HaTikvah: A Song of Hope

Sifting through the accumulated music in my piano bench the other day, I came across a piece of music I didn’t realize I had: It was the music, along with Hebrew words, for Israel’s national anthem, HaTikvah, ‘The Hope’. I found it in the oddest of places: It was in a large, glossy-covered book of so-called “children’s song classics,” one of more than 200 songs that “kids love to sing.” It was in a section labelled Songs of Many Lands, which included such well-known songs as “London Bridge Is Falling Down,” “My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean,” “Song of the Volga Boatman,” and “Funiculi, Funicula.” Now maybe children really do love to sing HaTikvah (spelled in the songbook as HaTikvoh), but I suspect the compiler of the songbook didn’t recognize the significance of the “Israeli anthem” he or she included in this massive children’s songbook. (I don’t recall buying the book. It must have been a gift.)

Israel’s national anthem, HaTikvah, with its haunting melody, is like no other national anthem. Listening to HaTikvah, one senses the deep yearning of the Jewish people to return to their historic homeland, Eretz Yisrael throughout their two-thousand-year diaspora. I never fail to be moved when I hear the anthem played or sung (and I’m not even Jewish).

The anthem HaTikvah has an interesting, if at times, confusing, history, I have since learned. It was never composed as a national anthem, but evolved into just that. The lyrics were penned by Naphtali Herz Imber (1856-1909), a Jewish poet from Galicia in Austro-Hungary. When the settlement Petah Tikvah ‘Opening of Hope’ was established by Jewish immigrants to Ottoman Palestine in 1878, Imber was so moved that he wrote a nine-stanza poem commemorating the event, entitled Tikvatenu ‘Our Hope’. Imber moved to Ottoman Palestine in 1882, part of the first wave or aliya of Jewish immigration, where he worked as personal secretary and Hebrew tutor to Sir Laurence Oliphant, a British author, politician, world traveler, and Christian Zionist. Imber first read his poem Tikvatenu to the farmers in the Jewish settlement Rishon LeZion ‘First to Zion’. In 1886, Imber published Tikvatenu in a collection of poetry which he called Barkai ‘Morning Star’.

It was a Jewish immigrant from Romania, Shmuel Cohen (1870-1940), who set the first stanza of Imber’s nine-stanza poem to music. The words of that first stanza are as follows:

As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart,
With eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion,
Then our hope–the two-thousand-year-old hope–will not be lost:
To be a free people in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.

The new song was first sung at a gathering of farmers at Rishon Lezion where Cohen had settled. The inspiration for Cohen’s tune is uncertain. Some have noted that the tune bears a similarity to Smetana’s “Moldau.” It’s interesting that when the British banned the singing of HaTikvah in Mandatory Palestine in 1919, radio stations would play Smetana’s “Moldau” instead. It could well be that both Smetana and Cohen were inspired by the same Moldavian folk song, Carul cu Boi, ‘Cart and Oxen’. From Rishon LeZion, the new song moved from colony to colony and ultimately throughout the entire territory.

It’s fascinating how this song about hope came to play a role in sustaining hope. In 1900, delegates to the Fourth Zionist Congress in London, after singing “God Save the Queen,” burst into HaTikvah. In 1944, Czech Jews spontaneously started to sing HaTikvah in the entry way to the Auschwitz-Birkenau gas chamber, according to a German Sonderkommando there at the time. In 1945, five days after Bergen-Belsen was liberated by British troops, a few hundred Jewish survivors of the camp, now mere skeletons, sang HaTikvah at an open-air Shabbat service. A BBC reporter who had accompanied the troops made a tape-recording of their singing as part of a BBC radio report. (Listen to it on YouTube. A very moving experience.) In May 1948, when the state of Israel was declared, HaTikvah became the unofficial national anthem of the Jewish state. In 2004, it was made official.

The hope expressed in HaTikvah has become a reality. The Jewish people have returned to their historic homeland; they have access to their ancient capital Jerusalem once more. In a sense, the lyrics of HaTikvah are no longer appropriate. And yet, given the existential threat that faces Israel–that the Jewish state has faced since its founding in 1948–the lyrics of HaTikvah are entirely appropriate.


