From ancient times, through pre-state pioneering days, to statehood in 1948 and beyond, Israel has inspired Jewish lyricists and composers to retell its most stirring historical events in song. Here are the stories of only a handful of the most beautiful and best-known melodies:
The Israeli national anthem’s name literally means “The Hope.” Much like the country itself, “Hatikvah” has a rich and multifaceted history. Not only is “Hatikvah” the official national song of Israel, it has also served for generations as an anthem for Jewish and Zionist communities worldwide.
The basic story of “Hatikvah” is a simple one. It expresses the yearning for a Jewish homeland that has lived in the hearts of Jews everywhere throughout centuries of persecution.
Naftali Herz Imber wrote a poem originally entitled “Tikvateinu” (“Our Hope”) at the time the first wave of European Jews began fleeing increased anti-Semitic persecution by immigrating to what was then known as Palestine. Imber, a native of Galicia who arrived in Israel in 1882, published the poem in his book Morning Star in 1886. The poem drew inspiration, in part, from the establishment of the town of Petach Tikvah by a group of Zionist pioneers. In 1897, the First Zionist Congress adopted the song as the musical emblem for the Zionist movement.
The background of the melody is less clear. Some sources trace it to Zionist farmer Leon Igli, said to have set Imber’s words to music as early as 1882. However, Igli’s version proved difficult to sing, and an 1888 setting by another musician incorporated the tune we know today. Ordinary people in pre-state Israel made “Hatikvah” popular, often assuming it was an old folk song.
Many listeners find the melody strikingly similar to Bedřich Smetana’s “The Moldau,” although musicologists do not believe there is a direct connection. Most scholars believe that both melodies likely drew on the rich repertoire of Moldavian and Romanian folk tunes for their structure. Musicologists today credit Samuel Cohen, originally from Moldova, with the now-universal 1888 version of the melody. Some also believe that Cohen’s and Smetana’s ultimate source was a 400-year-old Sephardic prayer.
Like many other contemporary Jewish and Israeli songs, “Hava Nagila” (“Let Us Rejoice”) began its journey to global popularity in the folk melodies of Eastern Europe. Music scholars believe its tune derives from a Hassidic nigun (a melody without words) of the region. The Hasidim from Sadigora in Bukovina, in present-day Ukraine, usually receive credit for its creation.
A group of Sadigorer Hassidim who immigrated to Palestine during the first wave of immigration brought the tune with them, but it was cantor and musicologist Avraham Zvi Idelsohn who introduced it to the world outside that tightly knit milieu. Idelsohn, a committed Zionist, collected numerous folk melodies from Jews of all backgrounds in Jerusalem. He went on to create arrangements of these songs, including “Hava Nagila,” which became widely popular throughout the fledgling nation of Israel.
In 1918, under the British Mandate, Idelsohn arranged the tune for a performance celebrating a British victory over the Turks. He added words from Psalm 118:24, which speaks of singing and rejoicing in the day God has created. This arrangement quickly became a staple of Zionist youth and patriotic groups all over the world.
In the generations since Idelsohn so successfully married words to melody, “Hava Nagila” has featured in most Jewish weddings, bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, and other joyous gatherings—usually to accompany lively communal dancing of the hora circle dance. It has been recorded by artists as diverse as the Barry Sisters, Neil Diamond, the Beatles, Lena Horne, and Harry Belafonte, who used it time after time as a moving close to his performances.
Jerusalem of Gold
This song (“Yerushalayim shel Zahav” in Hebrew) is perhaps the most beloved of all Israeli melodies. Naomi Shemer wrote both the words and the music in 1967 to be performed at the Israel Song Festival. A few months after the festival, the song was on the lips of every patriotic Israeli. In June that year, the Israeli army won the Six-Day War, and paratroopers liberated the Old City of Jerusalem from the Jordanians to reunify the city under Jewish control for the first time in two millennia. In the years since its composition, “Jerusalem of Gold” has shaped the emotional identities of countless young Israelis.
Shemer’s inspiration for “Jerusalem of Gold” came from her family’s familiarity with traditional Yiddish and Hassidic songs, as well as her own passionate love of the city. Among the mental images that caught her attention as she was writing it was the rabbinic legend of Rabbi Akiva, the renowned ancient scholar. The story has it that, after he married his beloved Rachel, her father disowned her, and the couple had to live in a hayloft. The young Akiva promised his bride that one day he would buy her a “Jerusalem of Gold,” a beautiful piece of jewelry.
From its status as the unofficial patriotic anthem celebrating victory in the Six-Day War to its place as a universally beloved hymn celebrating one of the world’s most beautiful cities, “Jerusalem of Gold” remains popular with Jews and non-Jews around the world.