Vox Tablet

The Nine Lives of ‘Hava Nagila’

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

March 1, 2013
Bar mitzvah celebration from the 1950s.(From Hava Nagila (The Movie))

Bar mitzvah celebration from the 1950s.(From Hava Nagila (The Movie))

“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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Vox Tablet is Tablet Magazine’s weekly podcast, hosted by Sara Ivry and produced by Julie Subrin. You can listen to individual episodes here or subscribe on iTunes.

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