If you’ve been to a Bar Mitzvah or a Jewish wedding in the last 50 years, you’ve heard it: Hava nagila/hava nagila/Hava nagila ve-nismeḥa. It’s “Hava Nagila,” a 90-year-old Jewish folk song that’s become an unlikely cultural touchstone- one that’s come a very long from the schtetl.
Now, it’s a documentary. “Hava Nagila: The Movie,” directed by Roberta Grossman and produced by Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman, traces the origin and history of the song, from the old Pale of Settlement in Ukraine to pre-state Israel to eventually the United States, where it’s taken hold among Jews and even some gentiles. “From Ukraine to YouTube,” as the narrator aptly describes the song’s journey.
There’s more to “Hava Nagila” that anyone knew, apparently. We hear about a dispute over who actually wrote the song, as well as how the song came to be paired with the dance known as The Hora. Indeed, the film isn’t just about “Hava Nagila,” it also provides a useful lesson on the development of Jewish music in general, over the decades and continents- specifically, the way traditional Jewish music and dance surged in popularity following the Holocaust and establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.
The song became an unlikely standard in the 1960s, with versions recorded by the likes of Connie Francis, Harry Belefonte, Dick Dale and- in the worst version of all- Bob Dylan. The filmmakers are to be commended just from the sheer amount of footage collected, from different eras and countries. I’d love to hear the story behind how “Hava Nagila” came to be performed in Iran.
A whole lot of household names appear in the documentary, from Francis to Belefonte to the Russian-American folk rock singer Regina Spektor, to Leonard Nimoy, who once again gets to tell his “Live Long and Prosper”/Kohanim story. There’s even some analysis from great composer and musician Danny Maseng, a long-ago synagogue summer camp colleague of mine.
The film isn’t slick and doesn’t have the greatest production values I’ve ever seen, but it’s still an enjoyable romp through the history of a great song.
Our Pete Croatto recently interviewed Marta Kauffman for Philadelphia magazine.