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.
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‘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.
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Hava Nagila (The Movie)” also documents the extent to which “Hava Nagila” has become known around the world, even in countries that have no connection to the song’s Jewish origins. Grossman shared with the Forward a clip of examples, not only from American popular culture, but also from places such as Egypt, Iran, China, India, the United Kingdom, South Korea, Serbia, Estonia, Mexico, Russia and Thailand.

What makes the song so popular? It could just be the catchy tune, explained Josh Kun, University of Southern California professor and co-founder of The Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, in an interview for the film at Los Angeles’s Canter’s Deli. “I think it’s a great example of a song that started off being something very specific about tradition and ritual and religion, and… just becomes a kind of happy sing-a-long that… anyone can sing and be happy to,” he said.

Watch Danny Kaye and Harry Belafonte sing ‘Hava Nagila’:

Grossman began the project with initial funding from a donor who had seen and was impressed by her 2008 film, “Blessed Is the Match,” about the life and death of poet and World War II paratrooper Hannah Senesh. Following some initial research and filming, she posted a 10-minute sample reel on the Internet to generate interest in the project. The video went viral and has been seen more than half a million times. “It clearly is touching a nerve,” Grossman reflected.

Grossman said there were many surprises while working on the film. She had wanted to include interviews with descendants of the Ruzhiner rebbe, but her attempts to track them down were unsuccessful. Then, just as Grossman and her crew were filming in the ruins of the Hasidic court in Sadagora, a descendant of Friedman walked in with a group of students from England.

“We were packing up to leave when I noticed a Hasidic man in a black hat and robe walking toward me, followed by a gaggle of schoolboys with yarmulkes,” Grossman recalled. She and the man “cautiously greeted each other, and he learned that I was making a film on ‘Hava Nagila.’ He let me know his name was also Yisroel Friedman and that he was the great-great-great-grandson of the rebbe Yisroel Friedman. I was astonished. You could have blown me over with a feather!”

Grossman’s fortuitously timed interview with Friedman, along with the rest of her research, helped her tell the song’s full story. She aims to dispel the notion that it is just an overused — even reviled — party song. “In general, people only get part of the story right. They think it’s an Israeli folk song, or that it came to us direct from Anatevka,” she said, referring to the shtetl in “Fiddler on the Roof.” Instead, it was the song’s entire historic sweep that she wanted to show.

“‘Hava Nagila’ is like a snowflake rolling along through Jewish history, picking up more and more layers and meaning as it goes,” she offered. “‘Hava Nagila’ is a tiny little seed that carries with it a full tree of experience.”

Renee Ghert-Zand is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to the Forward.


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