Exploring the Roots of One of the World’s Most Famous and Kitschiest Songs

Benjamin Wright


Hava Nagila

Director: Roberta Grossman

Writer: Sophie Sartain

75 Minutes


A movie about the traditional folk song “Hava Nagila” – arguably one of the world’s kitschiest songs (aptly compared in the film by Leonard Nimoy to “You are My Sunshine”), a familiar song of celebration, a song belted out sincerely and satirically by many artists – could perhaps be interesting, but it could also be tacky and overly sentimental. Despite a questionable start, while the film Hava Nagila (The Movie) contained moments of touching and sincere sentimentality, it avoided seeming too schmaltzy. It was a surprisingly pleasant and very informative socio-historical exploration into the roots of one of the most familiar songs in the world, a Jewish folk song that has been embraced the world over, regardless of ethnicity or religion.


It’s a number that has been sung by many diverse artists: Elvis and Bob Dylan, Connie Francis, Harry Belafonte, Chubby Checker, Allan Sherman, Josephine Baker, Regina Spektor, Dick Dale, Glen Campbell and countless others. Harry Belafonte glorified it. Campbell viewed it as an essential tool to earn extra money playing the wedding and bar mitzvah circuit when he first arrived in Los Angeles. Spektor subconsciously incorporated it into her album Soviet Kitsch. Dylan’s version, scholar and music critic Josh Kun explains in the documentary, “is an embrace and a refusal. It’s the smartest song about Jewish identity I’ve ever heard and it only lasts 30 seconds.” Sherman mocked it as he celebrated it, singing “Harvey and Sheila.”

The interviews with artists that have sung “Hava Nagila,” like Francis, Spektor, Campbell, Bellafonte and Irving Fields were fun, as were the interviews with scholars and the rivaling descendants of the two men who are often given credit for the song’s lyrics and melody – musicologist Abraham Zevi Idelsohn and Idelsohn’s student, Moshe Nathanson. But the archival footage alone makes the film worth seeing – Eastern Europeans dancing the hora, Harry Belafonte and the always-grinning Danny Kaye singing a lovely and joyful duet of the song, home video footage of bar mitzvahs in American suburbia, clips from Mel Brooks movies and Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, scenes featuring the Simpsons and the Muppets singing to the melody, YouTube video clips that both pay homage to and mangle the traditional song.


The beginning of the film seems shaky, with a corny re-enactment of a typical Jewish wedding, but it quickly comes together and all doubts are soon left behind, just as the narrator (Rusty Schwimmer) asks, “What’s up with song? So kitschy, and yet so profound. So happy, and yet [clip of Mary Tyler Moore saying:] ‘It’s . . . Jewish!’” Then the exploration of the song’s meaning and origins begins, taking viewers on a virtual journey from Sadagora, Ukraine to Palestine to American suburbia and even the digital world of YouTube, interspersed with interviews with scholars, performers, rabbis and “Hava Haters,” who view “Hava Nagila” as a dead-end rather than a gateway on the journey into the exploration of Jewish music and identity. 


Along the journey we encounter many interesting people and learn a great deal about the history of “Hava,” a Chasidic nigun turned symbol of Zionism and refusal of (or, to some, denial of) the evils of the Holocaust that has become cliché from its overuse in pop culture and has been embraced for its simple words and beautiful melody the world over.  Edwin Seroussi, Director of Jewish Music Research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says in the film, “By now, to the Israelis, ‘Hava Nagila’ may be like a song of the diaspora. It is much more famous among the American Jews than among Israelis.”


In its relatively short cultural history “Hava Nagila” has had a very long and interesting journey, traveling the whole globe, loved by some, loathed by others and tolerated by many, at least at traditional celebrations like bar mitzvahs and weddings.  In all, the film, directed by Roberta Grossman and written by Sophie Sartain, reminds us that despite the song’s appropriation by non-Jewish cultures, despite being viewed as cliché, despite being forgotten in the Ukraine and largely abandoned in Israel, “Hava Nagila” is still a simple song with much cultural richness, “a song of joy . . . a song of hope . . . a song that lifts us up.”    


This is one of those rare documentaries that teaches its viewers in a very pleasurable way and that has the ability to elicit both laughter and tears, using a style of humor any familiar with Michael Moore’s best works would appreciate. This is a highly entertaining documentary, a film approached with cautious skepticism, but embraced for its rare beauty, its communication of Jewish identity and of a musical universality. “Hava Nagila” translates to “Let us rejoice” and this film gives us plenty of reasons to do so: It is both a bittersweet exploration of the past and an exuberant celebration of the present and the future, commemorating one of the world’s rightfully best-known songs.


Author Bio:

Benjamin Wright is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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