An upcoming documentary ‘Hava Nagilah: What is it?’ seeks to explore how this song
has become such a cultural phenomenon.
By MARILYN HENRY
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.Whether you 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.Just imagine the spectrum, the company we keep, among all who have sung it. My grandma Sadye sang it at simhot in her community. Harry Belafonte sang it in Carnegie Hall in New York in 1959, and an adoring public took this Jewish song and adopted it as an American pop crossover. My grandmother was in both excellent and dubious company: In addition to the expected Jewish musicians, the song has been sung by the American country pop singer Glen Campbell and by Bob Dylan. It has been played with a California surfer beat, by the Boston Pops 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” but as “Havana 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 anthem of Jewishness, but also enjoyed far beyond the borders of the Jewish world, according to Roberta Grossman, an award-winning documentary filmmaker from Los Angeles.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 Is It? 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 with some impromptu folks-inthe- deli renditions of the song and more serious choral versions by, say, Asians.AdvertisementHAVA NAGILAH – LET US rejoice and be happy.The song kept morphing. Using music and interviews, Grossman brilliantly examines how Hava Nagilah provides a window into 100 years of Jewish history and culture – how it changes from a spiritual melody chanted and sung by Hasidim to get closer to God, to a Zionist song with words added to celebrate the Balfour Declaration; how it loses that Zionist connection, but remains a 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 amazing success as a touchstone of Jewish culture and history, as well as its popularity outside the Jewish world.) “I think it is a great example of a song that started off being something very specific about tradition and ritual and religion, and quickly was transformed into a modern creation,” Josh Kun of the University of Southern California says in the film.“It becomes this pop song that is stripped of its religious meanings, stripped of its political meaning and just becomes a kind of happy singalong,” he said. “Yes, it’s Jewish, but it is a great melody and great lyrics that anyone can sing and be happy to.”IT BEGAN as a Sadigora niggun. It would be wonderful to learn from the Sadigora what it signified in their Galician society. Could they ever imagine such a journey and embrace of their tune? Is there any other piece of Jewish music that has the broad communal recognition and the power to keep “even the most Reform, assimilated Jew connected to the tribal past”? Grossman asked.And, of course, like any cultural phenomenon, it was fodder for satire and sacrilege. 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, scantily clad go-go dancers and sexually suggestive repartee. Jo Anne Worley, a zaftig comedian, appeared on stage in one episode and began to sing: “Hava Nagilah. 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 speaks multitudes.Grossman’s website, with a clip from “Hava Nagila, What Is It?”, is havanagilamovie.com.