Your wedding or bar/bat mitzvah party may have featured the finest smoked fish platters, raucous klezmer, and exuberant dancing your town had to offer, but it probably didn’t feel complete until Hava Nagila played. Award-winning filmmaker Roberta Grossman started to wonder why that is. Fittingly, Hava Nagila: The Movie opens at a Jewish wedding with a voiceover describing a familiar phenomenon: “And then it happens. Something lights up in your DNA. You’re pulled by this ancient Jewy force to the dance floor.”
From there, the film takes us to Ukraine, where the famous song began as a nigun – or wordless melody – in a Hasidic community. With infectious curiosity and humor, the movie covers nearly as much ground as the ubiquitous song has – from Abraham Idelsohn’s penning the lyrics, Harry Belafonte’s making the song a hallmark of his performances (here with Danny Kaye), to its massive crossover success in the US – by way of vastly entertaining celebrity, academic, and man-on-the-street interviews. (Check out the film’s trailer here).
As it turns out, despite its sometimes-kitschy status, Hava Nagila is a complex song with a layered history that provides some interesting insight into Jewish history and culture. Want to see for yourself? Screenings listed here.