Notable as one of the few Hebrew-language songs to become widely performed in the United States, “Hava Nagila” is a bouncy tune that inevitably turns up at bar mitzvahs and traditional Jewish wedding ceremonies. Yet the song has a fairly complex history that mirrors the modern Jewish experience.
Roberta Grossman’s invigorating documentary traces the roots of “Hava Nagila” to a Ukrainian synagogue of the late 19th century, where the piece began as a wordless chant. The tune traveled with the Jewish Diaspora to Palestine in the early 20th century, where it gained its Hebrew lyrics. (The authorship of the lyrics is disputed, and the film enables the heirs of the rival lyricists to press their respective claims.) By the time that Israel was created in 1948, “Hava Nagila” was almost always performed by dancing the hora.
Many Americans came to learn the song through Harry Belafonte, who included it in his 1950s concert engagements as part of his global folk music presentations. It was later the subject of some bizarre riffs, ranging from Bob Dylan’s “Talkin’ Hava Negiliah Blues” to Allan Sherman’s parody “Harvey and Sheila” to Lena Horne’s civil rights anthem “Now.” Some of the song’s more unlikely devotees, including Connie Francis (in a very rare interview) and Glen Campbell (who included it as the B-side of his “True Grit” hit single) talk lovingly of the tune. Hey, even Elvis sang it!
Grossman tries to maintain a balance between flashes of bubbly humor (most notably with an unlikely clip of a Bollywood musical number based on the song) and solemnity (during the 1940s, the Jews of Palestine used the song as an anthem of perseverance when the fate of their European brethren became known). The film might have been stronger with more conservative editing – the 73-minute running time helps get it into theaters, but the pacing is often a bit too leisurely and the material could have easily been covered in less than an hour.
Still, Grossman deserves kudos for this unique nonfiction celebration of a timeless musical favorite. And as I never get to say in my Episcopalian church services: Mazel Tov!