Hava Nagila (The Movie)

The most iconic Jewish song of our lifetimes. But what does it mean? Where did come from? How old is it? Why the heck is it so popular? What’s the deal with the dancing?

This is the subject of a charming new documentary by Roberta Grossman (director) and writer/collaborator Sophie Sartain. An endearing narration by Rusty Schwimmer (late of The Sessions) and liberal use of video clips that can be reasonably inferred to be from the approximate times or approximately about the subjects being discussed, or at least a fun pop culture reference to Jews, make the 90 minute flick go by like a breeze.

Besides the archive footage, there are interviews with Harry Belafonte, Connie Francis, Regina Spektor and Glen Campbell (all of whom have recorded the song), Leonard Nimoy (who explains the Jewish origin of the Vulcan “Live Long And Prosper” hand sign) and a bunch of experts in various aspects of Jewish tradition.

There’s also a bunch of cool old people, including an 86-year-old woman who’s very light on her feet as she teaches people how to dance the hora, and an old man recalling the significance of the song in the early days of Israel.

Semi-spoiler: The music is from a religious chant that originated in the Ukraine in the late 19th/18th century, to which lyrics (based on Psalms) were put in the early 20th century, creating a “Happy Birthday”-type situation where descendants of the “songwriter” are eligible for royalties! Of course, there’s a dispute over who¬†actually did it.

Before we went in, I had the kids guess how long into the movie before the Holocaust came up. (The Flower guessed closest, with the first reference being 26 minutes in.) But it’s a tricky thing: You’re dealing with a movie about the joyousness of a song, so how do you get genocide in there without killing the mood?

As it turns out, though, Hava’s cultural penetration (especially in the USA) is strongly tied to the Holocaust, or so this movie argues. The key word is “davka”: In spite of everything, the Jews can sing this joyous song of celebration.

And it’s kind of awesome how the song spreads to other cultures who only have a vague sense of what it means (and that only from intuiting). The movie didn’t draw this circle, but given that the music itself originates as a wordless chant, meant to be higher than regular prayers and a way to get closer to God, it seems fitting that an ignorant world would end up using it that way.

It’s also kind of awesome are the Hava¬†haters, who generally despise the song for being too accessible (hipsters are everywhere) but also make the claim that it’s a “dead end” musically that keeps people from exploring the vast tapestry of Jewish music. But, as the movie points out, to learn about it is to open up a huge area of study.

Overall, it’s kind hard not to like this film. Over 50% of the 70-odd reviews on IMDB give this a one: I call shenanigans. The Boy and The Flower were both greatly entertained.

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