How 'Hava Nagila' Became a Global Hit

From Ukraine to YouTube, Tune Stars in Documentary

‘Hava’ History: A new documentary tells how a century-old Jewish song from the Ukraine became a global pop culture phenomenon.
getty images
‘Hava’ History: A new documentary tells how a century-old Jewish song from the Ukraine became a global pop culture phenomenon.

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Published July 13, 2012, issue of July 20, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

One day, in the summer of 2008, the question “‘Hava Nagila’ — what is it?” popped into Roberta Grossman’s head. Although she was familiar with the ubiquitous song, she was clueless about its origins. Thus began the filmmaker’s four-year quest to investigate the Jewish standard’s century-and-a-half journey, from Ukraine to YouTube. The result is her new documentary film, Hava Nagila (The Movie),” which premieres at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on July 19.

“It turned out that ‘Hava Nagila’ is an amazing portal to 150 years of Jewish history, culture and spirituality,” the Los Angeles-based Grossman told the Forward in a recent telephone interview. “Once we started sticking our toe in the big Hava river, so to speak, we realized there was a lot out there.”

Grossman had always thought of the song as a touchstone of her own culturally Jewish childhood, but until she began researching it, she had no idea of its reach and effectiveness. The quest to understand “Hava Nagila” turned into an inquiry into her own American Jewish identity, as well as into why certain songs have such staying power.

The film traces the song from its origins as a wordless Hasidic nigun, a wordless melody, in Sadagora, Ukraine, where the Ruzhiner rebbe, Yisroel Friedman, established his court in 1845. From there it traveled to Palestine early in the 20th century, where Abraham Zvi Idelsohn, the father of Jewish musicology, transcribed it and added lyrics to it in 1915 expressing celebration and brotherhood.

According to an article by music scholar James Loeffler on the song’s “long, strange trip,” “Hava Nagila” became an overnight hit among Jews of the Yishuv after it was played in a 1918 concert celebrating the defeat of the Ottoman Turks by British forces in World War I. It quickly became a staple of Zionist culture in pre-state Israel, and traveled across the ocean to enter the folk song repertoire of American Jewry. Referred to simply as a “Palestinian” or “Hebrew” folk song, it appeared in children’s songbooks and was recorded by cantors and folk music performers. By the 1940s it could be heard at almost every bar mitzvah and Jewish wedding.

The song really took off in the 1950s, when it attracted the attention of such mainstream artists as Harry Belafonte, Connie Francis and Glen Campbell. In the film, Grossman interviews these singers and includes clips of them performing the song. Belafonte recalled that the two numbers for which he was best known were “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Hava Nagila.” Francis said she used to close every concert with the latter. Both said there was nothing like it that could make and leave an audience happy.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.