Not only is Hatikvah the national anthem of Israel, but Jews around the world have sung it for 135 years.
The one-woman show, “Hatikvah, Hope Reborn,” was created and presented by the Israeli pianist, Astrith Baltsan, at Temple Israel of Manhattan( in partnership with 92Y) last Thursday night as an inaugural celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut.
Interspersing her own spirited playing with video clips from around the globe, Baltsan presents the unexpected musical ancestry of this beloved melody. The original lyrics, written by the poet Naftali Imber who immigrated to Israel in 1882, were based on biblical verses. Hatikvah’s musical origins are half Ashkenazi, half Sephardic; a melange of classical music and folk tunes — just like the Jewish people scattered across the world, as Baltsan points out.
Baltsan dedicated her 8-year quest of researching the roots of Hatikvah to the memory of her father, Haim Baltsan. At her first performance with the Israeli Philharmonic, which was the last concert her ailing father attended, she recalls that he was not visibly inspired as she played Chopin but was moved to tears as the orchestra played the familiar chords of Smetana’s symphonic poem “Die Moldau.”
Most people attribute the music of Hatikvah to the familiar Smetana piece. However, Smetana actually used a Sephardic version of Birkat Tal, the prayer for dew, written by Rabbi Yitzchak Bar Sheshet in Toledo in 1400. After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, the Tal melody meandered around Europe and emerged in a 16th century Italian love song, a 17thcentury Baroque fugue and a Mozart piano variation. This Sephardic tune is the opening stanza of Hatikvah and the second stanza echoes a Romanian farmer’s folk song.
History had long ago decided that this song of hope (“Our hope has not yet been lost/The two thousand-year-old hope,/To be a free people in our own land”) would be the national hymn of Jewish people. But until 2004, this song was sung by everyone but chosen by no one. Given Israel’s diverse population with a myriad of opinions, it took the government 56 years to reach a consensus and officially select Hatikvah as its national anthem (although some still feel it doesn’t represent all of Israel’s inhabitants).
Baltsan’s lyrical odyssey, so vividly presented with love and pride, was a truly fitting way to begin this week’s celebratory events marking Israel’s 65th birthday.
Judy Geller-Marlowe teaches in the Multilingual Multicultural Studies Department at NYU Steinhardt.