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.

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