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The Secret History of ‘Hava Nagila’

Uncovered: the earliest known version of the Hebrew song

Edwin Seroussi and James Loeffler
September 19, 2019
Courtesy of the Klau Library, Cincinnati, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, (CN) Idelsohn 4a
Courtesy of the Klau Library, Cincinnati, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, (CN) Idelsohn 4a
Courtesy of the Klau Library, Cincinnati, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, (CN) Idelsohn 4a
Courtesy of the Klau Library, Cincinnati, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, (CN) Idelsohn 4a

Every song carries within it many stories. Before it was a universal Jewish wedding anthem, a European soccer chant, and a Jewish musical cliché par excellence, the Hebrew song “Hava Nagila” started out as a Hasidic folk melody. The song’s many lives have spawned an award-winning documentary, an Israeli court battle, and a generations-long rift between two Jewish families. But its actual origins remained shrouded in mystery. How did an East European religious folk tune become a Zionist sonic emblem only to shed both its religious and political forms and morph yet again into a generic ode to happiness?

The story begins with the musician Abraham Zvi Idelsohn. Born in 1882 in Feliksburg, in the northwest of the Russian Empire (present-day Latvia), he trained as a cantor in Libau before moving to Germany in the 1890s to study at Berlin’s Stern Conservatory and the Leipzig Academy of Music. Idelsohn then worked as a cantor in Leipzig, Regensburg, and Johannesburg, South Africa. In 1907, he settled in Jerusalem with his family.

Living next door to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew, Idelsohn set as his own goal to create a modern Hebrew music to accompany the national rebirth of Jewish life in their ancient homeland. In the spirit of the Zionist philosopher Ahad Ha’am, Idelsohn began to collect all the riches of Jewish musical traditions that he found in Ottoman Palestine and throughout the diaspora. Using the emerging recording technology, he began to transcribe folk songs and make field recordings in order to forge an old-new musical sound that would be (in his view) authentically Jewish. That meant uncovering what he imagined to be the oldest layer of pre-exilic melody common to all Jewish traditions and liberating it from the foreign accretions resulting from the exile.

Idelsohn’s project was an unabashedly political one. He denounced the cultural and spiritual “assimilation” that he experienced among German Jews. He lambasted his fellow Jewish musicians for flocking into European classical music rather than taking an interest in their own heritage. Many of his innovations—the first major Hebrew songbook for schools and synagogues, the first textbook on the history of Jewish music, the first Hebrew opera, and his seminal 10-volume work, The Thesaurus of Hebrew Oriental Melodies (Hebräische Orientalische Melodiensatz, 1914-1932)—were intended to disseminate Zionism, pushing Jews to embrace a national cultural identity rooted in the common wellsprings of renewed cultural life in Zion. Like other architects of this new Hebrew culture, Idelsohn sought out Jewish religious culture in order to refashion it into new secular national traditions.

Idelsohn’s manuscript sketch of ‘Hava Nagila’ arranged for voice and piano.  (Courtesy of the National Library of Israel.)
Idelsohn’s manuscript sketch of ‘Hava Nagila’ arranged for voice and piano.  (Courtesy of the National Library of Israel.)

It was in this context that Idelsohn premiered a new song, “Hava Nagila,” at a mixed choir concert in Jerusalem sometime in 1918. The precise venue of the first performance is unclear, but it appears to have been introduced at a public celebration marking one of three events: the recent Balfour Declaration of Nov. 2, 1917, General Allenby’s assumption of control of Jerusalem and Palestine at the end of World War I, or the laying of the cornerstone of the Hebrew University in June 1918. In any case, the context is clearly celebratory of Zionist political gains. And the opening lines of Idelsohn’s Hebrew text make plain the sense of a momentous occasion. “Hava nagila, hava nagila/ Hava nagila ve-nismeha”—“Come, let us rejoice, let us rejoice, let us rejoice and be happy.” Those lines closely echo the biblical verse from Psalms 118:24, “This is the day that God has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it,” which is recited during the Hallel, the special set of Psalms of thanksgiving added to the Jewish liturgy of festivals and other joyous occasions. For a Zionist activist like Idelsohn, there could have been no better occasion for the conception of such a song than the tangible beginnings of the fulfillment of the dream of a Jewish national homeland.

