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Hava Nagila is a documentary about migration. Not Winged Migration, mind you, and definitely not March of the Penguins; Nagila is a “Havaquest,” as director/narrator Roberta Grossman puts it—essentially an iMovie love letter to a foundational song of American Jewry. Hava will no doubt delight Jewish audiences of a certain age, and if the production value suggests an amateur glee, that’s probably the point. The Jews, in this narrative, are among other things an improvisatory tribe that makes do with what it has. Remember: These are the people who get excited when paraffin lasts a week longer than it should.
Grossman’s voiceovers are backslapping in the extreme: “You’re pulled by some Jewy force to the dance floor,” she narrates bubblingly at the beginning, over B-roll from various bar mitzvah movie scenes. Soon, the film asks questions like: “Is ‘Hava Nagila’ more Jewish than gefilte fish?” Answers emerge in Ukraine, where, a century and a half ago, Hassidic rabbis responded to pogroms with niguns, danceable songs of thanksgiving that buoyed an oppressed people through the terrors of the age. Black-and-white dance footage from the first part of the 20th century represents the film’s most eerie and beautiful passage, with overdubbed niguns ringing joyful and mournful all at once. As one commentator notes: “Hassidism is monomaniacal about having to access the joy you have. Joy brings you close to God.”
So how did “Hava Nagila” become the dominant nigun, especially in America? Clues begin with Abraham Zevi Idelson, the Latvian ethnomusicologist who collected niguns and evidently composed “Hava Nagila.” But wait, says a perfunctory record scratch (one of the film’s lazy transitional sound effects)—did Idelson really write “Hava”? The subsequent squabble is unintentionally comical, as the family of one of Idelson’s students claims their ancestor composed the song at the precocious age of 12. “The debate continues,” Grossman intones, and one wonders: Why tussle over dubious honors? Is there a parallel debate over “Turkey in the Straw”? Another commentator says, with no discernible irony, that it’s “entirely possible a 12-year-old boy wrote the song.” Indeed.
So was it Idelson’s student? In Jerusalem? With the sheet music? Or Idelson himself? This quarrel is but a waystation on Grossman’s quest, which is to dramatize the 20th-century ascent of American Jews through the prism of song. After the Holocaust (which Grossman calls, with alarming understatement, “staggering news”), niguns became reclamation dances, and Palestinian Jews thronged the streets in 1944, performing what one eyewitness calls “a hora the likes of which I have never seen.”
The word davka can mean “in spite of,” and this is the essence of Hava Nagila. A Palestinian Jew who danced the famous Holocaust hora explains: “You cannot stop being human, so we held the festival of the davka.” Call it “a festival in spite of everything,” and you’re close to a translation—and to a fitting epithet for the film, a low-budget carnival that offers interesting etiologies of the modern Jewish songbook and of the American bar mitzvah, a celebration of economic aspiration as much as anything else. Hava Nagila’s a hot mess, but then so is a Jewish wedding. Twentysomething Jews will no doubt yawn. But their great-aunts in Boca? That’s another story.