Hatkivah: over a century in the making

This month, Israel will celebrate 67 years of independence. But one of the country’s most famous symbols is more than twice as old. Little did Naftali Herz Imber realize that the poem he began working on almost 140 years ago would become a defining expression of the aspiration to live in a Jewish homeland.

Imber, a Galician Jew, wrote a poem titled Tikvatenu (Our Hope) in 1877 to commemorate the founding of the Jewish settlement of Petach Tikvah (Gateway of Hope). Imber moved to Palestine and visited the city in 1882 where a resident, Samuel Cohen, put the poem to music based on a traditional Moldavian-Romanian folk song. Bedrich Smetana used a similar melody as the basis for the classical Moldau.

Here’s Moldau in its entirety:


And for something a bit odd, someone has taken the time to record Moldau and Hatikvah simultaneously:


As for Imber, he lived in Palestine from 1882 to 1887, then moved to London and finally to the United States where he died in 1909. He was reinterred in 1953 and buried in Jerusalem.

Actually, Imber’s original poem wasn’t quite as succinct as today’s anthem. His version had nine stanzas. The first stanza “Kol ‘od balevav penimah” is unchanged over a century later. But the refrain originally went: 

עוד לא אבדה תקותנו

Od lo avdah tikvateinu,

Our hope is not yet lost,

התקוה הנושנה

Hatikvah hannoshanah,

The ancient hope,

לשוב לארץ אבותינו

Lashuv le’eretz avoteinu,

To return to the land of our fathers,

לעיר בה דוד חנה

La‘ir bah david k'hanah.

The city where David encamped.

When the Zionist movement began to look for an anthem, Hatikvah wasn’t a shoe-in. During the Fourth Zionist Congress in London in 1900, delegates were asked to consider both Hatikvah and Psalm 126 better known as “Shir Hama’alot” (Song of Ascents), which is chanted before Birkat Hamazon on Shabbat on other festive days. Hatikvah was officially confirmed as the Zionist anthem at the 18th conference in Prague in 1933.

Surprisingly, it would have to wait until November 2004 to be proclaimed Israel’s official anthem

I came across a fascinating audio recording of those original lyrics sung by Al Jolson. Jolson’s Hebrew was quite good and his performance a bit less schmaltzy than the Jolson who I know from Mammy or Swanee.

One of the most moving versions of the anthem was made three years before the establishment of Israel. In April 1945, British forces liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. BBC reporter Patrick Gordon Walker arrived in the camp on the fifth day after liberation as survivors were planning to usher in their first Sabbath in freedom. Walker continues, “During the service, the few hundred people gathered together were sobbing openly, with joy of their liberation and with sorrow of the memory of their parents and brothers and sisters that had been taken from them and gassed and burned. These people knew they were being recorded. They wanted the world to hear their voice.” Thanks to Patrick Walker, you can. [http://www.isracast.com/articles/766.aspx]

Earlier this year, 15 Holocaust survivors spontaneously sang Hatikvah after reciting Kaddish at the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.


You can also find dozen of contemporary arrangements at NationalAnthems.us and at YouTube. One of them is from 1978, when Barbra Streisand appeared on a TV show, The Stars Salute Israel at 30. Streisand performs Hatikvah after she shmoozes with Israel’s former prime minister, Golda Meir.


My favourite online version of Hatikvah, however, was unexpected and very emotional. It took place at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens when windsurfer Gal Fridman captured the first gold medal in Israel’s history. Nothing beats the pride on Fridman’s face as the first notes of his country’s anthem were played (at the 18 minutes mark of the video).


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