Not being of the Jewish faith, I must admit that my exposure to the transcendent celebratory anthem, “Hava Nagila”, has been limited to pop culture references and my friends expounding on their Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. That being said, I’ve always enjoyed the song’s inherent joy and its inexplicable ability to get people out of their chairs and dancing, regardless of religion. But where did this song come from? What does it mean? And why is it so damn catchy? Enter the aptly-titled Hava Nagila (The Movie), a short documentary about the melody’s origins, its significance throughout history, and its ubiquitous place in American culture.
Like the song itself, Hava Nagila (The Movie) is a fun, upbeat film that never takes itself too seriously. Comprised of interviews ranging from the expected rabbis and Jewish music historians to Leonard Nimoy and “some Guy with a PhD,” the documentary begins by exploring the song’s roots in the Ukraine, where it lacked words, and follows the tune to Israel and beyond to discover the dawn of its lyrics (and the ensuing debate over who wrote them).
Though the song always evoked a joyful feeling, it took an ironic tone with European Jews during WWII when it became a melody of bittersweet hope. This chapter of Hava Nagila (The Movie) proves that the song (and the documentary) is much deeper than a light-hearted, chair-raising chorus; it serves as the emotional core of the picture. However, the most interesting part of the film arises when “Hava Nagila” makes its migration to the United States post-war, where the song evolves from a scarlet letter in the eyes of those that experienced the Holocaust into a metaphor for the successful crossover and assimilation of Judaism in Suburban America, where huge synagogues were constructed to simultaneously retain Jewish culture and embrace the American dream. This dovetails nicely into an explanation of its penetration into pop culture, where everyone from Eddie Murphy to The Simpsons is featured.
Hava Nagila (The Movie) is a surprisingly engaging examination of the titular song’s global prominence. It will appeal to anyone even vaguely interested in the subject matter and educates without preaching.