What of the melody? Much later, in 1932, Idelsohn wrote that he originally transcribed the melody from a Sadegurer Hasid in Jerusalem in 1915. The Sadegurer Hasidic community traced their roots to the town of Sadigura in the Bukovina region of Habsburg Austria (present-day Ukraine). Their founder, Rabbi Avrohom Yaakov Friedman, was one of six sons of Rabbi Yisrael Friedman, who fled with his courtly retinue from across the border in Russian Rizhin to the safety of the Austro-Hungarian Empire because of political and religious persecution. Each of the Rizhiner Rebbe’s sons established dynasties of their own. The Sadegurer Hasidim remained centered in that town until WWI, when their leaders fled to Vienna, and eventually to Tel Aviv in 1938.

The late-1930s Sadegurer arrival in Palestine was preceded by a small subgroup that settled in Jerusalem decades earlier as part of the constant, although not massive, Hasidic immigration to Ottoman Palestine. So it is possible that Idelsohn encountered this community in or around Jerusalem in 1915, just before he was forcibly conscripted into the Ottoman army, where he served as a military bandleader in Gaza during part of WWI. On the other hand, Idelsohn actually spent the winter of 1913 and early 1914 on a fundraising trip to Berlin and Vienna. So perhaps he heard the tune there.

One of the reasons we do not know for sure is because of the subsequent disruptures and dislocations in Idelsohn’s life. Shortly after conceiving “Hava Nagila,” Idelsohn made a dramatic exit from Palestine, first to Europe and eventually to Cincinnati where he accepted a new faculty position in Jewish liturgy at the Hebrew Union College. His path from Zionist cultural activist to academic instructor at the steadfastly non-Zionist Reform seminary was a rocky one. Idelsohn clearly appreciated the chance to influence the course of American Judaism, and his imprint is evident in the way the Reform and Conservative movements began to feature music in their educational and congregational efforts. But he struggled to adjust socially and economically and missed his close family, many of whom had relocated back to Johannesburg. The suspicions of his colleagues about his politics did not help matters, either. Nor did a minor scandal involving Idelsohn and a Midwestern confidence man, who scammed the immigrant professor. Then came a debilitating illness, which led to early retirement and his own move to South Africa, where he died in 1938.

Meanwhile, Idelsohn’s song spread like wildfire across the Jewish world. Immediately after its Jerusalem premiere, he later wrote, “Hava” “quickly spread throughout the country,” one of a number of newly composed pioneer songs then gaining favor on kibbutzim and moshavim. Along the road to Cincinnati he produced the first commercial recording of his celebrated “Palestinian” Hebrew song in Berlin, 1922, a production that further contributed to the spread of “Hava Nagila” beyond the yishuv. At the same time, his publishing efforts quickly boosted the song’s profile. “Hava Nagila” appeared in the second edition of his Hebrew songster also printed in Berlin in 1922. Thereafter it quickly penetrated Zionist youth circles and summer camps in Europe and North America in the late 1920s and ’30s.

Idelsohn’s 1922 publication of ‘Hava Nagila’ in ‘Sefer hashirim’ (Berlin). (Courtesy of the Jewish Music Research Centre at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.)
Idelsohn’s 1922 publication of ‘Hava Nagila’ in ‘Sefer hashirim’ (Berlin). (Courtesy of the Jewish Music Research Centre at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.)

Meanwhile, questions persisted about “Hava’s” origins and Idelsohn’s role in its authorship. A 1960s Tel Aviv court case revealed a bitter legal dispute about song royalties. For decades, the descendants of Cantor Moshe Nathanson, a Jerusalem-born cantor who moved to New York City after studying in his youth with Idelsohn, have claimed it was he who effectively set the immortal words to the tune collected by his teacher as part of a class assignment. The 2012 documentary, Hava Nagila: The Movie, presented living members of the two families locked in rhetorical combat about the authorship of the song.

