: “So certain were the righteous women of that generation…” The notion that it was the women who held onto their faith, and thus that they were the ones who brought their tupim with them when they fled slavery, aligns with the stubborn hope that the women showed in Egypt when they continued to bear children despite Pharoah’s decree that all Jewish boys should be killed. When the men gave up on the future, the women insisted that they give birth to the next generation. Shemer’s reference to the sound of tupim in “Lu Yehi” recalls the faith that these Jewish women showed millennia earlier.

I visited Hostage Square with a group of college professors from the U.S. Many of us had just been through a semester filled with shock and anger at the way in which our institutions of higher education had devolved into a frenzy of anti-Israel and antisemitic hatred. As we anticipated, our colleagues at Israeli institutions reported that they are going through something similar—if not formal BDS resolutions, then what we might call a “soft boycott,” in which academics throughout the world now give Israelis the silent treatment or allow long-standing research collaborations to collapse. We came to Israel to condole with one another, to extend a hand of friendship to our still grieving Israeli colleagues, and to start talking about how to build a different future. The reunions and the first meetings with those Israeli colleagues were emotional, to be sure, but nothing could have prepared me for the sense of loss and stubborn hope that engulfs Hostage Square.

The square struck me as an ever-evolving monument to the fragility of life. With the grand Tel Aviv Art Museum in the background, the plaza has become a site of pop-up art, organized by seemingly invisible hands. In addition to the empty Shabbat table that has been replicated in communities around the world to mark the absence of the hostages still held in captivity in Gaza, there are art installations of other sorts, some organized by non-governmental groups and others seemingly spontaneous and individual: tents commemorating each of the kibbutz communities destroyed on October 7th, posters that have been hung up by organizations and individuals, drawings and words left by visitors, rocks organized into elaborate messages and patterns, and a foam yellow brick road with handwritten messages to lead the hostages home. The square had been used throughout much of 2023 for protests of the Netanyahu government’s planned overhaul of the Israeli judicial system, but it was transformed after October 7th into a site of constant vigil for the hostages, of whom over 135 remain in captivity today. Much of the same volunteer infrastructure that enabled the protests has now been repurposed to help the hostages’ families and to work for their return.

As a musicologist and musician, I was drawn to the sounds of Hostage Square. A makeshift stage stands in the middle of the square, complete with a piano, microphones, and a portable amplification system. Plastic chairs are stacked on top of one another, sometimes taken down to allow for an audience, and sometimes pushed aside and out of the way. As I stood in front of the stage, numerous musicians came and went: two girls who played the piano together, a man who played and sang haltingly, hesitantly, as if he were rehearsing. A larger a cappella group came as well. I was unsure if they were performing formally—they started to do so just as we were leaving the square—but, at first, they, too, were merely rehearsing, starting and stopping as if finding their voices and looking around to see if anyone was listening. It struck me as precisely the right kind of music-making for Hostage Square: searching, uncertain, tentative. And it seemed just right that “Lu Yehi” was among the songs they were practicing.

We wandered away from the stage, and the music I had heard—together with all the makeshift, do-it-yourself artwork and the highchairs at the empty Shabbat table—made me disintegrate into sobbing tears. A young journalist from Haaretz who had been assigned to talk to our group of professors, but whom I had not yet met, came over to hug me. I apologized profusely, though even I wasn’t sure why I was apologizing—for crying, thereby drawing attention to myself, or for living in a world where innocent people could be taken hostage?—and the journalist reassured me that it was okay. Even total strangers hug each other now. In a world of fragility, it seems, everyone is seeking stability.

We wandered to another part of the square and encountered a circle of people, one playing a guitar, all singing “Lu Yehi.” The woman leading the group had a microphone, and others were handing out sheets of paper with the lyrics to passersby. My group stopped to listen, and I took a short video.

Their “Lu Yehi” was not tentative—it was insistent, confident. In fact, it reminded me of Naomi Shemer’s own performance of the song, full of expressive flexibility, but rendered in her characteristically insistent voice.

Especially by the later stanzas, Shemer’s performance conveys a self-confidence that almost seems to contradict the sense of yearning embedded in her text. Perhaps that conflict between confidence and yearning captures something essential about the modern Jewish experience, especially since the founding of the State of Israel.

As we left the square, the a cappella group by the makeshift stage had amassed a large audience and was beginning a more formal performance. Writing this essay days later, I was certain that they had started with “Lu Yehi.” Yet a friend corrected me: the a cappella group was singing “Let It Be.” How had I made that mistake? Perhaps, in my mind’s ear, I expected to hear “Lu Yehi.” Perhaps I longed for the group to replace the passivity of the Beatles with the prayer and aspiration of Shemer’s song.

Music is, by definition, a testament to fragility. Music is ephemeral—here one moment, gone the next. We capture its melodies and rhythms with certain kinds of writing (staff notation, masoretic trop) that is more or less precise. But the writing is not the music; it is merely a pictorial representation of music already made or an aide-memoire for music that is yet to come. In its ephemerality, its fragility, music mirrors something essential about life.

At the same time, music evokes memory and marks the passage of time. The melodies of holidays and special occasions return again and again; the quiet of the house of mourning is eventually replaced by the music of the everyday. Naomi Shemer’s “Lu Yehi” does not have the long history of many of these melodies, but it forms part of a musical liturgy of modern Jewish life. Through its text, it reaches back to the hope and faith of Miriam at the Red Sea. Through its music—made “Jewish” by virtue of the person who composed it and the tragic circumstances in which she did so—it points the way to a prayerful, hopeful future.

[1] Wendy Zierler, “Hebrew Poetry, Prayer, and Translation: Naomi Shemer’s Songs of the Yom Kippur War,” Tradition 55, no. 3 (Summer 2023): 74.

[2] Jeffrey Salkin, “How a Famous Beatles Song Became Jewish,” (September 21, 2018; accessed January 11, 2024).

[3] While Zierler translates the phrase “lu yehi” as “let it be,” I find this English construction too vague; it can mean either “may it be so” or “leave it alone,” and I think the context in which it appears in the Beatles’ song implies the latter.

[4] Motti Regev and Edwin Seroussi have argued that Shemer’s “Lu Yehi” “gained the status of a secular prayer soon after its release.” See Motti Regev and Edwin Seroussi, Popular Music and National Culture in Israel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 67.

Musicologist and harpsichordist Rebecca Cypess is Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Professor of Music at Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University. She holds a PhD in music from Yale, an MMus from the Royal College of Music (London), and a BA from Cornell, as well as an MA in Bible from Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University. Her recent publications include Women and Musical Salons in the Enlightenment and the edited collection Music and Jewish Culture in Early Modern Italy, which received the Ruth A. Solie Award from the American Musicological Society for an outstanding collection of musicological essays.