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
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 opens in Metro Chicago on May 3
at the Music Box Theater on Southport and the AMC Northbrook Court.
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!
Huttner (aka Tzivi) contributes occasional features and monthly blog posts under
the header "Tzivi's Cinema Spotlight."