To most Gentiles, Hava Nagila is just a catchy ditty you get to sing along with at a lot of sporting events. But who wrote the words and the music of this staple of Jewish weddings and bar mitzvahs, and what is the cultural significance of the timeless tune?
These are the questions tackled in Hava Nagila: The Movie, a very entertaining and informative documentary directed by Roberta Grossman. The film features performances of the festive folksong by everyone from Connie Francis to Danny Kaye to Harry Belafonte to Chubby Checker. Also included are humorous renditions by comedians Allan Sherman and Jo Anne Worley and rock icon Bob Dylan.
But first, considerable attention is devoted to Hava Nagila’s derivation. Composed in Jerusalem in the early 20th Century, there is debate to this day whether the lyrics, ostensibly inspired by Psalm 118 Verse 24 of the Hebrew Bible, were written by choir director Abraham Zevi Idelsohn or by his 12 year-old prot g , Moshe Nathanson. At least there is no dispute about the melody, which can readily be traced from Palestine back to the Balkans.
Of far more consequence than the question of authorship is what Hava Nagila has meant to different generations of Jews. Initially, its upbeat message marked a distinct departure from the general tenor of their folk music, which had mostly been nostalgic and sad.
After World War II, the relatively-euphoric Hava Nagila spearheaded a virtual cultural reboot that was sorely needed in the wake of The Holocaust. Thus, for the postwar survivors, it came to represent the existence and resurrection of the Jewish people.
However, the picture points out that Hava Nagila lost some of its luster with the one step removed Baby Boomers who came to see the song less as a visceral reclamation of their roots than as a nostalgic reminder of an imagined past. And its being lampooned on TV shows like Laugh-In, The Simpsons and Curb Your Enthusiasm as well as on countless Youtube clips has left sage Jewish elders of today wondering whether the song still has a soul or if it has been reduced to a symbol of assimilation into the American mainstream.
Regardless, this once-sacred anthem seems destined to be forever revered as a song that, at a critical moment in Jewish history, provided joy in the face of loss and hope in the face of fear. Everything you ever wanted to know about Hava Nagila but were afraid to ask except, “What’s the deal with the ritual of raising a chair in the air like you don’t care?”