Istanbul: Connecting Continents, Changing cultures

Asia as seen from the European side of the Bosphorus
The inauguration of the rail tunnel under the Bosphorus this past Tuesday brought to mind my own trip between European Istanbul and Asian Istanbul eight years ago. At that time, the only way across the Bosphorus Strait was via two bridges. My husband and I were heading to Turkey’s capital, Ankara, by the Istanbul-Ankara evening express train and needed to get to the train station which is located on the Asian side of the city. We crossed the Bosphorus via the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge. I still recall the thrill I felt when our van reached the other side and I saw the sign, “Welcome to Asia.” In less than an hour’s drive from our hotel in the Sultanahmet district of European Istanbul, we had crossed over to an entirely different continent, Asia. It was mind-boggling at the time!

The construction of a tunnel under the Bosphorus had been the dream of the Ottoman ruler Abdoul Mejid back in 1860. Turkey’s current prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, revived the sultan’s scheme as one of his ambitious mega-projects for Istanbul. That dream became a reality on October 29th, the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Turkey. The first sea tunnel to connect two continents is called the Marmaray Tunnel, a conflation of the Sea of Marmara and the Turkish word for rail, ray. At the grand opening of the rail tunnel, Erdogan is said to have described the Marmaray as a “project for the whole of humanity,” a tunnel which “connects past and future, as well as connecting continents.” Erdogan’s hyperbole was not over-the-top. The opening of a rail tunnel 200 feet below the sea bed of the Bosphorus linking Europe and Asia is a truly significant engineering feat, one rich in symbolism. But, as for the new tunnel finally “connecting continents,” that’s true only in a physical, not a cultural, sense.

On my trip to Turkey, as the plane made its descent into Istanbul, I sat “glued” to the window, fascinated by the ancient city that loomed ever larger below me. There was Justinian’s magnificent Aya Sofya, the Blue Mosque, the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent, other mosques whose names I did not yet know. I had never before seen a city like this before! Today, magnificent mosques are no longer unique to Istanbul. Immigration from the Muslim East is changing the face of post-Christian Europe. France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim population. Yet, while 64% of the population identifies as Roman Catholic, only 4.5% are practicing Catholics. In short, France has too many churches, too little money, and most crucial of all, too few worshippers. France’s Muslims, on the other hand, are growing in numbers, but have little space for prayer. Inevitably, many of France’s churches end up being sold, and in many cases, Muslims are the buyers. It has been estimated that Europe’s churches are being bought up and turned into mosques at the rate of two per week.

It’s the same story in Germany, home to Europe’s second largest Muslim community. Since 2000, more than 400 Roman Catholic churches have been closed and another 700 will likely be closed in the coming years. Over 100 Protestant churches have been closed as well. The Muslim community, in stark contrast, has built 40 mega-mosques that can accommodate over 1000 worshippers at one time.

The situation is similar in the UK where Islam has replaced Anglicanism as the dominant religion. At least 10,000 churches have been closed in Britain since 1960 and another 4,000 are set to be closed by 2020.

One vivid recollection of my time in Istanbul is that of hearing the muezzin’s plaintive, but not unpleasant, call to prayer, known as the adhan, particularly the call to prayer in the still-dark, early hours of the morning. This too is no longer unique to the East. In June of this year, a mosque in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany began sounding the muezzin’s call to prayer from an outdoor loudspeaker mounted on the roof of the mosque, five times a day, seven days a week. Several other mosques have obtained approval to follow suit. Europe’s Muslim population wants to be able to observe Muslim holidays as well. Several cities in Germany, such as Hamburg and Bremen, have given Muslim workers and students these days off. Muslim immigration to the West has transformed–indeed, continues to transform–the face of Europe. And it’s not just immigrants from the East pressing for change. The UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron has just announced his intention for the UK to be the first non-Muslim nation to introduce a shari’a compliant bond. Cameron would like London ultimately to challenge Dubai’s position as the world centre of Islamic finance.

For me, the newly-opened Marmaray evokes images of surging crowds of passengers heading in opposite directions, some hurrying east towards Asia, others pushing their way west in the direction of Europe. It’s obvious to many which way Europe is heading. But what about Turkey? Under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey is looking less and less like the secular republic established by Atatürk. Just the other day, four female members of the Turkish parliament defied the law banning headscarves (a law instituted by Atatürk), a seemingly small infraction, but one with great political significance. Turkey, Western observers note, is re-Islamizing. The influence of Islam on post-Christian Europe and Turkey is growing. Does this mean they have a common destination?