What do Harry Belafonte (a Caribbean-American guy from Harlem, NY) and Connie Francis (an Italian-American gal from Newark, NJ) have in common with Glen Campbell (a Scottish-American guy from Pike County, Arkansas)? Like dozens of well-known performers, they have all recorded covers of "Hava Nagila," in Hebrew yet!
In her delightful new documentary Hava Nagila: The Movie, director Roberta Grossman and her key collaborators tell the story of this simcha staple (Bar Mitzvahs! Weddings!! Declarations of Independence!!!) in the form of a biography, with giddy inter-titles like "When Hava Met Hora." It would all be way too much, if it weren't so well-done and thoroughly enjoyable.
Hava Nagila: The Movie is a masterful synthesis of scholarship and chutzpah, with just the right combination of history, politics, and religion. Grossman's team (including writer Sophie Sartain and editor Chris Callister) has assembled a treasure trove of films clips which they stitch together with dazzling dexterity. There is literally never a dull moment; even when the clips are black and white, they're still amazingly colorful.
The song "Hava Nagila" was born in Ukraine, nurtured in Israel, and came to full force in America, which then sent it back out into the world. As the scholars in Hava Nagila: The Movie explain, the original tune started life as a Hasidic niggun (a wordless prayer like the "biddy biddy bums" and "daidle deedle dums" that Tevye sings in Fiddler on the Roof). Most of the people who left the Pale of Settlement to become pioneers ("halutzim") in British Palestine ("the Yishuv") at the turn of the 20th Century were fervent secularists. They turned their back on religion, rejected Yiddish, and built a modern language based on Biblical Hebrew. But when the children in the kindergarten needed new songs, old melodies bubbled forth. And then Hava met Hora, and here we are.
Of course all Jewish stories, even joyous ones, must have some tzuris, and in this case rival families stake their claim, eager to persuade Grossman that it was their ancestor-and he alone-who wrote the familiar lyrics. But Grossman makes it clear that no one really owns cultural property like "Hava Nagila;" "Hava Nagila" belongs to the people and each generation must find new ways to cherish it.
Growing up in the 60s, I well remember how tickled I was by "Harvey & Sheila," the giddy version on Allan Sherman's 1963 LP My Son, The Celebrity. With brilliant lines like "Harvey's a CPA. He works for IBM. He went to MIT and got his PhD," Sherman told the history of Jewish America in less than 3 minutes. Decades later, Regina Spektor, born in Moscow, raised in the Bronx, and best-known for her album Soviet Kitsch, now performs "Hava Nagila" in her Indie Pop concerts.
Grossman's travels take her to Eastern Europe, Israel, and across the USA. Talking heads include scholars such as Henry Sapoznik (from NPR's Yiddish Radio Project) and Josh Kun (director of The Popular Music Project at the University of Southern California), religious figures such as Chazzan Danny Maseng and Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, and culture icons like Leonard Nimoy. Modern Jewish History has rarely been taught with such ebullience.
Hava Nagila: The Movie screens at Spertus Institute (610 S. Michigan Ave.) on June 6 at 7 p.m.
Go to YouTube and watch Danny Kaye's "Hava Nagila" duet with Harry Belafonte from 1966, and I guarantee you'll head to the theater for more!
Jan Lisa Huttner (aka Tzivi) contributes occasional features and monthly blog posts under the header "Tzivi's Cinema Spotlight."