What does it mean? Do we really care? We should.
You have heard this Jewish dance a million times, although you probably do not know the name. It is the Bar Mitzvah dance, the dance where they parade the bride and groom around in chairs. It is one of the best feeling songs in the world. It is “the” dance song. No matter it barely lasts a couple of minutes, once it starts, you wish it would never end.
The vast majority of those who have heard it never thought to ask where it comes from, what it means, or even if it has words. Yes, it has words, sort of. Roughly based on Psalm 118 (verse 24) of the Hebrew Bible, the Hava Nagila is more of a chant than a ballad. But who cares? It is a song that reverberates with salvation and hope.
Said to the be composed as a celebration of the independence of the Jewish state of Israel, it came at a time when Jews needed something to bring hope. They need something to underscore the victories and move past the horrors of the holocaust. It is the music that says the prayer, a prayer of hope, dreams and joyous celebration overcoming the most dreadful of fates.
This is the Hava Nagila (literally “Let Us Rejoice”), a song recorded more times than any other. It has been performed by Harry Belafonte, Glen Campbell and Andre Rieu, among a thousand others. No less than Connie Francis weighs in on the beauty and significance of the tune, although she is no more successful in describing what it is, or where it came from, than of the other celebrities in the film.
The Klezmatics, Danny Maseng, Regina Spektor and even Leonard Nimoy add their opinions about the song. Bob Dylan even sang it, although he took great pleasure in taking it apart and putting it back together with his own virulently anti-establishment twist. The film notes say the Hava Nagila is to music what the bagel is to food. It is something so Jewish that few stop to question it. It is the foot stomping anthem of celebration of a culture that spends most of its time complaining. Perhaps that alone makes it worthy of comment, and thought.
Even Elvis sang it, although it did not make it into the top 100.
This film covers the song from its origins in the shtetls of Eastern Europe to the cul-de-sacs of America and, who would guess, even uncovers a controversy about who originated the tune. Like the famous picture of the sailor and the girl kissing in Times Square to celebrate V – J Day, the day of the announcement of the worst war of our time, although nobody took credit for it at the time, now there is competition to claim the bragging rights. Go figure. This adds a note of humor to what might otherwise be a very dry film, although the film borders on sleep inducing as it is.
Were it not for the surprising interviews and the behind the scenes appreciation of the song, there would be little to enjoy. Exploring possible roots in Odessa in the Ukraine (similar roots to Bob Dylan, hisself) and following to the Borsch Belt circuit in the Catskills, it is well demonstrated that the song has legs, even for those who cannot fathom it. Greenwich Village and Hollywood follow.
In the end, the film is an entertaining exploration of Jewish history and identity, using the Hava Nagila to spotlight the cross-cultural connections that can only be achieved through music. Words? Who needs words? The song is the prayer. Although the movie present more questions than answers, there is no doubt about the universal celebration embodied in the rejoicing. It has the simplicity of the greatest rock songs, the simplicity that dares anyone to criticize it. Do not criticize, dance!
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Directed by: Roberta Grossman
Written by: Sophie Sartain
Starring: Harry Belafonte, Regina Spektor, Glen Campbell
Release Date: March 15, 2013
MPAA: Not Rated
Run Time: 75 minutes
Country: USA / Ukraine / Israel