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Op-Ed: Hatikvah: The Impossible Dream

Hatikvah has a checkered past, but it is ours.
Published: Tuesday, May 31, 2011 10:30 AM


Many years ago, I heard a speaker – a self-proclaimed Zionist – taking HaTikvah to task. In her opinion, it didn’t speak to the Zionist dream, the true feeling of the Jewish heart aching to return home, or the mission of Zionism. She suggested that The Impossible Dream from the hit Broadway musical "The Man of La Mancha" take its place as the Israeli national anthem. The very words, she thought, encapsulated everything Zionism and Israel stands for:  

To dream the impossible dream,

To fight the unbeatable foe,

To bear with unbearable sorrow,

To run where the brave dare not go… 

I was quite taken with this idea as a child, with the notion that this stirring song about reaching “the unreachable star" could serve as a more fitting national anthem for our homeland. I took out the CD from the library and listened to the song countless times, smiling as I internalized the lyrics. It struck a chord within me, far deeper than HaTikvah ever had. 

So, why shouldn't this song represent the Zionist dream? What does HaTikvah really have over The Impossible Dream?

Recently, I hit the books (and the Internet) to figure it all out.  What I discovered was fascinating. 

Similar to The Star Spangled Banner, which is actually a four paragraph poem with only the first verse known, HaTikvah has seven other stanzas, which nobody knows. 

HaTikvah was originally a nine stanza poem written by Naphtali Herz Imber, a relatively unsuccessful poet, loafer, alcoholic and womanizer who lived in the late nineteenth century. The original title was actually Tikvateinu – Our Hope – and it was the anthem of several settlements in the 1880s. Imber later died of alcohol induced liver disease, not a very glorious way for the writer of Israel’s national anthem to pass.

Samuel Cohen later put these rhymes to a Romanian folk song, Carul cu Boi. Though he slowed down the rhythm and refined the sound, when one listens to Carul cu Boi, it is clear that the two songs are related. The tune that makes Jews worldwide rise and put their hands to their hearts means, in Romanian, “Cart and Oxen,” and the original is a dancing tune.

The more I uncovered in my research, the more the case was made for The Impossible Dream to take center stage. 

Yet, HaTikvah, with its interesting, and perhaps scandalous, past, still has a unique quality that The Impossible Dream cannot and never will have. This quality fills the heart of the Jew. It makes us smile, it makes us cry, it defines us, and it makes HaTikvah our national anthem.

On May 12, 1948, before David Ben-Gurion read the Israeli Declaration of Independence, the audience spontaneously sang HaTikvah in unison. After the Declaration was signed, the crowd once again rose and sang: 

To be a free people in our land,

The land of Zion and Jerusalem.

No one in that room, or anywhere in that newly born country, would have envisioned owning all of Jerusalem. Not under the White Paper, nor under the UNSCOP Partition Plan, nor by any other conceivable course of events. At best, they thought, it would wind up under UN jurisdiction. At worst, it would fall into the hands of the Arabs, who would in all likelihood deny Jews access. Indeed, by the end of the 1948 war, when the smoke had cleared, Jerusalem was still not under Israeli control. 

Yet, Jews still dreamed of Jerusalem. Their eyes still looked towards Zion. The city where David camped was still in their hearts. And, in 1967, against all odds, we claimed our birthright.

The religious Zionists suggested two alternatives to Hatikvah as Israel's national anthem, The first was Shir Hamaalot Beshuv Hashem et Shivat Zion, Psalm 126, whose theme is the  return to Zion and which says this return would seem like an impossible dream come true. It had been set to music by the famed Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, and the song as he rendered it became popular in recent years when "Shir Hamaalot" was sung by popular Israeli singer Chanan Yovel.

The other was first Chief Rabbi Avraham Kook's poem  (click to see the poem) about the return to our land and the city where David camped. Both were rejected by the secular Zionists who made up the majority of those who founded the state.

The Impossible Dream is a wonderful song. I smile and cry every time I listen to it. But it does not focus on Jerusalem.  As such, it cannot possibly represent the Zionist dream because it is impossible to fulfill the Zionist dream without our Golden Jerusalem.