April 21, 2023
In 1897, at the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, the delegates joined in a rousing rendition of the song “Hatikvah.” The beloved Zionist hymn would come to be known among generations of Jews around the world as the Jewish national anthem. Yet it was not until 2004 that the Israeli government officially designated “Hatikvah” as the country’s national anthem. Between these two facts lies the curious tale of one of the most important songs in modern Jewish history.
“Hatikvah” began its life as a nine-stanza Hebrew poem entitled “Tikvatenu” (“Our Hope”). Its author was a colorful 19th-century Hebrew poet, Naftali Hertz Imber (1856-1909), who hailed from 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 Ottoman 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). “Hatikvah” spread rapidly among Jewish pioneers as part of the new culture of secular Hebrew songs and folk dances that existed in the early decades of the Zionist movement.
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, 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.