Recognizing a life's achievement

Meet Eliahu Hacohen, a recent Herzl Award recipient whose work encompasses over 70 years of Zionist experience.

eliahu hacohen 88 298 (photo credit: )
eliahu hacohen 88 298
(photo credit: )
True passion is the gift of the few. Eliahu Hacohen is one of those few. He has spent the past 50 years collecting, transcribing and investigating Israeli songs. For this passion, which resulted in a fascinating body of work that includes hundreds of thousands of songs and their accompanying stories of birth, he has been chosen to be this year's winner of the prestigious Herzl Award. The award in the amount of NIS 50,000 will be presented to Hacohen in a ceremony at the Herzliya Hall of Performing Arts on Sunday, May 20 at 6:30 p.m. Herzliya Mayor Yael German, who will present the award, called Hacohen "the high priest of research into Israeli songs, who has dedicated his life to strengthening the link with our cultural heritage." The Herzl Award is given for a significant contribution to Zionizm or the research of it. The award was inaugurated by Herzliya Municipality and the World Zionist Organization in 1974. It has been presented four times in the past: In 1977 to veteran Rehovot resident Yitzhak Ya'akobi, who voluntarily uprooted to Kiryat Shmona despite ongoing Katyusha bombardments, and members of Arava Kibbutz Ketura for their Zionist endeavors; in 1979 to Yisrael Pollack, chairman of the Polgat textile company, for advancing industry in the Negev, and Bella and Yoel Katzur of Kibbutz Givat Haim who helped develop young kibbutzim; in 2005 to Professor Anita Shapira for her research into the Zionist movement; and last year to Dr. Mordechai Naor for his research into the history of the Holy Land and Zionism. "Hacohen is a one-man institution," reads the Award Committee's reasoning. "For more than 50 years, Hacohen has dedicated his life to researching the affinity between the local Hebrew community and its history of singing," the statement continues. Seated behind his large desk at the Israeli headquarters of NCR where he functions as head of the finances division, Hacohen's eyes sparkle when he discusses his passion as he opens one folder after the next, presenting fragments of his life's work. Hacohen has worked at the data-processing firm, which is the main operator of most of Israel's ATM's, for nearly half a century. A true autodidact, Hacohen has spent those years researching, collecting and sorting the thousands of Hebrew songs that were published by him in various collections. "I started this project as a Gadna (IDF youth corps) instructor at Camp Be'er Ora during my military service," Hacohen reminisces. "In 1956-57 I was the commander-in-chief of the camp. I would take the youths out on field trips and singing was a great way to bond everyone," he continues. What he really explains, though, is the birth of a milestone in Zionist history. "I realized then that songs are a great way to tell the story of this country." It was during his military service that Hacohen collected the first thousand songs and typed them on his own, creating one of the first song handbooks. The collection was given to his trainees at the camp. "Songs reflect a much more collective experience than prose," says Hacohen. His research encompasses over 70 years of Zionist experience, mostly in Israel but some even date as far back as the days prior to the First Aliya, back to Eastern Europe. The farthest back he has gone in his research into the source of songs is the conclusion of the 19thcentury. Throughout the years, he engaged in identifying the sources of hundreds of songs, thus rescuing them from being catalogued as "folk songs." Such were the cases of Se'u Tziona Nes Vadegel, Hava Nagila, Heveinu Shalom Alechem and many more. One example of the unveiling of a popular children's song is Hashafan Hakatan - Hacohen not only managed to unveil the source of this song but even came up with the complete lyrics. Had it not been for Hacohen's work, the song would have existed as a one-stanza ditty for all time. Another interesting research case is Hacohen's work on the Hatikvah, Israel's national anthem, written by Naftali Hertz Imber in Jassy, Romania in 1877. In his essay, "How Hatikvah became the national anthem of Israel," Hacohen describes the birth of the national symbol. Once he had immigrated to Israel, Imber apparently traveled throughout pre-Israeli Jewish settlements and recited verses of the song to constantly changing audiences. It was during these journeys that Imber started adding verses to the song, until it had reached a total of nine. But the birth of the national anthem is only one example of the extent and depths of Hacohen's life achievement. In 1959, he went on-air with his unique knowledge. His first radio show was called: Yayin Yashan Noshan ("vintage wine"). Throughout the years he continued with more such shows in which he would present historic songs and talk about their origins and development. In the 1970s he had his own television series where he conducted various thematic evenings on the sources of Israeli songs, such as "The Russian Roots of Israeli singing." These days he performs on various stages in Israel with a series of shows produced by the Israel Museum. His performances - the themes of which vary from old Tel Aviv songs to Kinneret songs - are accompanied by a singer-pianist who sings the selection of songs while he lectures on the subject. "I used to walk around in the evening, interviewing people from the First Aliya, recording them singing, writing down their stories. This research helped me put a date on many anonymous songs. You have to understand: Most people back then did not sit down and write these songs, they just sang them," Hacohen says. In addition, he studied the history of the settlement of Eretz Israel, and his personal library now consists of more than 25,000 titles. Although he has been dedicated to his passion throughout the years, his family has always come first. A man of love and passion, his eyes sparkle once again when he shows pictures of his three grandchildren spread over his computer screen. He says he sings to them sometimes. Moreover, Hacohen utilizes every stage offered to him. During the past 30 years, he not only managed to publish a series of educational booklets on Hebrew songs published by Tel Aviv University, but to actually teach students at a seminar entitled: "What is a Hebrew song - source and influence" at the Music College at Levinski Seminar in Tel Aviv. In total, he has exhibited his passion in over 300 communities throughout the country. "As a young man," says the 72-year-old veteran, "I used to sing in a choir. I was even a cantor at a synagogue," he explains the roots for his passion, which has defined who he is more than anything and made such a significant contribution to Zionism that it won him the prestigious Herzl Award.