Even non-Jews are familiar with “Hava Nagila,” the joyful song traditionally played at Jewish weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, and other occasions. As Roberta Grossman’s fun and illuminating new documentary Hava Nagila: The Movie makes clear, though, few people — Jewish or otherwise — know exactly what the tune means or of the dramatic history behind it. The film is now playing in New York City and opens in Los Angeles on March 15th.
Grossman and writer Sophie Sartain (who previously teamed on 2008’s Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh) went on a “Havaquest” to discover its origins. Dubbed “a song all scholars of Jewish music love to hate” by one expert interviewed for the film, the melody took root among Hasidic Jews living in Ukraine approximately 150 years ago. Their chief rabbi believed that joy was a requirement for worshipping God, even under less than joyful circumstances, and felt the tune had “an extra-magical power” that ultimately inspired ordinary Jews.
It wasn’t given lyrics and a title, however, until after World War I. A.Z. Idelsohn, a cantor living in Jerusalem, drew from the biblical psalms and selected “Hava Nagila” (translation: “Let us rejoice”) as the most fitting refrain. Idelsohn has come to be regarded as “the father of Hava” despite objections from the descendants of one of his students, Moshe Nathanson, who claim Nathanson wrote the song’s lyrics as a school assignment when he was a mere 12 years old.
The film follows the song’s literal journey from Israel to Nazi-occupied Europe, its endurance through the horrors of the Holocaust, and to the post-World War II United States. American singers including Harry Belafonte, Connie Francis, Danny Kaye and Glen Campbell made “Hava Nagila” an international recording smash between the 1950’s and 60’s. All but the deceased Kaye provide new interviews in the movie, as do Star Trek’s Leonard Nimoy and numerous rabbis and scholars. Grossman also references many Hollywood productions that have incorporated the song, notably A Raisin in the Sun, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Private Benjamin and Wedding Crashers.
Grossman and Sartain’s tongue-in-cheek approach further serves to illustrate the film’s primary thesis, that Jews are “a happy people.” Hava Nagila: The Movie as well as the song serve as fitting, entertaining testaments to the resilience of the Jewish people.
As a Jew, the famed longtime mayor of New York City, Ed Koch, likely sang and/or danced along to “Hava Nagila” countless times during his storied life. Koch, who just passed away last month at the age of 88, is now himself the subject of a documentary. Simply but appropriately titled Koch, it is now playing in LA and other US cities.
Former Wall Street Journal reporter and first-time filmmaker Neil Barsky does a generally remarkable job shuttling back and forth between clips from archival footage beginning in 1977 and an intimate 2010 interview he conducted of Koch. In covering key moments from Koch’s unprecedented 12-year run as mayor, things can get a little confusing and/or frustrating for viewers when certain events or timeframes overlap. For example, I was keenly interested in the film’s depiction of Koch’s handling of the AIDS crisis that exploded in NYC in the early 1980’s. Barsky doesn’t address this until he is well into the second half of the 80’s, but my patience was finally rewarded even if Koch is defined as “largely ineffective” at dealing with AIDS.
Koch was dogged by rumors he was gay starting at an early point in his political career, and they became public in a big way when his chief rival, Mario Cuomo, told New Yorkers to “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo.” Koch never confirmed these rumors, not even when Barsky asks him directly during his interview. Throughout the film, though, Koch comes across as sharp, witty and responsive as only a gay man could be.
New Yorkers today and those who have visited the Big Apple have much for which to be thankful to Koch, including housing renewal initiatives in previously blighted areas and the first attempts to clean up Times Square and make it more tourist-friendly. The late mayor was apparently most proud toward the end of his life of the city’s decision to rename the Queensboro Bridge in his honor. Barksy uses the debate over this decision as an effective framing device, one that illustrates well the man’s accomplishments and what will surely be enduring arguments over them.
Hava Nagila:The Movie: B+
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest, Rage Monthly Magazine and Echo Magazine.