February 27, 2013

Charlotte Jewish Film Festival kicks off with 'Hava Nagila'

The song may be a touchstone to the past, but it’s ubiquitous - in the U.S. and everywhere.

“Hava Nagila.” It’s the song that rings true to the Jew, brings joy to the goy, makes a shiksa wanna shake and sends an Israeli girl into a swirl.

It’s the melody made most famous in America by a black man raised in Jamaica: Your parents or grandparents probably had a copy of Harry Belafonte’s 1959 live album from Carnegie Hall. It has been recorded in styles from surf-rock to rhumba. (“Havana Gila?”)

Play five notes, and many people over 35 can hum the rest, even if they’re as Jewish as fried okra. But why? How did this unofficial Jewish anthem become ubiquitous?

That’s what director Roberta Grossman asked as she set out to make a documentary about the tune. The answers are in “Hava Nagila,” which opens the ninth Charlotte Jewish Film Festival Saturday. (She’ll speak afterward.)

“ ‘Hava’ is the hero of the film,” she says. “It starts out in Eastern Europe, makes its way through Palestine, emigrates to America, makes it big in America and assimilates, the way Jews did. Does it lose its soul? The movie becomes a meditation on American Jewish identity, with ‘Hava’ as a portal to 200 years of Jewish culture.”

Or maybe a thousand years, who knows? The origins of the music have been lost in the fog of unwritten history. It began as a nigun, a religious song – one Hasidic group still uses it that way – though competing lyricists claimed to have written the words in the 20th century. (We hear from descendants of both families in the film. Grossman doesn’t judge.)

Those lyrics could hardly be simpler. They translate this way: “Let’s rejoice and be happy. Let’s sing and be happy. Awake, brothers, with a happy heart.” Sounds like Bobby McFerrin Lite, but with Jews, nothing’s ever that simple.

The song began in Ukraine and gained currency in the 19th century, when Jews were being mistreated by the tsars of Russia and emigrating to the West. (See “Fiddler on the Roof.”)

Grossman’s grandparents also came to America from Ukraine, where they had lived in the area called the Pale of Settlement: Jews were permitted to live there, though not outside it, by Russian authorities. Her parents traveled to Los Angeles, married and moved to the suburbs, where Grossman and her sister were born.

“So the movie ended up being a sort of autobiography of my own identity,” she says. “I grew up in a Jewish-identified but religiously assimilated household in L.A. You’d hear the first three notes of ‘Hava Nagila,’ and everyone would be on their feet, holding hands and happy. Those were the moments I felt extremely Jewish.”

The song also assimilated so successfully that it could be spoofed by comedians, revamped by non-Jewish artists, even turned into a joke on the 1960s TV show “Laugh-In.” (“Hava nagila! Have two nagila! Have three nagila! They’re pretty small.”)

Says Goodman, “Someone told me a great story that’s not in the film. He was a musician living in Israel in the 1970s or ’80s, and he was asked to play something to make Jews emigrating from the Soviet Union feel comfortable when they landed. The only Jewish song they knew was ‘Hava,’ so he played it over and over.

“When everyone is lost, it remains a touchstone to the past. A daughter marries a non-Jewish man, and the only Jewish thing at the ceremony is a playing of ‘Hava Nagila.’ If you can step through the layers, you can find your way back.”

So what’s the future for “Hava Nagila”? Have Jews abandoned it to the world at large?

“Oh, I think it’s still an anthem,” she says. “When the Thai drag queen in the film performs ‘Hava,’ he may not know the meaning of it, but I do. And I remember holding hands with my grandmas.

“(Music critic) Josh Kun told me he had a professor who said, ‘The Jews are sort of like tofu. You can put any kind of sauce or spices on it and change the flavor, but it still remains tofu.’ I think that’s true of ‘Hava,’ even when it sounds very different.”

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