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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

A Joyful Song in Jerusalem after the Misery of World War One: “Let Us Rejoice.”

Filed under: Jerusalem in Historical Context

A Joyful Song in Jerusalem after the Misery of World War One: “Let Us Rejoice.”
Jewish children’s procession back to the Old City after a Lag B’Omer hike to the Tomb of Simon the Just in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in Jerusalem. The American Colony photographers took the picture in April 1918, just a few months after the British liberated the impoverished city. (Library of Congress. Colorized by the author.) The photo will be featured in a longer chapter in Secrets of World War I.

Serialization of “Secrets of World War I in the Holy Land”

In April 1918, the Jewish children in the picture below were recovering from the traumatic World War I years of starvation, locust plagues, and diseases spread by Ottoman soldiers, such as cholera, typhoid, malaria, and more. In addition, the 1918 influenza plague brought by British soldiers would also wreak havoc in the Holy Land.

These children, some orphans and from all sorts of Jewish schools — cheider, ultra-Orthodox, and modern Orthodox – were returning on Nablus Road to their homes in Jerusalem’s Old City after visiting the Tomb of Simon the Just. Were they singing as they marched? If so, what song?

The children were still recovering from their traumas. Aid for rehabilitation, food, and schools poured in for the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael, mainly from American Jewry.

Compare the Jewish children on Nablus Road to the despondent visages and clothing of children in a Red Cross orphanage in Jerusalem in 1918. Some were survivors of the Armenian massacre. Recovery was not easy for them either.

A group of orphans in Jerusalem in 1918
A group of orphans in Jerusalem in 1918. “Their fathers and mothers had died from typhus, dysentery, malaria, and exhaustion.” (Red Cross, Library of Congress).

When the British army entered Jerusalem in 1918, they found 2,700 orphans of all religions wandering the streets.

A Song Lifted the Jewish Community’s Spirit

Today, many people remember the stirring song “Jerusalem of Gold,” which became a prayer and anthem for Jews before and after the 1967 Six-Day War.

In 1918, a music teacher and cantor in Jerusalem, Avraham Zvi Idelsohn, transcribed an old tune (nigun) of the Sadigorer Hasidim (from today’s Ukraine) and composed a song to celebrate the liberation of Jerusalem and the Balfour Declaration in 1917. It was called “Hava Nagila — Let Us Rejoice!”

The song, with phrases from Psalms, caught on among all Jewish residents of Eretz Yisrael, from the ultra-Orthodox to the socialist kibbutzniks. But the music did not stop at the Mediterranean shores. It became an anthem at Jewish celebrations around the world. Its versions included orchestral, Chassidic, rap, klezmer, and rock. It was recorded by stars such as Ray Charles, Drake, Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte, Josephine Baker, various orchestras and choirs, and even played at sporting events such as hockey games, baseball’s seventh-inning-stretch, and Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman’s floor routine in 2012.

Hava nagila, hava nagila Let us rejoice, let us rejoice
Hava nagila ve-nismeha Let us rejoice and be glad
Hava neranena, hava neranena Let us sing, let us sing
Hava neranena ve-nismeha Let us sing and be glad
Uru, uru ahim Awake, awake brothers
Uru ahim be-lev sameah Awake, brothers with a joyful heart

Here is the first recording of Hava Nagila, made in 1922. Ironically, it almost sounds like a dirge today.