Everybody, Jewish or not, knows the song “Hava Nagila,” right? It’s that impossibly catchy and exuberant song we hear whenever a movie or TV show depicts a Jewish wedding (or seemingly any celebratory gathering). C’mon, sing along with me! “HAV-a NA-gila! HAV-a NA-something dah-de-dah-da da.”
And that’s where most of us trail off.
Well, fret not, says a documentary about the song titled, appropriately, “Hava Nagila.” We are not alone.
Directed by Roberta Grossman and written by Sophie Sartain, this sprightly and thoughtful film (which opens with random people on the street accidentally butchering the song) traces the history of this now-ubiquitous ditty from its humble origins as a wordless song of prayer among Ukrainian Hasidim all the way through the birth of the state of Israel to the shores of America.
And once in United States, as we see in clips from sources as diverse as “The Simpsons,” “The Wedding Crashers” and “Daddy Day Care,” the song has become, as narrator Rusty Schwimmer calls it at one point, “an overly saturated pop culture fest.”
As much of a musical cliche as “Hava Naglia” the song has become (one musician contemptuously calls it “the kudzu of Jewish music”), “Hava Nagila” the movie, as most good documentaries do, gradually reveals its true nature to be much more interesting than it first appears.
Weaving an impish trail through Jewish history — musical and otherwise — the film displays a leavening sense of humor (various interviewees are labeled as “a very smart historian” and “has a Ph.D.”) while never losing sight of the bedeviled history of the Jews, whose love-hate relationship with this song has gone hand-in-hand with their troubles.
Presenting a surprisingly intriguing history of the song and its changing place in Jewish culture, “Hava Nagila” is consistently, if lightly, eye-opening, and introduces some famous faces whose connection to the song are as charming as they are unexpected.
Harry Belafonte, whom the film credits as “Hava’s greatest ambassador,” explains with gravelly twinkliness how he introduced the song into his act, eventually bringing it to national attention. Leonard Nimoy reveals how one of the traditional gestures of the hora (that linked-arm dance that often accompanies the song) became the famous Vulcan salute. Glenn Campbell’s version was the B-side to his single of “True Grit” (no, really). And Italian American Connie Francis’ “Jewish Favorites” album brought it to prominence as that best-seller’s side one, track one.
This cultural appropriation, and the resulting kitschiness brought to “Hava Nagila,” is countered in the film by others, such as the band The Klezmatics (who seek to return the song to its Ukrainian roots), Regina Spektor (who speaks feelingly of its resonance to oppressed Russian Jews) and a rabbi whose wordless reclamation of the original tune movingly recalls the song and its people’s shared history.
But overall, “Hava Nagila” is a funny, entertaining celebration of music and what it can come to mean to people. It closes out this year’s Maine Jewish Film Festival (mjff.org) on a festive note at 7 p.m. Saturday at One Longfellow Square in Portland. The $15 admission includes a Flatbread Pizza party and some serious post-film dancing.
You might even know the words by then.
Dennis Perkins is a Portland freelance writer.