Hatikvah

The colorful history of the Israeli national anthem.

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By the time Imber left Palestine in 1888, his poem had become a song (soon renamed “Hatikvah,” Hebrew for “The Hope”) thanks to the early Zionist pioneers in the Jewish farming community of Rishon-le-Zion. The melody arrived courtesy of a Romanian Jewish immigrant named Samuel Cohen, who adapted it from a Moldavian folk song, “Carul cu Boi” (Cart and Oxen). "Hatikvah" spread rapidly among Jewish pioneers as part of the new culture of secular Hebrew songs and folk dances (such as the hora)that existed in the early decades of the Zionist movement.

Objections & Critique

Even as it grew in popularity, however, not all Zionists favored "Hatikvah" for the movement’s anthem. Theodor Herzl disliked the song and in 1897 he launched the first of several international competitions, all ultimately unsuccessful, to produce a serious alternative.

One of Herzl’s objections to "Hatikvah" was the bohemian figure of Imber himself. Despite his personal charisma, literary talents, and Zionist convictions, Imberwas a perpetual ne’er-do-well, described by one contemporary as “a vagabond, a drunkard and a Hebrew poet.” In fact, after leaving Palestine, Imber lived in London and Boston, before dying of alcoholism in abject poverty on New York’s Lower East Side in 1909, despite repeated efforts by Jewish communal leaders to help him.

For other early Zionists, it was not the author of "Hatikvah" but the non-Jewish origin of its melody that proved objectionable. Many Zionist cultural figures were unnerved by the song’s strong resemblance to Czech composer BedřichSmetana’s “Moldau” section of his 1874 symphonic tone poem, “MáVlast.” In fact, in creating his own national musical epic for the Czech nation, Smetana had drawn on the same Moldavian song as a source around the same time that Samuel Cohen did. As a solution, some Jewish composers wrote new melodies for Imber’s words.

Scholars joined the fray as well, with some postulating that the "Hatikvah" melody actually derived from the traditional Hallel liturgy of Sephardic Jews. The early 20th-century scholar Abraham ZviIdelsohn, “father of Jewish musicology,” took a different route, arguing that Hatikvah’s root melody belonged to no one folk song tradition. Instead, he claimed, it constituted a generic “wandering melody,” common across European cultures without a distinct national paternity.

Recent scholarship has elaborated on this idea, isolating a centuries-old melodic pattern common to many Central European songs, the most famous of which is Mozart’s “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Of course,“Hatikvah” is far from unique as a national anthem in sharing its melody with other “foreign” sources.For instance, the tune of “God Save the Queen” served at various times as national anthem of Australia, Canada, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Russia, the United States, and several German states, along with several other countries, past and present.

In later years, “Hatikvah” continued to be a subject of debate. Religious Zionists frequently objected to the putatively secular character of its lyrics, which do not mention God. As a result, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook composed a parallel poem, “Ha-emunah” (“The Faith”), which speaks of the “steadfast faith in the return to our holy land…where we shall serve our God.”Ironically, socialist Zionists denounced the poem for its allegedly religious, messianic overtones, owing to the reference to an ancient biblical promise of Jewish return. In the 1930s, they instead proposed Hayim Nahman Bialik’s “Birkat ha-am” (“The People’s Blessing”), also known as “Tehezakna,” for its line, “Strengthen the hands of our brothers renewing the soil of our land…”Cultural Zionists voiced their objections as well, often criticizing the minor-key melody as gloomy and depressing, and castigating Imber’s Hebrew style as heavy-handed and antiquated.

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Dr. James Loeffler

Dr. James Loeffler is Assistant Professor of History and Jewish Studies at the University of Virginia and author of The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire (Yale U. Press, 2010).