In honor of Yom Ha-atzamaut, Israel’s independence day, let me tell you the story of two Jews from Ukraine.
The first: Shaul Tchernichovsky, one of the greatest poets in modern Jewish literature. Rare is the city in Israel that lacks a street that bears his name. He was born in Russia in 1875, and when he was fourteen, his parents sent him to study in Odessa. He became proficient in German, French, English, Greek, and Latin. His literary influences: Pushkin, Shakespeare, Longfellow, and the Greek classics.
It was in Odessa that Tchernichovsky joined the young Zionist movement. It was there that he developed his own critique of what it meant for Jews to live in galut, in exile. It was there, as well, that he would write what would become one of his most beloved poems, which would later be set to music.
“Tzach’ki” – “laugh.” This is how the late singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman rendered it:
Laugh at all my dreams, my dearest;
Laugh and I repeat anew
That I still believe in man
As I still believe in you.
By the passion of our spirit
Shall our ancient bonds be shed.
Let the soul be given freedom,
Let the body have its bread!
For my soul is not yet sold
To the golden calf of scorn
And I still believe in man
And the spirit in him born.
Life and love and strength and action
In their hearts and blood shall beat,
And their hopes shall be both heaven
And the earth beneath our feet.
Let me now introduce you to a second Jew from Ukraine.
His name was Naftali Herz Imber. He was born in Zolochiv in 1856. It was a city nicknamed “The City of Poets.”
In 1878, he wrote a poem — “Tikvateinu,” “our hope.” These are its words.
Our hope is not yet lost,
The ancient hope,
To return to the land of our fathers;
The city where David encamped.
As long as in his heart within,
A soul of a Jew still yearns,
And onward towards the ends of the east,
His eye still looks towards Zion.
As long as tears from our eyes
Flow like benevolent rain,
And throngs of our countrymen
Still pay homage at the graves of our fathers…
Hear, oh my brothers in the lands of exile,
The voice of one of our visionaries,
Who declares that only with the very last Jew,
Only there is the end of our hope!
In 1882, Imber emigrated to Palestine. There he went to Rishon LeZion, Rehovot, Gedera, and Yesud Hama’ala, and people gathered around, and they heard his poem, and they fell in love with his poem.
Eventually, the lyrics found a melody. Its origin is a musical mystery. Some musicologists can trace it back to a sixteenth century Italian song, which then became a Romanian melody, which then became a Ukrainian melody. Others are sure that the composer either consciously or unconsciously borrowed the melody from Smetana’s Moldau, although you would notice that in true Jewish fashion, what had been a song in a major key became a song in a minor key.
In 1933, “Hatikvah” became the anthem of the Zionist movement in 1933. In 1944, at the entrance to the gas chamber at Auschwitz-Birkenau, a group of Czech Jews spontaneously broke into “Hatikvah.” They continued to sing it, even as Waffen SS guards beat them in their final moments of life.
As Ruth Wisse tells the story in her recent autobiography, it had not always been a slam dunk that “Hatikvah” would become the anthem of the Zionist movement. It had serious competition.
What song was a contender?
Let’s go back to Naftali Herz Imber. His story is tragic. He was what we might call a perpetual ne’er-do-well, a shlepper – a man whom a contemporary described as “a vagabond, a drunkard and a Hebrew poet.”
After he left Palestine, he lived in London, and then migrated to Boston, and then the Lower East Side of New York City. Jewish communal leaders knew that he lived there, in abject poverty, and they tried to help him. But their efforts came to naught, because it was there on the Lower East Side that he died of alcoholism in 1909.
For much of his life, Imber lived without hope. He reserved his hopes for his people, and for the soul of his people, the nefesh Yehudi: “Od lo avdah tikvateinu. Our hope is not yet lost. The hope of two thousand years. To be a free people in our land — the land of Zion and Jerusalem.”
Where did Imber find that phrase od lo avda tikvateinu, “our hope is not yet lost?”
It comes from Ezekiel 37, from that famous passage in which the prophet sees a valley of dry bones. The cadavers say avdah tikvateinu – “our hope is lost.”
Imber deliberately subverted the text. No, our bones are not dried up and no, our hope is not lost. We will be a free people, in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.
Why did “Hatikvah” beat “Tzach’ki”? I do not know for sure, but I will guess.
First, if you recall the lyrics of “Tzach’ki,” you will note that there is nothing particularly Jewish about it. The word Jew or the word Israel does not appear. The song is about believing in man, in humanity, in the human spirit.
But, “Hatikvah” was innately and explicitly Jewish. It was about a people returning to its land – a specific people, the Jewish people. It is about the nefesh Yehudi, the Jewish soul.
As much as I love “Hatikvah,” and as much as my eyes swell with tears when I sing it or hear it, I can understand those who wanted Tchernikovsky’s song, “Tzach’ki.”
Tzach’ki means to laugh. “Laugh at all my dreams, my dearest.” Consider that word “laugh.” There are many meanings to that word “laugh.” You can laugh at a joke, at something that is funny.
But the Hebrew word tzachak has an additional meaning. Tzachak can mean to laugh at something that is funny. But, it can also mean to mock – a derisive laughter. There is a kind of laughter that barely conceals a smirk, a moment of snark.
That is the kind of tzachak that Tchernikowsky was writing about in his poem. It is not that you can laugh at my dreams. It is not as if my dreams are funny. No – you can mock my dreams, and yet my spirit will be victorious.
Even as Jews affirm the centrality of “Hatikvah,” the hope, seventy four years after the creation of the state itself, we continue to fight the forces of tzachak. The forces of those who mock us and our dreams. Even, and especially, in the editorial offices of the Harvard Crimson, which on Yom Ha Shoah of all days, chose to come out in support of BDS.
Perhaps we might resurrect the idea of “Tzach’ki” as a second anthem for the state of Israel — an anthem that proclaims a more universal vision of human longing and striving.
For there are few things as universal as the sense that human beings need freedom; that they need bread, sustenance; that each of us wages a daily battle not to succumb to mockery, and not to worship a golden calf of scorn.