Hatikvah: The Bohemian's Rhapsody
Updated: Aug 19, 2021
My friend recently texted me from Tel Aviv: “What are the chances that I would be on Imber Street in the morning and at the Hatikvah Market on Hatikvah Street in the afternoon? Unbelievable!” After I pleaded ignorance, my friend helped me connect the dots and gain an appreciation of this obscure man who wrote a poem that would one day become Israel’s national anthem.
Over two dozen streets across Israel have been named for Naftali Herz Imber and his songs which brought hope to Jews worldwide during some of the darkest days of our history, and yet he paradoxically lived much of his life in a state of hopelessness.
Naphtali Herz Imber was born in 1856 in Galicia and lived only 52 years. He was a writer, a poet, and a bohemian – a brilliant nonconformist who lived a nomadic life and tragically never found his niche in society.
At the tender age of ten, Imber was considered an ilui – or Talmudic prodigy – but his greatest pleasure was reading German and Yiddish poetry and writing Hebrew poems. At the age of twelve, Imber received an award from the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph for a patriotic poem he wrote in Hebrew celebrating the centennial of Bukovina’s annexation to the Austrian Empire. Soon after, Imber decided to travel, and spent the next fifteen years traipsing across Europe, journeying from Brody and Lvov, the cultural centers of Galicia, to Vienna. Then, when most people were going west, Imber – ever the iconoclast – traveled east through Hungary, Serbia and Romania.
Throughout this period, Imber wrote articles for the Hebrew periodicals, and during his free time he composed Hebrew poetry. In an act of defiance against pogroms and other overt acts of antisemitism across Europe, Imber penned Tikvateinu – Our Hope.
Imber ended up in Constantinople where, in 1882, he met Englishman, former parliamentarian and Christian Zionist Laurence Oliphant. Oliphant came to Constantinople for exploratory talks with Turkish officials about resettling Jewish refugees in Palestine. Imber immediately became part of the Oliphant entourage, serving as his correspondent in Hebrew, German and Romanian.
A few years later, the Oliphants moved to Haifa with Imber in tow. In addition to attending to Oliphant’s correspondence, Imber continued writing poems and articles. When Laurence's wife Alice, whom Imber loved dearly, died suddenly in 1886, a distraught Imber left the Oliphant household.
Imber finally embraced the west, visiting Paris, Berlin, London and then New York. Only after arriving on the Lower East Side in 1892, did he realize that a number of his poems had been set to music and became national treasures. His most famous poem was Tikvateinu, whose name was changed to Hatikvah, or The Hope, and became the Zionist anthem.
Imber could not hold down a job, and his poverty and misery unfortunately led him down the path of alcoholism. He moved around the country, with stops in practically every city where there were Jews, and continued writing articles for regional papers, all the while churning out new poems. In Chicago, at the age of forty-four, he married Amanda Katie Davidson, whom he soon thereafter divorced. That episode was a microcosm of his life: undertaking exciting new pursuits, and soon thereafter discarding them and moving on.
In 1909, Naftali Herz Imber died penniless from complications related to chronic alcoholism. After the funeral service, the streets were packed with an estimated ten thousand people, who intoned the Hatikvah during the slow procession. Aptly, the text of Hatikvah was etched on Imber’s gravestone.
How ironic – and exceedingly sad – that the man who wrote the timeless anthem of optimism about the Jewish nation’s return to its homeland, died a disheartened and hopeless vagabond. In 1953, Imber’s remains were re-interred in Jerusalem’s Har Hamenuchot Cemetery. The nomad who gave hope to the Jewish nation finally came home.
Gedaliah Borvick is the founder of My Israel Home, a real estate agency focused on helping people from abroad buy and sell homes in Israel. To sign up for his monthly market updates, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please visit his blog at www.myisraelhome.com.