For many years, scholars have concluded that there was little way to verify any more about the genesis of “Hava Nagila.” Until a few weeks ago. This past August, one of us (Edwin Seroussi) returned to the Klau Library at the Hebrew Union College (HUC) in Cincinnati 40 years after he had the privilege of spending two months there cataloging the great Birnbaum Collection of Jewish Music housed in the Klau Library. With the enthusiastic collaboration of the present-day library staff, we realized that several important records belonging to Idelsohn remained at his last working place, HUC. Returning these materials to public view was the goal of the recent visit.

When Idelsohn’s family transported him, almost totally paralyzed, to South Africa in 1937 most of his estate accompanied him. That collection contained his extensive correspondence as well as many of his writings, photographs, and scores. In the early 1960s, his heirs donated it to the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem (today the National Library of Israel). Yet Idelsohn himself had previously donated to the Klau Library of HUC in Cincinnati some of his important manuscript volumes. He even designed a special catalog of these items. However, for unknown reasons, these precious materials remained unprocessed for over three-quarters of a century and were only recently reretrieved for conservation and cataloging.

Unique in this recovered Idelsohniana are his notebooks, six in number, in which he registered the melodies he collected as his fieldwork was moving along in Ottoman Palestine, starting in 1907, mixed with his own compositions. In the subsequent two decades, these randomly collected melodies, reordered according to communities of origin, would constitute his major publication, the Thesaurus of Oriental Hebrew Melodies. He also left behind complete drafts and manuscripts of his two important books, Jewish Music in Its Historical Development (1929) and Jewish Liturgy in Its Development (1932) as well as many other documents and additional correspondence.

One of the notebooks, “I4a” in the original catalog, contains what apparently is the earliest and original notation of the melody that would eventually become the song “Hava Nagila.” This notebook, unlike the others, is not dated but it includes one song from 1906. However, it appears that Idelsohn added materials to it in subsequent years.

The earliest notation of the melody that would eventually become the song ‘Hava Nagila’ (Courtesy of the Klau Library, Cincinnati, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, (CN) Idelsohn 4a)
The earliest notation of the melody that would eventually become the song ‘Hava Nagila’ (Courtesy of the Klau Library, Cincinnati, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, (CN) Idelsohn 4a)

Written from right to left, as Idelsohn wrote much of his music from around 1908 until he left Palestine in 1921, this Hasidic niggun is almost identical to the normative version of “Hava Nagila” circulating until the present. As noted, Idelsohn claimed in volume 9 of the Thesaurus (1932) that he collected the melody in 1915 from Hasidim from the Sadigura court living in Palestine. However, in light of this new discovery it may well be that he collected the tune sometime earlier, most probably a few years prior to WWI. Such inaccuracies are not uncommon in his later publications.

One important detail is worth noticing in this early notation of the tune. On the side, Idelsohn wrote in Hebrew “Hasidit Krilovitz me-Sadigura,” i.e., “Hasidic [melody] [by?] Krilovitz from Sadigura.” This subtle detail may imply that the “Sadigura-Krilovitz” annotation appearing on top of the version of the niggun in volume 9 of Idelsohn’s Thesaurus does not necessarily refer to two towns, both of which hosted Hasidic courts, Sadhora/Sadigura (in Bukovina, Ukraine) and Krilovits (in Podolia, Ukraine), from where the tune originates. This annotation can also be read to denote a person (a Hasid of course) named Krilovitz (an extant family name) who hailed from Sadigura or was connected with the Sadigura community in Palestine. This is of course a hypothesis, and yet the preposition “from” in the annotation opens the possibility of locating a specific individual who transmitted to Idelsohn the by-now most ubiquitous Jewish tune on a global scale.

The most profound critique of Zionism, according to Gershom Scholem, was a line uttered by the German Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen, “Those fellows just want to be happy.” Perhaps that is precisely what Idelsohn had in mind when he recast a Hasidic melody as a Zionist anthem. But music plays by its own rules. Ultimately, “Hava Nagila” transcended its mystical roots in Eastern Europe and its modern Hebrew reconception in Ottoman/British Palestine to become a universal symbol of Jewish happiness. What Idelsohn would make of his song’s fate today, or of Zionism, are unanswerable questions. But the mystery of its origins is now a little closer to being solved.

Edwin Seroussi is the director of the Jewish Music Research Centre at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. James Loeffler is the author ofRooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century.

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