Naphtali Herz Imber wrote the poem “Hatikvah” (The Hope) whose words continue to inspire Jews in Israel and around the world to this day.
Sung at Bergen-Belsen by liberated survivors in 1945, on the ships leaving Europe on their way to Israel carrying thousands going home, while the nation of Israel became a reality in 1948, and to this very day by Jewish children in schools around the world. How important is “Hatikvah”? The answer is extremely. However, why? The formation of all Jewish history in the past two millennia has amalgamated into a single simplified historical concept of “The Hope.” From the creation of Hovevei Zion in the 1880s to the desperation of Jews in the post- World War II era, to the fighting to keep Israel a free homeland, not just for Jews but all who accept it as a home, “Hatikvah” in its few words and simple melody characterizes one of the absolutes that have preserved Jewish existence: hope.
The man behind the words, although he did not live a remarkable life, managed to portray in a few lines ideas that had remained unsaid by Jews for centuries, until the foundation of Zionism in the 1890s.
Naphtali Herz Imber, born in a small corner of the Austro-Hungarian empire, was a mediocre Talmudic scholar. He spent his time visiting several communities across Eastern Europe, and even went as far as Constantinople.
Along his travels he met Jews of all forms and classes, which undoubtedly influenced greatly his profuse writings, mostly poetry, about the places he had visited.
Amid his travels in 1877 he jotted down a few lines that characterized his sentiment, and most likely the sentiments of many of the Jews he had met on his way.
The poem, however, which he named “Hatikvah,” remained unknown for years. In the meantime Imber managed to find work as a secretary for a Christian Zionist, which prompted him to move to Eretz Yisrael in 1882, of course fueled by his intense desire to work for the cause which he had dedicated his life to.
By 1886, through his connections to the Hovevei Zion movement, his poem was used in conjunction with a Romanian melody by a Jewish Romanian worker in Eretz Yisrael and was made the official running song of the movement. By 1897, the song became the official anthem of the Zionist organization.
Imber spent the remainder of his life in England working for the Zionist cause, and occasionally translating poetry into Hebrew. In fact, his most reputable translations are those of Omar Khayyam’s poetry – the 11th century Persian poet – which he continued to work on until his death in the United States in 1909.
Although Imber’s life was not particularly outstanding, he had created such an extraordinary simplification of the need to (re-)create a homeland for the Jewish people that all of the Herzlian doctrines could be summed up with just a few lines. Yet, how is all of this still relevant today? The truth is that “The Hope” was by no means more relevant in 1897 or 1948 than it is today. Although Eretz Israel has been founded, and was turned from unmanageable, desolate land into a fruitful, arable one by the labors of past generations, their hope should be no different from that of any other Jew both inside and outside the nation today. As Israel continues to be the sole real democratic and multicultural polity in the Middle East, the hope of building Eretz Yisrael is as important now as it was in 1897.
You might be wondering: What is this hope? Simple. The self-evident and most basic right awarded to all – to create a life and home. One of self-determination that had been the requisite of all nations in this world – except for Israel, which in the past century has had an extremely difficult time doing so. Precisely why it is most pertinent today. The building of a home never really ends, especially that of one as large and complex as Israel. “Hatikvah” will always cause emotional responses and even pride, but should first serve as reminder of how for someone like Imber with a mere hope – an idea, a dream – can materialize so totally as to form a nation. Not so different from how today the populace’s hope is for peace and stability, which perhaps will one day manifest itself.
The author is a history student at the University of British Columbia and a writer. He has dedicated much of his time researching the Jewish Community of Jassy, as well as that of Romania. He is currently working on his book The Jassy Pogrom.