Filmmaker Roberta Grossman takes us on a fun and enlightening journey to discover what exactly made this song so ubiquitous.
Once you hear the song “Hava Nagila”—at a wedding or bar/bat mitzvah—that’s it, the tune is stuck in your head for all your days. But why? What is it about this song that makes it so remarkable and infectious? And where did the song originally come from anyway? Filmmaker Roberta Grossman decided to find out, digging through history to figure out the mystery and meaning of the classic standard (literally, it translates to “let us rejoice”). Along the way, we learn the song is far more than a celebratory melody; it’s a symbol of Jewish joy and resilience. Featured interviews include Harry Belafonte, Connie Francis, Glen Campbell, Leonard Nimoy, Regina Spektor, and more, all of whom have had the pleasure of belting out “Hava Nagila.”
Watch the trailer: www.havanagilamovie.com
What was the moment you decided this movie needed to be made?
In 2008, when I was finishing my last film, Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh, which is a sad film, my daughter, who was 10 at the time, begged me, “Mommy, please make a happy film next time!” Although I explained to her that documentary filmmakers are, as a rule, not happy people, I thought there was wisdom in her request. And just a week or two before this conversation, I’d had a thought bubble appear over my head, and it said “Hava Nagila, what is it?” Although Hava had been a very important part of my childhood, growing up in a strongly culturally identified, but religiously assimilated home in Los Angeles, I didn’t know anything about it: What did the words mean? Was the song 100 years old or 1000? Did someone sit down to write it, or did it come down from Sinai? And so began our Hava quest… to figure out the history, mystery, and meaning of the ubiquitous Jewish standard.
In the film, you discuss the controversy about who actually created the song—Israeli musicologist A.Z. Idelsohn or New York cantor Moshe Nathanson. When did the controversy arise, and have you come to a conclusion?
Well, the debate in the film is really not about who created the song, but rather about who wrote the lyrics. We know A.Z. Idelsohn collected the nigun from some Sadagora Hassidim in Jerusalem in 1915, and we know he used a new arrangement of the nigun, complete with words, at a concert he conducted in Jerusalem in 1918—and that was the song that we know as “Hava Nagila.” According to Idelsohn, he took inspiration from Psalms to craft the words (as he had done previously with many other traditional Jewish melodies he was intent on repurposing into “folk songs” for the emerging Hebrew culture and nation in Palestine).
We also know, on the other hand, that Moshe Nathanson was a student of A.Z. Idelsohn in Jerusalem when he was 12 years old. According to the Nathanson family, Idelsohn gave his students an assignment one day to put words to the nigun that would become “Hava Nagila.” According to Nathanson, it was he who found the verse from Psalms and gave the song with words back to his teacher Idelsohn. Nathanson was an important and beloved cantor in New York for 40 years. He was also a prolific composer and recorder of Hebrew melodies, which he, too, like his teacher before him, believed were a powerful tool to help American Jewish youth become ardent Zionists.
What do I think happened? I think both Idelsohn and Nathanson were incredibly gifted and accomplished and good men. I don’t think either of them lied. I think a collaboration of some kind took place in that classroom, and the teacher saw it one way, and the student saw it another way. Anyone who has ever collaborated creatively knows that it is very easy to forget and quickly argue about who came up with an idea.
It was interesting to hear from so many Jewish musicians about why they can’t stand this song, including Klezmer musicians who wanted kill it once and for all. Yet nothing can stop it—why not, do you think?
I’ll go with Harry Belafonte on this one… Some songs have a spiritual essence to them, and those songs endure; “Hava” is one of those songs.
I had no idea how many celebrities had sung and recorded the song over the years, including Elvis, Glen Campbell, Harry Belafonte, Liza Minnelli… on and on. As someone who has probably heard the song a thousand times or more, which is your favorite version?
Two favorites: Belafonte and Connie Francis!
It was fascinating that, for some people, “Hava Nagila” is a song of longing and sorrow and, yet, it is a song of celebration and hope for so many others (depending on the speed it is played, in large part). Do you think that this is part of the song’s intrigue and endurance? Are there other songs with such a split that you know of?
I don’t think the song is different things to different people. I think that even when it is sung as a slow nigun and as a sped-up party song, it has the full range of happiness and loss wrapped within it. That’s why it endures. Because that’s the way life is.
Of everything you learned on your Hava Nagila journey, what surprised you the most and why?
The things that surprised me most were the things that were right in front of me, the things that were like the air I breathed as a child. Israeli music and folk dance were so much part of my early life that I never stopped to think—until Henry Sapoznik of Klezkamp and Lorin Sklamberg of the Klezmatics explained it to me—that the influx of Israeli culture in part supplanted what was left of Eastern European Jewish culture in the U.S. Also, I had never really stopped to think about what Jewish Americans were grappling with in the 1950s and 60s in terms of dealing with the Holocaust. By making the film, I’ve come to see the ‘bar mitzvah Hava Nagila culture’ not so much as wholesale assimilation, but as an attempt to embrace joy and Jewish identity after the Holocaust.
In the film, musicologist Josh Kun says the song is officially stripped of religious meaning at this point. Do you agree?
No. But Josh is brilliant and adorable and I agree with most of what he says!
What question would you like to be asked about the film or the making of it?
Why would any sane person spend three whole precious years of her life making a movie about “Hava Nagila”?
For more information about the film and where you can see it, visit www.havanagilamovie.com
About the Author
An award‐winning filmmaker, with a passion for history and social justice, Roberta Grossman has written and produced more than 40 hours of documentary film and television. Grossman’s last film, Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh, won the audience award at 13 film festivals, was broadcast on PBS/IndependentLens and was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award. Grossman was the series producer and cowriter of 500 Nations, the eight-hour CBS miniseries on Native Americans hosted by Kevin Costner. Her feature documentary, Homeland: Four Portraits of Native Action, premiered in 2005, was screened and won awards at more than 40 festivals worldwide and aired on public television stations. Grossman’s other writing and directing credits include In the Footsteps of Jesus, a four-hour special for the History Channel; Hollywood & Power: Women on Top, a special for AMC; The Rich in America: 150 Years of Town and Country Magazine for A&E; The History of Christianity: the First Thousand Years, a four-hour special on A&E; and Heroines of the Hebrew Bible and Judas for the A&E series Mysteries of the Bible.
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