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The Nine Lives of ‘Hava Nagila’

A new documentary looks at the many iterations of the popular tune, from Hasidic niggun to American kitsch

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Bar mitzvah celebration from the 1950s.(From Hava Nagila (The Movie))
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“Hava Nagila” is perhaps the best-known Jewish song in the United States. Jewish and non-Jewish wedding and bar/bat mitzvah attendees alike know that its first few notes are our cue to link arms on the dance floor and drag or be dragged through a never-ending and increasingly chaotic hora.

But how many people know that the song originated not in Israel (Hebrew lyrics not withstanding) but in Ukraine, and that its greatest ambassador was not Jewish at all? In Hava Nagila (The Movie), a documentary that opens in a limited theatrical release this month, director Roberta Grossman traces the song’s history from a Hasidic enclave in the Pale of Settlement to Palestine and then the United States. She also looks at how affection for the song has waxed and waned, in some ways reflecting American Jews’ (and others’) relationship to Jewishness, through interviews with actor Leonard Nimoy, singers and musicians Regina Spektor, Harry Belafonte, Henry Sapoznik, ethno-musicologist Josh Kun, and many others. (If, after seeing the film, you feel that you still haven’t had your fill of “Hava Nagila” history, there’s also an exhibit on the song on view at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage.)

On today’s podcast, guest host Rebecca Soffer, a New York-based producer and writer, talks to Grossman about how this project came to be, the song’s status among American Jews today, and Bob Dylan’s “talking blues” interpretation which is, depending on your perspective, a mangling or a brilliant articulation of Jewish ambivalence. [Running time: 19:50.] 

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What a wonderful interview. The snippets of various versions of Hava make me even more eager for the movie to come to Chicago. (I know I am in the minority, but the Dylan version confirms my opinion of Dylan. On the other hand, in the midst of his mangling even he still captured some of its essence.I don’t know if that is a tribute to Dylan or Hava. After all, people recognize it even when I sing it.)

Yoav Schlesinger says:

Informative, intelligent, thoughtful interview. I probably wouldn’t have wanted to see this film previously (don’t know if I ever would’ve considered myself a Hava Nagila fan), but I’m inspired to learn more. Great piece, thanks for the outstanding morning eye-opener.

disqus_K7M4FUeB5X says:

Fascinating interview, full of information and humor.

What a wonderful interview. Gave me an entirely new perspective on Hava. I have always loved Harry Belafonte and for me his version shines above all others. Hope I get a chance to see the movie. I am forwarding this podcast to everyone. Keep up the great work!!

Very insightful interview. Will now listen to Hava Nagila with a broadened perspective.
Interviewer was adept at eliciting fascinating information from the guest.

Great interview– made me want to see the movie! The interviewer clearly did her homework for this piece that added a lot to the richness of conversation between the interviewer and film maker.

I don’t by DVDs of movies but this a thoroughly entertaining and very educational documentary that every Jewish home should own. It has appeal for Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and the non-engaged. It touches the Jewish soul and takes us on a journey through 20th century of Jewish life in America.

Bobbie Blitz says:

Saw the movie opening night of the Jewish Film Festival at the JCC in West Bloomfield, Michigan. It was just fabulous! We were laughing and clapping all the way!

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The Nine Lives of ‘Hava Nagila’

A new documentary looks at the many iterations of the popular tune, from Hasidic niggun to American kitsch

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