Grave of Samuel Cohen, composer of Hatikvah is restored
Shmuel Cohen, or Sam Cohen to us less Yiddish aware, is a relatively common Jewish name. There are 708 Sam Cohens in just California and New York alone. There is only one Shmuel Cohen who should be honored as “The Shmuel Cohen.”
Few ever heard of him.
Shmuel Cohen died November 1940 in Rishon LeZion. He was not a wealthy man, certainly not a famous man. He was buried very modestly, without any fanfare.
Shmuel Cohen was the musical composer of the Hatikvah. Purists argue that he was not the composer. They argue that Cohen was simply the adapter, the borrower, of music such as Smetena’s “The Moldau” that had originated in his pre-Aliyah home in Romania.
Whether he wrote the music originally or simply adapted it is not the issue. Without Cohen, the sound of Hatikvah that has become synonymous with the poetic expression of its words written by Naphtali Imber about 1880 would not have become the married soul of the Jewish National Anthem beloved world wide.
Naphtali Imber was a Jewish poet of considerable ability and regard. He died in New York in 1909. He was a penniless alcoholic whom Theodor Herzl personally despised. For Herzl, Imber was an economic leech, a moral reprobate who maintained an adulterous affair with his Christian Zionist benefactor’s wife, Alice Oliphant. Imber was employed as a translator and aide by Oliphant in 1883 Haifa.
Herzl considered Imber not the kind of person who should be in any way linked to his Zionist movement.
But, Imber was intimately linked to Zionism, its growth, acceptance, and future.
Living in Rishon LeZion, about 1886-7, after the Oliphants left Palestine, Imber continued his poetic endeavors. One poem in particular, he titled Tikvatenu, “Our Hope.” It struck a responsive chord with the early pioneers who came to Palestine to reclaim and restore to life the ancient Jewish land of Israel. The poem was about the effort of return, the yearning of 2,000 years of homelessness to restore the Jewish home in Israel. It defined, inspired and gave the struggling farmers a heroic, poetic, dimension of meaning.
One of the listeners was a young man, Shmuel Cohen, recently emigrated from Romania. Cohen was a respected amateur violinist. He understood music. His natural ear married Imber’s words to music from his native land. Imber’s words were no longer just words, they sang from the heart.
Cohen’s music and Imber’s words touched something deep within the Jewish experience. The Hatikvah spoke to them even if few outside of the Hebrew speaking world knew more than a line or two of the words or understood any of it. The music and the feeling stuck wherever Jews were found.
1897 at the First Zionist Congress, the Hatikvah opened the ceremonies. 22 years later, the British Mandate administrators were already trying to ban the Hatikvah from being played in Mandate Palestine. At the 18th Zionist Congress in 1933, the Hatikvah was officially adopted as the Zionist National anthem.
Six years later, the Dark Night of the Holocaust closed in and there was no hope… there was Hope. Though the doors of death were before them, astonished Nazis heard the Jews singing the Hatikvah before the crematorium entrance.
Jewish women, barely alive, liberated from Bergen Belsen by the British, assembled to sing the Hatikvah in one of the most incredible recordings of the Holocaust. As the S.S. Exodus limped into Haifa Harbor after having been attacked by British Mandate Naval forces in international waters, the survivors crowded the damaged decks to sing the Hatikvah.
Most of the Jews, like today, did not know the words to the Hatikvah or understand the incomprehensible Hebrew. What they all knew was Cohen’s music, and if they could not sing the words, their bodies and souls hummed the sounds of Hope.
Not until 2004 did the Knesset of Israel officially adopt the Hatikvah, only with shortened modified lyrics from Imber’s original nine stanza poem, as the National Anthem of the Modern State of Israel. Imber’s words were changed. Cohen’s music was exactly as it had been written over 115 years earlier.
Cohen’s musical contribution to Jewish cultural identity helped define who a Jew was. No Jew can hear the sound of the Hatikvah and not feel a pang.
January 2020, the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation asked a simple question. Where was Cohen buried? Israel’s surrounding Arab states had their own composers for their National Anthems. They honored their resting places with honor and respect.
JASHP wondered how did Israel and the Jewish people honor Cohen?
Just locating his gravesite became a challenge. Imber, when he died in 1909 in New York, was famous. His funeral had 25,000 people who mourned his passing. In 1953, his remains were reinterred in Jerusalem’s Har Ha’Menuchot Cemetery with honor.
When Cohen died in 1940, no large crowd followed his bier. He was a poor man largely unknown and unrecognized by Jewry.
Cohen and his wife Mina’s graves were located in the Old Rishon LeZion cemetery. Finding their gravesites was a shock of disgust and shame. The graves were broken, disintegrating. They were in immediate danger of complete collapse. No one had cared to honor, remember or give any kavod to the musical composer of the Jewish National Anthem.
JASHP knew, from long difficult experience, there was no point in asking for funds from Israel. Cohen needed immediate attention, not five years from now after a long battle for money. JASHP decided to restore and preserve the Cohens’ graves.
After nine months of difficult starts and stops, administrative delays and a mandated requirement that the graves could only be restored to what they looked like in 1940, the restoration was completed November 3, 2020.
JASHP’s cost ballooned more than 400% over the original estimates. The project, as small as it was, was not a question of cost. The cost of not doing what should have been done was and is enormous.
If Israel did not restore Cohen’s resting place with honor and respect, those of us in the Galut would.
Cohen’s grave is very difficult to find in the Old Rishon Cemetery. An additional element was needed to bring awareness and make it easier to locate the gravesite for those who wished to come and place a small stone of remembrance and respect.
JASHP, working with noted Israeli sculptor Sam Philipe, wanted to place at the gravesite a sculpture Philipe entitled after the historical meaning of the Hatikvah, the Flame of the Hatikvah, the Flame of Hope. Mounted on a low pole, a flame stood above the grave. Inside the flame emerged the Star of David with a musical clef welded to it.
More negotiations were frustratingly entered into but the need was acknowledged by the local authorities. The permission was given.
The Cohens’ resting places were preserved with dignity. Doing the right thing is doing the right thing.
If Israel truly wishes to respect two individuals outsized contributions to Israel and all Jews, Israel can choose to do so.
Israel should rebury Cohen and Imber on Mt. Herzl in the plot for Zionist leaders.
Jerry Klinger is the President of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation. www.JASHP.org
Republished from San Diego Jewish World