Have a Hava Nagila

The Movie on the Famous Melody

Dec. 11, 2013
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In the middle of a bar mitzvah or a wedding reception, as the mood sags and guests begin to contemplate making their excuses, the band strikes up a familiar melody. Suddenly the dance floor fills with partygoers doing the circular hora. Spirits soar. And yet, that melody, “Hava Nagila,” has been so over exposed and run through the pop culture saw mill that what’s left is often a Jewish-American cliché—a thing to be spoofed or avoided.

Some of that spoofing spirit informs the opening scenes of Roberta Grossman’s documentary Hava Nagila (The Movie). Long before the end, however, Grossman learns to respect the power of this remarkable tune as she tracks its journey “from Ukraine to YouTube.” “Hava Nagila” originated among the Hasidim, an Eastern European movement in Judaism that valued music as a pearl above words, a means to unity with God. Like much music from the Balkans through the Near East, the melody marries happiness and melancholy, aspiration and reality, the spiritual with the physical.

Russian-Jewish refugees carried that melody to Palestine by in the early 20th century, where it was discovered by A.Z. Idelsohn, the cantor-songcatcher who provided Zionism with its songbook. “Hava Nagila” became an anthem of nation building. In that light it crossed to the New World after World War II, where it was embraced as a token of Jewish pride.

The story doesn’t end there. After Harry Belafonte discovered the song at a New York hootenanny, it became part of the early 1960s precursor to “world music” and found its way into the repertoire of Chubby Checker, Connie Francis, Lionel Hampton and Dick Dale. In the ‘70s the proponents of klezmer and Jewish cultural revival condemned “Hava Nagila” as an “invasive species” that killed off all other musical manifestations of Jewish culture. And yet, Regina Spektor, raised in the repressive Soviet Union, recalls that the melody was the chief reminder of their family’s heritage.

Lively and filled with engaging interviews and fascinating archival footage, Hava Nagila (The Movie) is addressed to a Jewish audience but is of interest to anyone concerned with how culture is constructed and the many and often contradictory messages a cultural artifact can convey. Hava Nagila (The Movie) is out on DVD.



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