By Harriet P. Gross
A conjunction of the publication in TJP’s recent special wedding section of a piece on the history of “Hava Nagila” and several appearances by Eliezra Ben Yehuda, granddaughter of the man who brought Hebrew back from antiquity to the modern language it is today, turned me toward “Hatikvah,” the national anthem of Israel. We all sing it. But where did it come from?
Today, it’s easy to search a lot of sources for the song’s history, which is what I’ve done. It was originally a poem titled “Tikvatenu” (Our Hope), written in 1878 by Naftali Herz Imber, a Jew from what is now Ukraine. He first published it in his 1886 poetry collection called “Barkai” (Shining Morning Star), the name of an early kibbutz in Palestine, and it’s believed his inspiration was the founding of Petach Tikvah (Gateway of Hope).
But four years before his poetry appeared in print, Imber took “Tikvatenu” to Rishon L’Zion, where Samuel Cohen set its words to the music of an old folk song from his birthplace, Moldavia. Ingloriously enough, the name of that song translates to “Cart and Oxen.” (I bet none of us would ever have made such a connection with Israel’s national anthem. But more about the latter a bit later … )
Gloriously enough, the same music also appealed to the Bohemian composer Bedrich Smetana, who used it for one movement in his composition “Ma Vlast” (My Country). Symphony-goers recognize this today as “The Moldau,” and Jews often believe, in error, that “Hatikvah” was its inspiration. Not so. But neither was “The Moldau” the inspiration for “Hatikvah,” which some other Jews believe.
In 1898, a first competition was held for a Zionist national anthem (certainly not for an Israeli anthem that early on), and one of the leading entries was “Shir Ha-Ma’alot” (The Song of Ascents), which we easily recognize now as the introduction to our benching after Shabbat and holiday meals.
Prime Minister Menachem Begin liked this song so much that he read all its words aloud on the U.S. White House lawn when he signed the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979. But it didn’t win the early contest, and neither did “Hatikvah.” Actually, there was no winner at all at that time. It was 1905, at the Seventh Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, when all the delegates sang “Hatikvah” together, that gave it the status of the organization’s actual, if unofficial, anthem. (Important sidelight: it was at this conference that a plan for a Jewish homeland in Uganda was roundly defeated.)
The poem as Imber first wrote it had nine verses, most filled with sad images of tears and mourning. The first begins “O while within a Jewish breast beats true a Jewish heart/And Jewish glances turning east to Zion fondly dart … ”. This upbeat chorus: follows: “O then our hope — it is not dead — our ancient hope and true/Again the sacred soil to tread where David’s banner flew.”
The final verse reads “Hear, brothers mine, where e’re ye be this truth by prophet won/Tis then our Hope shall cease to be with Israel’s last son.” The same optimistic chorus is its conclusion.
Postscripts: There was never a copyright on the old melody that became “Hatikvah,” so Samuel Cohen never received any recognized credit for its music. Imber died in 1909 in New York. Five years after its founding, the State of Israel disinterred his remains and re-buried them in Mount Herzl Cemetery in Jerusalem.
A bit of irony here, since it was Theodore Herzl himself who introduced the idea of a Ugandan Jewish homeland at the same conference whose delegates embraced “Hatikvah” while rejecting any future home outside of the Holy Land. Just maybe it was the poignant yearning of Imber’s song that turned against Africa whatever tide there might have been in its favor …
“Hatikvah” moved unofficially from Zionist to Israeli anthem status as soon as the new state was established in 1948. But it surprised me to learn that it didn’t become official until November 2004, when the Knesset amended the nation’s Flag and Coat-of-Arms Law to make it the Flag, Coat-of-Arms, and National Anthem Law. That flag, of course, is as it’s been since Israel’s founding: the blue star that Imber referenced as “David’s banner” in his hopeful chorus.
However, “Hatikvah’s” words of hope underwent an immediate, positive change reflecting fulfillment at the time of Israel’s founding. I’m old enough to remember singing the old version. How many of you can also claim that?