Film Review: Hava Nagila (The Movie)

Comprehensive yet lighthearted dissection of one <i>very </i>popular song is a pretty surefire audience winner.

Inextricably woven into the lives of Jews—as well as anyone else who has ever attended one of their weddings or bar mitzvahs—is the song “Hava Nagila,” with its joyous, propulsively accelerating vibe. Roberta Grossman has fashioned a warmly appealing documentary about it, as well as other musical aspects of Jewish life in America, which presents a fascinating, colorful picture of a people’s assimilation.

Who actually wrote the song, whose origins can be tracked to Ukrainian shtetls, is a matter of some controversy, and the impassioned opinions of two different families who claim credit are offered here. What is undoubted, however, is its incredible durability and versatility over the last century or so. A wedding/bar mitzvah bandleader comments that it’s the surefire reliable he pulls out whenever he feels he’s losing his crowd (“When do we drop the bomb?”). It’s been covered by artists as diverse as Elvis, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Lena Horne, Glen Campbell, Celia Cruz, Chubby Checker, Connie Francis and Harry Belafonte, who made it an integral part of his repertoire. Grossman happily has Belafonte and others talking about it with obvious deep affection and respect, and even more happily, sprinkles her film with wonderful performance clips. My favorite version has to be Allan Sherman’s parody “Harvey and Sheila,” which hilariously encapsulates an entire Boomer era.

Along the way, we also learn about the development of the song’s ubiquitous accompanying dance, the hora, which originated in the Balkans and became such an integral part of the celebration of Israel’s formation in 1948. The bar mitzvah, which originally was a simple celebration of a boy’s coming of age, became, with the post-World War II ethos of safety and prosperity and burgeoning suburban culture in America, an ever more elaborate ritual, rivaling weddings for showy bacchanalian excess. Other Jewish traditions became incorporated into the most unlikely forms of popular culture, as when former synagogue boy Leonard Nimoy recalls how he used the traditional gesture for blessing the congregation on “Star Trek” (“Live long and prosper”).

The film is an extremely hamishe (cozy) affair, and although I could have done without the cutesy interviewee titles (“Really Smart Historian”), there’s no denying that Hava Nagila (The Movie) sneaks into your consciousness and heart in much the same fashion as the imperishable ditty it covers.