CAPSULE: To Jews the song "Hava Nagila" is more than just a melody. It is a celebration of Jewish joyfulness. It has uplifted Jews of three different centuries and in later years has become a sort of musical ambassador to other well-meaning people around the world. The song is the Jewish "Ode to Joy". But most Jews do not know its origins and history. Roberta Grossman's documentary traces its past and its culture and about two hundred years of Jewish history. included are several celebrities, some Jewish, some not, many of whom performed the song on stage, record, and YouTube. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
It happens at a Jewish celebration and gathering--a bar mitzvah, a marriage, a party, a circumcision. If there is happiness there is a band. If there is a band, sooner or later it may play "Hava Nagila". Suddenly there is dancing. But it is not partner dancing like a waltz. People form a circle holding hands to the right and the left forming a forming a rung, or multiple rings, and singing "Hava Nagila". As they dance around some people will drop from the chain and lift a chair with someone seated in the chair being held aloft like a king or a rock star. This too is part of the "Hava Nagila" dance. And the people will sing the song. Here in the United States most may not know what the words mean, they are in Hebrew. But they will sing them phonetically as they have heard the song so many times. ""Hava Nagila". "Hava Nagila"!! "HAVA NAGILA"!!!! Ve-nismeha." In the United States most will just know the Hebrew words phonetically. What does it mean? "Let's rejoice. Let's rejoice. Let's rejoice and be happy."
Director Roberta Grossman inquires into the origins and meaning of "Hava Nagila" in Israel and the United States in a new 75-minute documentary written by Sophie Sartain. With it she tells with a little bit of humor the story of the song and the Jews as they move from the Shtetls of Eastern Europe to Western Europe to America, to the suburbs, and to the Internet. As one interviewee says, "It's been a long, strange journey from Ukraine to YouTube." And, of course, the real origins of the song are shrouded in a controversy over who actually wrote it. But in spite of that Grossman is able to trace the origins to a single Ukrainian synagogue.
The film uses a mass of recordings of the song being performed by both Jews and non-Jews and in many different styles. The song was popularized by singers like Harry Belafonte, Connie Francis, and Glen Campbell, each of whom is interviewed. For a short film the "HAVA NAGILA" (THE MOVIE) ranges from tragedy to comedy and farce with a decent amount of kidding. And through it all we hear a multitude of different versions from all around the world. We hear it from the above singers, but also variations from Lena Horne, Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, a Bollywood production number, and many more. The film combines documentary footage of Eastern European Jewish life, with footage of Jews in Palestine and Israel, in New York and right out into the suburbs. Some of this goes on a little long. Several pieces are taken from one event because we keep seeing a man who looks like a Jewish James Gandolfini. The editing could have been edited a little tighter and briefer, but perhaps it all adds to the party feel of the proceedings.
The singing of "Hava Nagila" by non-Jews carries a deeper meaning than just that it is a pleasant melody. It is a statement of tolerance and even welcome to a people who have known so much pain over the centuries and into the present. This is a Jewish song that becomes even more joyful when sung by non-Jews.
Occasionally the editing creates some intriguing cuts. We form pictures of Jews in the suburbs we are suddenly looking at a piece of the film TRUE GRIT (1969). What is that doing there? Glen Campbell put his recording of "Hava Nagila" on the flip side of his popular 45-RPM record with the popular song "True Grit". I didn't see that one coming. I guess I never noticed the Jewishness of TRUE GRIT. As one interviewee says the song "is a melody that evokes new life, hope, and joy." The song does that and so does HAVA NAGILA (THE MOVIE). I rate it a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. Grossman never explains the meaning of the chair in the dance. It just seems to be a tribute to the guest(s) of honor at the party.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2244856/combined
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/hava_nagila_the_movie/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2013 Mark R. Leeper