November 13, 2018

Posted June 18, 2013 by Ed Goldberg

Hava Nagila
Director: Roberta Grossman
With: Harry Belafonte, Bob Dylan, Connie Francis, Danny Kaye, etc., and a whole bunch of Jews at weddings and bar mitzvahs.

As a (one-time) yeshiva boy, I have occasionally ruminated on the idea that 5,000-plus years of Jewish culture have been reduced in America to the bagel and Hava Nagila.  The upside of this is that Jews have become comfortable enough in the USA to have joined the mainstream.  I still chuckle when a gentile says, “Oy, what a klutz!”
The song, Hava Nagila, has a rich and somewhat surprising history.  It began as a Hasidic nigun, a wordless tune hummed as a form of prayer.  It began in a town in Ukraine, and wound up being sung almost constantly everywhere from Tel Aviv to Tokyo.
It was fortuitously matched with the Hora, a Jewish circle dance that marks joyous occasions.  When the state of Israel was proclaimed in 1948, residents of the new nation danced and sang all night.
This wonderful, and amusing, film traces this history.  It’s one thing for Italian-American Connie Francis, who grew up with Jews, to know and sing the song, but Glen Campbell?  He had to learn the song to get wedding/bar mitzvah gigs when he moved to Los Angeles.
Harry Belafonte recognized and exploited the folk roots, the left-wing associations (via the labor/socialist Jews in kibbutzim) and the cultural resonance in the song in a world not that long removed from the horrors of Hitler’s Germany.  His explanation of his relationship to the song is enlightening.
And yes, there are “Hava Haters,” so defined in the movie, and parodists like Allen Sherman, who turned the melody to a satirical song about Jewish assimilation.
The most remarkable, if brief, version is Bob Dylan’s deconstruction of the song.  Being a Dylan devotee, I have heard it before, and it evokes in me the same ambivalence that Dylan shows.
And, the words are translated, in case someone asks you what it’s all about.  This is another showing in the NWFC Jewish Film Festival, and I loved it.  It shows Wed., June 19th at 7PM, one time only.