By Richard Friedman
Special to the Birmingham Times
Wanda Howard Battle, a well-known African-American Christian vocalist and church tour leader will take center stage April 14 when the Israeli embassy in Washington hosts a virtual celebration for Israel’s 73rd Independence Day.
Battle, a Montgomery powerhouse whose parents were involved in the Civil Rights Movement, was invited to sing “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem, after meeting Israel’s ambassador to the US, Gilad Erdan, during his recent trip to Montgomery. She also will sing America’s national anthem.
“I was blessed to guide Ambassador Erdan and his delegation of about 12 people a few weeks ago at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church,” said Battle who is known for her spiritually and musically invigorating tours of the historic church where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached.
“We had an amazing time with the ambassador reciting an excerpt from Dr. King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech and singing ‘This Little Light of Mine’ and ‘Oh Freedom.’”
The singer-tour leader’s warmth, charisma and talent made an impression on the ambassador because about a week later she was invited to sing as part of the Embassy’s celebration.
“I told the event coordinator that the invitation to sing ‘Hatikvah’ was like asking a white person to sing the Black national anthem. She replied,’Ms. Wanda, in us considering the work that you do and your message for people around the world to embrace one another’s diversity, we thought it was very appropriate to ask you.”
Battle leaped at the opportunity. “My heart knew it was appropriate and the right time. I said ‘Yes, I am honored.’” The title of the song, “Hatikvah,” which is Hebrew, means “The Hope.”
This touched Battle deeply.
This Alabama singer knows the importance of hope.
She was a young girl during the Civil Rights era and her parents served as role models for her. As she came of age her odyssey took her elsewhere. She eventually returned to Montgomery making her mark and becoming well-known.
In a 2019 profile on her journey, singing and church tours, Montgomery Advertiser reporter Safiya Charle captured Battle’s uniqueness:
“Wanda Battle stands as tall as a giant before the visitors seated in the sanctuary of Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. Battle has just explained that the ceiling above the pulpit where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached fiery sermons that would ignite Montgomery’s Black gentry and fuel the Civil Rights Movement is made of tin embossed tiles. The detail seems slight, until Battle bursts into operatic song, her voice doing somersaults through the aisles.”
She recorded the national anthem at Montgomery’s Temple Beth Or synagogue standing in front of the ark which houses the Temple’s Torah schools.
Recording the Israeli national anthem in a synagogue was emotional for Battle. Though she had been to the synagogue, she had never sung there. “When asked where I would want to videotape this presentation, I knew the synagogue was the right place.”
Her connection to the ambassador and invitation to sing have heighted her appreciation for the similarities between the struggles that Jews and African-Americans have endured. “We share a story of oppression and suppression. We each have struggled for acceptance and being appreciated for who we are.”
For this Montgomery vocalist, Israel’s national anthem also communicates a universal message: “For 73 years, Israel has been recognized as an independent nation. The message is that there always is hope.”
Animated by a magnetic personality and sustained by an endless fountain of love, Battle devotes her life to connecting with people of all faiths and backgrounds, believing that all of us are beautiful threads in humanity’s tapestry.
Tzlil McDonald, executive director of Montgomery’s Jewish Federation, calls Battle “a gem of Montgomery.”
McDonald feels that because of Montgomery’s rich Civil Rights history and landmarks, that strong ties between the Black and Jewish communities and an understanding of their respective struggles is important for both groups.
Being Israeli, McDonald also helped Battle with her Hebrew. “The first time she sang I was very impressed. It was very powerful to hear her sing ‘Hatikvah.’ She studied the words so she could feel the music. It was very important to her to send the message of hope, especially after meeting the ambassador.”
The words to “Hatikvah” were written in 1886 by poet Naphtali Herz Imber — 62 years before Israel’s rebirth as a modern Jewish state. Wrote Imber, “Our hope is not yet lost, It is two thousand years old, To be a free people in our land, The land of Zion and Jerusalem.”
As Israel’s Independence Day approached, Battle said she never could have imagined being asked to sing as part of the celebration.
“There are many vocalists more accomplished and better-known than me,” she said as tears of joy began flowing from her eyes.
“Being asked leads me to believe that God has called me for this moment. I intend to use it to honor Israel and the Jewish people and spread the message of love for all humanity — and especially the message of hope.”
(The Israel Independence Day event will stream on the Embassy’s Facebook page, Twitter and YouTube, Wednesday, April 14, 2021 at 7 pm Central Daylight Time. For more information go to https://embassies.gov.il/washington/NewsAndEvents/Pages/Yom-Ha’atzmaut-2021–IsraelAt73.aspx)
(Richard Friedman is associate editor of Southern Jewish Life/Israel InSight magazines.)