Hatikvah – Deep Within My Heart

Dear CBI Community,

The beginning of Hatikvah, Israel’s National Anthem, speaks of a yearning deep within the heart of the Jewish soul. Truth be told (and not that I try to hide this fact), every time I sing or hear Hatikvah, it always touches something deep in my heart. Whenever an Israeli athlete wins a medal in the Olympic Games, I swell with pride hearing the rousing instrumental rendition of Hatikvah that gets played for the medal ceremony. Several occasions stand out in my memory where I have literally been overcome with emotion when singing Hatikvah. In 1989, during my first year of Cantorial School which was spent studying at The Jewish Theological Seminary’s Beit Midrash in Jerusalem, my “class” of five Cantorial students was invited to sing Hatikvah at an event at the Knesset. I only wish I had a recording of that!

At each of my children’s High School graduation from the Golda Och Academy, as the choir led everyone in singing Hatikvah, I remember feeling so emotional, not just because my children had reached this milestone in their lives, but also because I felt so fortunate that Mike and I were able to give our children the gift of a Jewish education in an environment that cultivated a strong connection to the land and people of Israel.

When I attended my first AIPAC policy conference in 2017, I was completely blown away by the experience of singing Hatikvah together with around 18,000 people gathered in the Washington DC Convention Center early on the first morning of the conference. 18,000 is a LOT of voices!

More recently, I was also overcome with emotion when, at the end of our CBI Yom HaShoah commemoration just last week (on ZOOM), after our guest speaker, Goldie Jacoby, a Holocaust survivor, had described her harrowing story of survival, strength, courage and faith, she led us in the singing of Hatikvah. When someone asked her why she had settled in America after the war rather than in Israel, she said that even though that’s how things worked out, while her heart is in America, her soul is in Israel. Goldie certainly has a special appreciation of what Hatikvah (The Hope) means and of what a blessing and miracle it is to be “ahm chofshi b’artzaynu” (a free nation in our land).

As we celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day) this week, here is some interesting background information about Hatikvah. [Compiled from Dulcy Leibler (reproduced from the World Zionist Press Service, of the former WZO/JAFI © Department of Information) and from Dr. James Loeffler in his article for myjewishlearning.com.]

Hatikvah was originally a nine-stanza Hebrew poem entitled Tikvatenu (Our Hope). Its author, a 19th-century Hebrew poet, Naftali Hertz Imber (1856-1909), was born in Złoczów, a town in Austro-Hungarian Galicia. Inspired by the Hibbat Zion movement of early Zionism, Imber originally wrote the poem in 1878 while living in Jassy (Yash), Romania.

As a young man, Imber wandered Eastern Europe for several years before settling in Palestine in 1882. There he worked as personal secretary and Hebrew tutor to Sir Laurence Oliphant (1829-1888), an eccentric British author, politician, world traveler, and Christian Zionist. In the 1880s, Oliphant’s mystical religious beliefs inspired him to launch various philanthropic efforts to encourage Jewish resettlement in the historic Land of Israel. Imber first published Tikvatenu in an 1886 collection of his poetry, Barkai, (Morning Star), issued in Jerusalem and dedicated to Oliphant.

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).

The origin of the Hatikvah melody is under dispute. It can be clearly heard in Smetana‘s composition The Moldau/Ma Vlast (My Country) which was based on a Moldavian folk tune.  Samuel Cohen was from Moldavia and the Moldavian tunes were commonly used. During the 1880’s in Palestine, many tunes and adaptations became folksongs, no one thinking of copyrights. The Tikvatenu melody thus quickly became anonymous, and Imber’s association with it, all but forgotten.

Hatikvah was sung at the conclusion of the Sixth Zionist Congress in Basle in 1903, the last congress presided over by Theodor Herzl, who died tragically the following year. The anthem was sung at all subsequent Zionist Congresses, and at the 18th Congress, held in Prague in 1933, it was officially confirmed as the Zionist anthem.

Another candidate for Zionist anthem in 1897 was Psalm #126, the Shir Hama’alot before Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals), which speaks of the Return to Zion. Indeed, it was more popular in the early years, and both were often sung, even after adoption of Hatikvah.  Hatikvah also carries echoes of lines from the Prophet Ezekiel 37:11.

Even as Hatikvah grew in popularity, not all Zionists favored it 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, Imber was 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.

His poem has lived on, becoming the unofficial anthem of Jewish Palestine under the British mandate. At the Declaration of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, Hatikvah was sung by the assembly at its opening ceremony. It wasn’t until November 2004, however, that a law was passed by the Knesset, formalizing Hatikvah’s status as Israel’s National Anthem.

It is The Hope. It is OUR HOPE. Let us celebrate and rejoice in it! But let us also remember those throughout the years who made the ultimate sacrifice to make the dream a reality and let us continue to work to keep it alive for eternity.


Cantor Lorna Wallach