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FILM Review: ‘Hava Nagila’ serenades Jewish celebratory anthem

By Michael Fox

hava nagilaThe shtetl Jews of Sadagora in the Ukraine didn’t know from platinum.
They could never have imagined that a wordless little melody, or nigun, that they created — inspired by Hasidism’s joyful attitude to faith and prayer — would travel around the world, selling millions of records and becoming a standard at bar mitzvah and wedding receptions.
Or dreaded cliché, for scholars and musicians dismayed that “Hava Nagila” has defined Jewish music for generations of Diaspora Jews.
This difference of opinion regarding the ubiquitous song is one of many small revelations in “Hava Nagila (The Movie),” Roberta Grossman’s affectionate, bemused slice of cultural archaeology. The documentary screens in the Mandell JCC Hartford Jewish Film Festival.
A breezy mix of pop culture dumpster diving, assimilation history and insightful commentary by a wide-ranging chorus of good-natured experts, “Hava Nagila (The Movie)” is a certified crowd-pleaser. For all its entertainment value, though, the film lacks
the gravitas or poignancy to make it stick with the viewer after the lights come up.
“Hava Nagila (The Movie)”’s lightweight vibe might also have something to do with Grossman’s necessary emphasis on American Jewish life in the second half of the 20th century. However, that is the most familiar and least novel time and place for the film’s primary audience, and invites easy laughs and parody as much as serious socioeconomic analysis.
Grossman was intrigued by “Hava Nagila”’s unknown roots as well as its unlikely and unexpected importance in the careers of Caribbean-American Harry Belafonte, Italian-American Connie Francis and (to a lesser degree) country music star Glen Campbell.
But it turns out that the detective work tracing the tune to the Ukraine—and the words to Palestine—was completed a while ago.
Completed but not resolved, for there are competing claims among their contemporary descendants over who wrote the lyrics: Turn-of the-20th-century cantor, musician and pioneering Hebrew lyricist A. Z. Idelsohn, or his then-12-year-old student, Moshe Nathanson (who grew up to be an important composer and cantor himself).
There’s something very Jewish about this spat over credit (and royalties, perhaps), underscored by showing the principal family members around their respective tables. The domestic settings give the interviews a whiff of family mythology rather than
objective fact.
The eventual popularity of “Hava Nagila” in America corresponds with the move of Jews to the suburbs, the construction of large synagogues that served as community centers, and the elevation of the bar mitzvah into a peer-pressure spectacle.
The past, unhappily associated with the old country and the Holocaust, was jettisoned with the establishment of the state of Israel and its new, strong Jews. Israeli songs and dances, free of any melancholy, Eastern European “taint,” were adopted with pride by American Jews. “Hava Nagila” instantly won fans with its singsong melody and pulse-quickening pace, and became not just a favorite Hebrew song but the only one.
“Hava Nagila”’s accessibility and rhythm also made it attractive to non-Jewish audiences, allowing Belafonte and Francis’ versions to become crossover hits. The public understood and accepted that the lyrics were in Hebrew (the perception of Israel was substantially different in the 1950s and ‘60s, remember), but they no longer carry any ethnic or cultural association, as the film illustrates with YouTube clips of Thai and Chinese performances. (Kitsch is the international language.)
One doesn’t even have to look that far afield. When organists play “Hava Nagila” at the ballpark, does anyone associate it with Jewish life?
For that matter, when the song is played at a wedding or bar mitzvah, does anyone know what the words mean? Or is it enough, as the tongue-in-cheek closing credits sequence of “Hava Nagila (The Movie)” suggests, that it has a good beat and you can dance to it?

“Hava Nagila: The Movie” will be screened at the Mandell JCC Hartford Jewish Film Festival Monday, April 15 at 7 p.m. at the JCC. “Hava Nagila” is preceded by a screening of “B-Boy,” the story of “E-Break,” a 13-year old break dancer from Fairfield, CT who competes across the country during his bar mitzvah year.
For a Festival brochure, and more information on these films and the JCC’s “Hava” photo display, visit

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