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.