New Orleans concert to explore complex history of Hatikvah

The Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans will present “Hatikvah: Hope Reborn,” a multimedia musical event exploring the origins of Israel’s national anthem. Astrith Baltsan will be the guest artist for the Feb. 24 performance.

Baltsan is an Israeli concert pianist known for her interpretations of the works of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann and Brahms, as well as for contemporary music. A Tel Aviv native, she graduated from Tel Aviv University and completed her doctorate in piano performance at the Manhattan School of Music.

Her “Classics in Personal View” became the largest classical series in Israel. Her research into the origins of Hatikvah led to a book, “Hatikvah – Past, Present, Future,” and a CD, which were deemed a Unique Achievement in Israel’s Cultural Life. In an interview over a decade ago, Baltsan said “Peel off the layers and you will see that not only is there an endless history, there is also a yearning for an eternal future” in the story of Hatikvah.

Robert French, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, said that over the years, he has brought Baltsan to the United States for several events, and even after seeing her perform multiple times, the concert remains moving and meaningful every time.

The program includes music by Mozart, Chopin and Smetana, Jewish and Israeli folk, pop and rock music, archival recordings, and recent footage of Holocaust survivors and October 7 survivors singing Hatikvah.

The poem and the melody

The words come from a nine-stanza poem written by Naftali Herz Imber, who was born in what is now Ukraine in 1856. He eventually moved to Palestine, but had numerous personal issues related to alcoholism and died penniless in New York at age 53. In 1953, he was reinterred in Jerusalem.

Theodore Herzl, though, hated how Hatikvah was embraced by fellow Zionists, because of Imber’s reputation as a drunk. Herzl even held contests for a different anthem, but no good entries were received. Other objections over the years have included Hatikvah’s focus on the diaspora instead of Israel itself, or on the basis of not speaking to the experience of non-Jewish Israelis, or even non-European Jews.

Many people think the tune for Hatikvah came from “Die Moldau,” by Czech composer Bedrich Smetana in 1874, but Baltsan traced it to a 600-year-old Sephardic melody for the prayer for dew. After the Inquisition, the melody made its way around Europe, becoming the basis for a popular love song in Italy, and a Roma folk song, “Cart and Oxen.”

It was that latter piece that Shmuel Cohen, an immigrant to Palestine from Romania, used as the melody to the poem, Hatikvah.

The Smetana part of the story is but one of the many fascinating twists and turns for Hatikvah. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, studying in Italy, came upon the Italian folk tune and included it in one of his compositions. Smetana then heard Mozart’s version in Prague and included it in “My Country,” a work about nationalist uprisings.

When the British banned the broadcast of Hatikvah in Palestine before Israel was established, the Jewish radio station instead played Smetana’s version, because the British could not ban a classical work.

Hatikvah did not become Israel’s official anthem until 2004, and the deciding vote came from a Druze member of the Knesset whose grandfather had worked with Imber.

The performance will be on Feb. 24 at 7:30 p.m. at the Louis J. Roussel Performance Hall at Loyola University. Tickets are on sale through the Federation website, and free parking will be available at the Loyola University garage. Tickets are $18, $10 for JNOLA members and $5 for students.

“Hatikvah: Hope Reborn” is presented by Henry M. Lambert and R. Carey Bond. The concert is also sponsored by Susan and Howard Green, the Jewish Endowment Foundation of Louisiana, William and Jane Sizeler, and Eddie Soll and Vicky Glover, and is made possible in partnership with the National Council of Jewish Women: Greater New Orleans Section, Shir Chadash Conservative Congregation, Temple Sinai and Tulane Hillel.