Hatikvah a miracle and a beacon of hope

How many times, in these past few frenetic Israeli weeks of mourning, remembering, and celebrating, have you sung Hatikvah? What do you know about the history of this beloved song?
National anthems don’t just spring from the earth like flowers; they are, however, somehow planted in public consciousness and, once there, they bloom forever. The United States adopted one born in war; England changes a noun’s sex to give a proper salute to its reigning monarch. But Hatikvah embodies an idea. A dream that finally came true.
For information on The Hope, I turned to Rabbi Geri Newburge and Cantor Marshall Portnoy of Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, who have studied it, and offer their explanation with more than a few surprises. The music is not original, they say and the words were written, long before they were called into such exalted use, by “a troubled poet who died in utter poverty in New York City in 1909.”
The melody is rooted in Eastern European folk music, not necessarily Jewish. These scholars say that, if we know where to look, we can find the sounds of Hatikvah in many other places. I, for one, don’t have to be told where the Czechoslovakian composer Bedrich Smetana found the inspiration for his beloved Moldau. And we learn that a similar melody is a choral staple today in northwest Romania.
The poetic lyricist was Naftali Herz Imber, born to a Hasidic family in Galicia in 1856. Leaving there in his 20s, he first traveled in Europe, then went to Palestine in 1882. A few years later, he published a collection of poems; among them was Tikvatenu, nine verses from which fellow Zionist Samuel Cohen selected two and set them to his own folk-based musical composition. Newburge and Portnoy tell us that, “Slightly altered, they are the verses we sing to this day.”
Imber had problems. He was an alcoholic who truly believed that he was Zionism’s real founder. And his poetic words, the rabbi and cantor tell us, are problematic in Israel today: “The left maintains that Israel is also the home of Arabs, including non-Jewish Knesset members. So how can Israel require them to sing or stand for an anthem that includes the words ‘nefesh Yehudi’ — ‘Jewish soul’? Don’t Arabs also have souls?” As a matter of fact, one Arab — the first non-Jew ever appointed to the Israeli cabinet — wouldn’t sing it at all, and neither would an Arab member of Israel’s Supreme Court. Meanwhile, those on the right wonder how their country can have an anthem that doesn’t even mention God.
Was it a miracle that those words and that music ever found their way to each other? Maybe. But for those who understand the mechanics of music, Hatikvah is a miracle of another kind. The two experts explain it this way: “Sixteen measures depict our history in a minor key. But on the words ‘Od lo avda tikvatenu,’ there is the melody’s incredible shift; it leaps to the major key — a leap of faith that says: ‘We dreamt this dream, and we are going to make it come true.’ Juxtaposing minor and major keys is at the heart of Jewish music, and the push-pull between the major and minor scales symbolizes the push-pull of the Jewish experience itself. In a moment of musical inspiration that changed history, the relatively unknown Samuel Cohen set Imber’s words to music, using that same incredible shift.”
Miracle or not, our experts call Hatikvah “one of the greatest anthems ever written in western culture, ever a beacon of hope for all who understand what it is to be denied the rights to which they may be entitled as human beings.” Surely this is something more for all of us to be thinking about the next time we stand to sing what, in the interplay of its music and the power of its words, is truly Israel’s theme song.

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