The birth of The Hope

Israel’s national anthem, HaTikvah, (The Hope) is rumored to be among the most beautiful in the world, a sentiment expressed by Jews and non-Jews alike. In May 1948, following the cataclysmic events of the Shoah, came the unfathomable political establishment of the Jewish homeland. The ceremony was concluded with HaTikvah, the new national anthem of the fledgling state which rang out through radios all over the world. Until today, the anthem remains the hope of Jews throughout the globe wherever they may be. 

One could be forgiven for thinking the composer and lyricist of the magnificent HaTikvah were men of stature who emulated the likes of Bach, Brahms and Mozart. But this is far from then truth. 

The words were penned by Naftali Herz Imber, a womanizer, a Hebrew hippie and the quintessential Wandering Jew. The penniless Imber spent many a year traveling the world, looking for “Mrs Right,” falling in love here, falling out of love there, later remarking that beautiful women were the source of all his poetic inspiration. 

The tune is credited arguably to Samuel Cohen, a humble farmer who claimed it was based on a Romanian folk song he heard as a child – although a listen to “Fuggi, fuggi, fuggi dal questo cielo” the work of the 17th century Italian composer, Giuseppino Del Biado, would certainly make someone beg to differ. 

Not only is the origin of the tune an enigma, so is the character of the man who wrote the words. 

A prodigy, Naftali Herz Imber began writing poetry in 1866 at the age of 10, and even received an award from Emperor Franz Joseph for his writings. As an adult running a market stall in Istanbul, he met Sir Laurence Oliphant, a businessman and member of the British Parliament. An ardent Zionist, he simply wanted to tell the politician that Jewish people did not need any favors from Britain to return to the ancestral homeland. But as often happens in life, what we plan is not what happens. And such was the case with Naftali Herz Imber. 

In his diaries, Imber confesses that when he first met Sir Oliphant in that bustling, noisy market, his eyes helplessly came to rest on none-other than Sir Oliphant’s wife. An incurable womanizer, Imber wrote that a glance at Mrs. Oliphant “inspired” him to take a trip with her and her husband to the Holy Land – a trip paid by them. 

Sadly for Imber, the Christian Protestant Zionists were still madly in love and went wandering off into the Mediterranean sunset working on a plan to hasten the coming of the Messiah, all of which left Imber and his hopes and dreams washed ashore.

They went their separate ways and on this brief trip to the Holy Land from his native Ukraine, he visited many of the new Zionists’ first farming communities, which today are bustling Israeli cities. 

The likes of Rishon LeZion, Gadera, Nes Zionya and Petach Tikvah all fiercely claim that Imber penned HaTikvah on a balcony in their yard. Closer to the truth, is that Imber wrote the original 9-verse poem in Europe, in the wake of the establishment of those first Jewish Zionist settlements. As the hindsight of irony would have it, he based it on none other than the German song, Der Deutsche Rhein which also opens every verse with the words, “As long as…” 

It was in 1884, in Jerusalem, that Imber finally handed all 9 verses of the mammoth-long poem to Dr. Y.L. Matmon-Cohen, the founder of the Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium. With some brutal editing (which would be any writer’s nightmare) the doctor reduced the masterpiece to one verse in order to make it into the beloved national anthem that it is today.