“My heart is conquered by the Gospel, but my head does not agree with it.”
Naphtali Zvi Imber (1856 – 8 October 1909), “Israel’s first bohemian”, was born in Złoczów (now Zolochiv, Ukraine), in Galicia. In his youth he travelled in Hungary, Serbia, and Romania, and the tune of HaTikvah is influenced especially by Romanian folk music.
In 1882 Imber moved to Ottoman Palestine as a secretary of Sir Laurence Oliphant, a Christadelphian and Christian Zionist who had a messianic and mystical expectation of the Jewish return to Zion. Imber lived with Oliphant and his wife Alice in their homes in Haifa and Daliyat al-Karmel. In 1883, Imber left the Oliphants and moved to Jerusalem, where he became ill and stayed in the London Society Hospital, preferring it to the lice and poor treatment of the Rothschild Hospital.
Hermann Friedlander, a CMJ missionary, Jewish believer in Yeshua and friend of Lucky, spent time with him discussing the claims of Yeshua. He spent six months there, deflecting the missionary Friedlander’s attempts to persuade him. Imber conveyed his hesitations to Friedlander: “My heart is conquered by the Gospel [tidings], but my head does not agree with it.” However, he stressed the good treatment he received at the mission’s hospital, and the fact that many of the nobles of Jerusalem use its services.
During his stay in Palestine, Imber lived in abject poverty. He was notorious for his excessive drinking, eccentric behaviour and questionable contact with Christian missionaries; yet he became renowned as a Hebrew poet, and his song “Hatikva” became popular in the new colonies. He published several poems and articles in the Jerusalem Hebrew newspapers, Havatzelet and Hazvi.
In 1886, he published his first book of poems, Morning Star (Hebrew: ברקאי, Barkai), in Jerusalem. One of the book’s poems was Tikvateinu (“Our Hope”); its very first version was written yet in 1877 in Iaşi, Romania. This poem later became the Israeli national anthem Hatikvah.
The melody was based on “La Mantovana”, a 16th-century Italian song that Samuel Cohen adapted as a setting for the poem in 1888. To hear Barbra Streisand singing it, see here
|כל עוד בלבב פנימה
נפש יהודי הומיה,
ולפאתי מזרח קדימה
עין לציון צופיה –
עוד לא אבדה תקותנו,
|Kol ‘od balevav P’nimah –
Nefesh Yehudi homiyah
Ulfa’atey mizrach kadimah
Ayin l’tzion tzofiyah.
‘Od lo avdah tikvatenu
|As long as in the heart, within,
A Jewish soul still yearns,
And onward toward the East,
An eye still watches toward Zion.
Our hope has not yet been lost,
In 1887 Imber returned to Europe and lived in London; then travelled again, visited India and finally moved to the United States in 1892. Imber made a mockery of the serious and had a sardonic vulgar wit. He also translated the Omar Khayyam into Hebrew. He died in New York in 1909 from the effects of chronic alcoholism. 100,000 people attended his funeral, out of tribute to his composition, Hatikvah.
Imber had contact with Christian missionaries in Israel, India, England and American. His friend and rival Israel Zangwill mocked him for it in Children of the Ghetto. Zangwill there describes his fictional character, the “neo-Hebrew” poet Pinchas Malchitsedek:
The same bent of mind, the same individuality of distorted insight made him overflow with ingenious explanations of the Bible and the Talmud, with new views and new lights on history, philology, medicine—anything, everything. And he believed his ideas because they were his and in himself because of his ideas. To himself his stature sometimes seemed to expand till his head touched the Sun—but that was mostly after wine—and his brain retained a permanent glow from the contact.
Zangwill: “That such a poet should have written Hatikvah, the Marseillaise of every Zionist meeting throughout the world, is one of the innumerable ironies of Jewish history.”
Menachem Begin: Hatikvah “became the song of the Jewish heart of our historic longing, of our love for the land of Zion and Jerusalem.”
Prayer: Thank you Lord for the life and work of Naftali Imber. May we too be travellers through time, culture and ideas. Help us to keep living, learning and loving. Thank you for the words Imber wrote, that have given strength and inspiration of generations of your people Israel. Help us to find our true faith and identity in you, and in your son, our Messiah. In his name we pray. Amen.
Naftali Herz Imber and Hatikvah The “Erratic Genius,” the National Anthem, and the Famous Melody by Cecil Bloom
Children of the Ghetto: A Study of a Peculiar People
By Israel Zangwill
REFERENCE: Kark, R. and Langboim, S., “Missions and Identity Formation among the People of Palestine: the Case of the Jewish Population.” In N. Friedrich, U. Kaminsky and R. Löffler, (eds.), The Social Dimension of Mission in the Middle East, Franz Steiner Verlag, Stüttgart,
2010, pp. 101-120.
Boaz Huss: FORWARD, TO THE EAST: NAPTHALI HERZ IMBER’S PERCEPTION OF KABBALAH
Journal of Modern Jewish Studies Vol 12, No. 3 November 2013, pp. 398–418
ISSN 1472-5886 print/ISSN 1472-5894 online © 2013 Taylor & Francis
Forward to the East: Zionism,Esotericism and Orientalism in Naftali Herz Imber’s Perception of Kabbalah Boaz Huss