France may have its Marseillaise, Britain its God Save the Queen, and the Americans Star Spangled Banner, but none are more stirring than the words and melody of our own national anthem, Hatikvah, the Hope.
The words were first written in 1886 by the poet Naphtali Herz Imber and was set to music by a Moldovian immigrant, Samuel Cohen, based on a musical theme from Bedrich Smetana’s Moldau.
My eyes well with tears on every occasion when we stand to sing it. Although written in the 19th century, its words reflect two thousand years of Jewish longing and singing it never fails to make my body respond with fervor and emotion.
“As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart, with eyes turned toward the East, looking to Zion, then our hope, our two thousand year hope, will not be lost: to be a free people in our own land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem”.
Prior to our independence, the last lines had a different version: “to return to the land, the land of our fathers, to the city where David came, where David encamped”.
Our Hatikvah, the anthem of hope, is stirring and reflects our longing to return to the land of Israel through two thousand years of homelessness, wanderers in exile, persecuted in the lands of our dispersion, oppressed and often massacred, yet always with the unwritten Song of Hope in our hearts.
I have traveled in many countries of the globe and have visited great monasteries, museums, cathedrals. None have touched my heart as much as the little shtiebel (prayer room), the ruins of our ancient synagogues, the stones of our Wall with thousands of years of messages inserted into its crevices, and above all, our people gathered from all lands of dispersion who have returned to rebuild a new society in our ancient towns and villages in which our people first settled four thousand years ago.
The warmth and the hospitality of Israelis is legendary. Meet an Israeli for the first time, sit down over a plate of hummus or munch on a falafel, and you have a friend for life. I know because I speak from personal experience.
Wandering in the wilderness of Beersheba in 1951, a passing convoy of 19 year old Israeli soldiers saw me, stopped, invited me to hop aboard and join them for a Turkish coffee at their canteen. That single cup of coffee gave birth to a friendship which has lasted sixty-three years. Some of them have passed away but their children and grown grandchildren have never forgotten me. The coffee and strudel is always on the table awaiting my arrival. No advance notice need be given. Just a knock on the door, an opening, arms embracing, kisses on both cheeks, and tears of happiness.
I have traveled in forty-five countries on different continents. There is none like Israel. With all its faults, with all the heated political debates in our Knesset, with an abundance of political parties of all strains of thought, we are a unified nation of one people who have returned to our ancient home, to build, to settle and to pass it along as the rightful inheritance of our children, sons and daughters of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah .
The melodic strains of Hatikvah renew our hope, our dreams, our faith in a better future. It is, for us, the Jews of Israel, the melody of love. “Lihiyot am chofshi b’artzenu, eretz Tziyon v’Yerushalayim”…. To once again be a free people in our own land… the land of Zion and Jerusalem.