Author Archives: Dr. James Loeffler

Dr. James Loeffler

About Dr. James Loeffler

Dr. James Loeffler is Assistant Professor of History and Jewish Studies at the University of Virginia and author of The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire (Yale U. Press, 2010).


In 1897, at the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, the delegates joined in a rousing rendition of,the song "Hatikvah."The beloved Zionist hymn would come to be knownamong generations of Jews around the world as the Jewish national anthem. Yet it was not until 2004 that the Israeli government officially designated "Hatikvah" as the country’s national anthem. Between these two facts lies the curious tale of one of the most important songs in modern Jewish history.

The present-day version of "Hatikvah" is a two-stanza song, whose words speak of the historic yearning of Jews for a return to the ancient national home in the Land of Israel:

Kol od baleivav penimah
Nefesh yehudi homiyah,
Ulfa’atey mizrah kadimah,
Ayin letsiyon tsofiyah;

Od lo avdah tikvateinu,
Hatikvah bat shenot al payim,
Lihyot am hofshi be’artzeinu,
Eretz tziyon veyerushalayim.

As long as Jewish spirit
Yearns deep in the heart,
With eyes turned East,
Looking towards Zion.

Our hope is not yet lost,
The hope of two millennia,
To be a free people in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.

From a Poem to a Song

"Hatikvah" began its life as a nine-stanza Hebrew poem entitled “Tikvatenu” (“Our Hope”).Its author was a colorful 19th-century Hebrew poet, Naftali Hertz Imber (1856-1909), who hailed from Złoczów, a town in Austro-Hungarian Galicia. Inspired by the Hibbat Zion movement of early Zionism, Imber originally wrote the poem in 1878 while living in Jassy (Yash), Romania.

As a young man, Imber wandered Eastern Europe for several years before settling in Ottoman Palestine in 1882. There he worked as personal secretary and Hebrew tutor to Sir Laurence Oliphant (1829-1888), an eccentric British author, politician, world traveler, and Christian Zionist. In the 1880s, Oliphant’s mystical religious beliefs inspired him to launch various philanthropic efforts to encourage Jewish resettlement in the historic Land of Israel. Imber first published “Tikvatenu” in an 1886 collection of his poetry, Barkai, (Morning Star), issued in Jerusalem and dedicated to Oliphant.

The Nigun

“There are gates in heaven that cannot be opened except by melody and song.”

Attributed to Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady, founder of ChabadMusical notes without words.

From the time of its emergence in the 18th century, the Hasidic movement turned to music and dance as powerful forms of Jewish religious expression. One result was the Hasidic nigun (Hebrew for “melody”; plural nigunim), a new genre of Jewish vocal music. Often described as a mystical musical prayer or a spiritual language beyond words, the Hasidic nigun is a fundamental part of all Ashkenazic culture and is, in the words of one Hasidic master, “the pen of the soul.” 

Features and Style

Musically speaking, Hasidic nigunim vary enormously in style, form, and feeling. Some are slow and meditative, others fast and jubilant. Nevertheless, they generally share certain basic features: they are songs formed of multiple melodic phrases, typically sung without instrumental accompaniment and without words. This last feature, while not found in every Hasidic nigun, is one of the genre’s most distinguishing characteristics. In place of words, repeated “nonsense” syllables (such as bam-bam-bam and doi-doi-doi) are used. Nigunim are also performed in a distinctive expressive vocal style with dramatic inflections similar to cantorial music referred to by the Yiddish words krekhts (lit. moan, sigh, or sob) and kneytsh (lit. pinch).

The unique form and features of Hasidic nigunim reflect the creative and radical nature of Hasidic theology. To be sure, the connection between music and Jewish prayer was not a wholly Hasidic invention. In fact, music had always played a central role in Jewish religious life, a fact to which both ancient biblical texts such as the Book of Psalms and medieval liturgical songs (piyyutim) testify.

jewish music quizLikewise, medieval Jewish mystics developed complex ideas about the theological and even magical power of music in the universe. However the rabbis took a decidedly cautious, sometimes even negative attitude towards music. Out of concerns about piety and the role of music in gentile religious and cultural traditions, they generally discouraged the use of instrumental music in the synagogue and banned it altogether on the Sabbath and holidays. Most crucially, they insisted that text mattered more than melody. Thus in traditional liturgy and medieval religious poetry, individual melodies were frequently changed but the Hebrew and Aramaic texts were considered sacred and unalterable.

Hava Nagila’s Long, Strange Trip

If there is one Jewish song known by Jews and non-Jews alike, it is undoubtedly Hava Nagila. From its obscure origins in early twentieth-century Palestine, the song has gone on to become a perennial favorite at weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, and Jewish–and non-Jewish–cultural events around the world. With its short lyrics and simple yet distinctive melody, Hava Nagila has been recorded hundreds of times by musicians ranging from Neil Diamond, the Barry Sisters, and Harry Belafonte to the contemporary pop singer Ben Folds and the Serbian Gypsy brass band legend Boban Marcovic. Yet for all of its widespread popularity, few know the history of this global Jewish hit.

hava nagila danceEastern European Origins

Like many modern Israeli and popular Jewish songs, Hava Nagila began its life as a Hasidic melody in Eastern Europe. There the tune was sung as a nigun (wordless melody) among the Sadigorer Hasidim, who took their name from the small town of Sadigora in Bukovina (present-day Ukraine), where the Rizhiner Rebbe, Reb Yisroel Friedman (1798-1850) had settled from Russia and established his court in 1845.

At some point around the turn of the last century, a group of Sadigorer Hasidim emigrated to Jerusalem and brought the nigun with them. There the melody might have remained in the cloistered world of Jerusalem’s Hasidic communities if not for one man, Avraham Zvi Idelsohn–the father of Jewish musicology.

Idelsohn was born in 1882 in Foelixburg (Filzburg), a small town in the Courland province of Tsarist Russia (present-day Latvia). He trained as a cantor in Russia and studied classical music in conservatories in Berlin and Leipzig before settling in Jerusalem sometime after 1905. He soon became active as a musician, music teacher, and scholar in the Jewish community there.Israeli culture quiz

As a passionate Zionist, Idelsohn sought to collect and preserve the folk music of Jewish communities from around the world, using a phonograph to record the traditional melodies of Yemenite, Russian, German, Moroccan, and other communities he encountered in Jerusalem. At the same time, he sought to pioneer a new style of modern national music that would unify the Jewish people as they returned to their historic homeland in Palestine. To that end, he arranged and composed many new Hebrew-language songs based on traditional melodies. These modern songs with ancient roots quickly became popular as new Hebrew folk songs, sung in kibbutzim, moshavot, and printed in songbooks in the Jewish yishuv and beyond. Among them was Hava Nagila.