Because of a shared experience of exile with its attendant loss and displacement, many Cubans feel a special kinship with the Jewish people and have a special sympathy for their love of their ancestral land. In the wake of the recent horrors perpetrated against Israel and the appalling displays in support of them worldwide, I wanted to find some way to express solidarity, and I found it in 19th century Italian music, of all places.
What could be called Verdi’s Jewish opera, Nabucco, premiered in 1842 and was his first great success. Unusually, the opera’s most famous number or greatest hit, rather than an individual aria, has always been its Hebrew Chorus (best known by its opening words, Va pensiero), which is often encored in live performances. In it, the exiled Jews in Babylon long for their homeland and ask for divine help to bear their sorrows. The translated lyrics are below:
Go, thoughts, on golden wings;
Go, settle upon the slopes and hills,
where warm and soft and fragrant are
the sweet breezes of our native land!
Greet the banks of the Jordan,
the towers of Zion …
Oh my country so beautiful and lost!
Oh memory so dear and fatal!
Golden harp of the prophets of old,
why do you hang silent from the willows?
Rekindle the memories within our hearts,
tell us about the times gone by!
Or as was done by Solomon,
sound out in raw lament;
or let the Lord inspire a concert
that instills virtue in our suffering.
The performance below is from the Met, New York, 2001, conducted by James Levine, directed by Elijah Moshinsky: