Hatikvah: A Medicine Melody

Dear Friends:

Music heals the heart.

Last night, I went to a Jewish Gathering called “Here O Israel, Songs in Solidarity.” At the end of the night, a video was shown with members of the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) singing Hatikvah. The video reminded me of a talk I gave for a gathering of Music Therapists about  Hatikvah and the healing power of music which I share below.

The talk occurred (over Zoom) on May 17, 2021, during the Pandemic and it also coincided with a period in which there was an outbreak of violence in the Israeli-Hamas conflict.  The gathering of Music Therapists was hosted by The Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine at NYC’s Mount Sinai hospital. The main presenter was the great artist Jon Batiste. The topic of the event was: Social Music: Gathering Humanity Through Song & Sound. I had been invited by the Director of center, my dear friend Dr. Joanne Loewy, to talk about how the song Hatikvah has contributed to the healing from trauma of the Jewish people. (If you are interested, you can hear my talk in full at the bottom of this post.)

The flier stated: From the roots of slavery to current-day rallies, injustices have plagued ‘civilized’ communities since the beginning of time. Laments of rage have led to music that have fostered expressions of injustice, highlighting paths toward lasting legacies. Melodious jubilees and sorrow songs, formulate many of today’s familiar spirituals. From the underground to the picket line, from farce to parody, from rogue to rap, music harbors resilience.

Here’s what I said:

Jon Batiste has mentioned what he calls Social Music which is rooted in two things: Resilience and Catharsis. All peoples experience sorrow, extreme pain, duress, injustice and, to cope, music has been a mechanism that we have utilized for millennia. Our personal struggles continue to this day and the same holds within the Jewish people. We see what’s going on today, and there’s pain on both sides in the current situation between Israelis and Palestinians and our prayers go out to people on both sides of this terrible struggle.

The word Hatikvah means The Hope. Its melody has historically been an example of Social Music, (as Jon has defined it for us today), for many European cultures, not just for Jews. Its history predates its having been taken on as the national anthem of Israel in 2004.

I’ll first cover the history of this melody, then talk about its use during the Holocaust, an incredibly significant event in Jewish history from which we are still healing to this day. We pray for peace and transformation. Finally, I will sing the Hatikvah which can function as a medicine melody to heal us all from trauma of the past.

Since the Jewish exile of two thousand years ago, Jews have been longing for our survival as a people, religion and culture and also, for Tikkun Olam / healing of the planet and a better world. As my teacher, Reb Zalman Schachter Shalomi, of blessed memory, used to teach, every religion is a vital organ of the planet. The only way to get together is together.

When the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, that began a long exile for our people. We went out into the world and experienced persecution and trauma in many of the countries in which we lived: In the Middle Ages, Jews were attacked during the Crusades. In the 1400’s we were expelled during the Spanish Inquisition. Through the centuries, we have been targeted through antisemitism.

Through it all, we had an aspiration for return and redemption. Although we have a Jewish State at present, that aspiration continues.

The melody used in Hatikvah precedes the current anthem by several hundred years. It was a very popular melody throughout Europe as well as within Judaism. For example. Smetana used it as a basis for his Má vlast which embodied that composer’s love for his native Czechoslovakia. Many Jews in my community continue to sing Hatikvah in synagogue, not just because of its identification with Israel, but also, in its traditional form, as a prayer for the hope that the world will embrace democracy and the power of diversity and turn away from nationalism and the persecution and objectification of people who are in the minority.

The text of Hatikvah was written at a time when the Jews were living in Russia and felt very powerless. It was also a time when the Zionist movement was just starting. Although Jewish in its aspiration, the idea in this point, of an exiled people returning to its homeland, is universal: We all yearn for peace, for a better world and that hope is kept alive in our hearts.

All over the world Jewish people sing this melody and it’s been happening that way for hundreds of years. And during the Holocaust, it has been told that once, seventeen hundred Czech Jews sang Hatikvah as they were being ushered into the gas chambers.

The story came to us through the Jewish slave labor in the camps who would take the bodies from the gas chambers and bring them into the crematoria. These people are the ones who witnessed a chorus of Jews from Czechoslovakia singing this song as they marched to their death. The power of the melody enraged the SS guards who were beating the prisoners to try to get them to stop singing, but the singing continued.

When, as a young person, I learned of the Holocaust, it put a fear into me that if anybody were to find out that I was Jewish, I, too, might be sent to a death camp at some point and so, I tried to assimilate and to hide my Judaism. The Holocaust was a trauma that entered my psyche and became my personal fear. Much later, I recognized that it would be important to contextualize my Judaism in a positive way. It is my roots; it’s where I come from and in that regard, it’s important for me to embrace it.

For all of us, Jews and non-Jews alike, we must embrace our roots. We need to be proud of who we are, whether it is a national, spiritual or cultural pride. At the same time, we must acknowledge the Other and love our neighbor as ourselves. And so the issue going on right now where they talk about Palestinian Lives Matter should also be important to every Jewish person.

So now I will sing the text of Hatikvah which talks about the hope. I continue to face toward the East, which is the direction of my ancestral homeland as I continue to pray for a better world, because we are still in exile in a certain sense.

Here is a link to the entire talk. After I sang Hatikvah, you can hear Jon Batiste play an improvisation inspired by the melody.

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