Yichus – those family ties – is nothing to be sneezed at. I am tickled to learn
that I am related by marriage to the Sadigora Hasidim and, through them, to the
most enduring song in modern Jewish history: Hava Nagilah.
grin or groan when you hear it, we all know Hava Nagilah – the melody, at least.
The words have tended to stump the average Jew, but we still jump up from the
simha table to dance when Hava Nagilah starts.
In the US, at least, it
just wouldn’t be a Jewish simha without schnapps and this song.
imagine the spectrum, the company we keep, among all who have sung it.
grandma Sadye sang it at simhot in her community. Harry Belafonte sang
Carnegie Hall in New York in 1959, and an adoring public took this
and adopted it as an American pop crossover. My grandmother was in both
excellent and dubious company: In addition to the expected Jewish
song has been sung by the American country pop singer Glen Campbell and
Dylan. It has been played with a California surfer beat, by the Boston
Orchestra, and there is a Bollywood version. And decades ago, it hit the
Jewish-Latin craze (Bongos and Bagels) in the US – not as “Hava Nagilah”
From its Sadigora origins in Galicia, here is a song
that is so eternal, so widely embraced, that it is a kind of national
Jewishness, but also enjoyed far beyond the borders of the Jewish world,
according to Roberta Grossman, an award-winning documentary filmmaker
GROSSMAN, WHO recently directed Blessed
is the Match: The Life
and Death of Hannah Senesh
, is now working on a film called Hava Nagilah: What
She calls it a “documentary romp through a great Jewish
standard,” a rare
pop cultural phenomenon.
Grossman’s film-in-progress intersperses the
views of historians, musicologists and serious musicians/ entertainers
impromptu folks-inthe- deli renditions of the song and more serious
versions by, say, Asians.
HAVA NAGILAH – LET US rejoice and be
The song kept morphing. Using music and interviews, Grossman
brilliantly examines how Hava Nagilah provides a window into 100 years
history and culture – how it changes from a spiritual melody chanted and
Hasidim to get closer to God, to a Zionist song with words added to
the Balfour Declaration; how it loses that Zionist connection, but
staple of Jewish lifecycle events.
(There is some dispute over who wrote
the words to Hava Nagilah, but that does not detract from the song’s
success as a touchstone of Jewish culture and history, as well as its
outside the Jewish world.) “I think it is a great example of a song that
off being something very specific about tradition and ritual and
quickly was transformed into a modern creation,” Josh Kun of the
Southern California says in the film.
“It becomes this pop song that is
stripped of its religious meanings, stripped of its political meaning
becomes a kind of happy singalong,” he said. “Yes, it’s Jewish, but it
great melody and great lyrics that anyone can sing and be happy to.”
BEGAN as a Sadigora niggun. It would be wonderful to learn from the
what it signified in their Galician society. Could they ever imagine
journey and embrace of their tune? Is there any other piece of Jewish
has the broad communal recognition and the power to keep “even the most
assimilated Jew connected to the tribal past”? Grossman asked.
course, like any cultural phenomenon, it was fodder for satire and
Hava Nagilah had its moment on Laugh-In
an immensely popular American TV
variety show that began in the late 1960s, and relied heavily on gags,
clad go-go dancers and sexually suggestive repartee. Jo Anne Worley, a
comedian, appeared on stage in one episode and began to sing: “Hava
Have two nagilah. Have three nagilah; they’re pretty small.”
She was very
funny, but she was wrong. There is nothing small about Hava Nagilah. It
multitudes.Grossman’s website, with a clip from
“Hava Nagila, What Is
It?”, is havanagilamovie.com.
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