It has been performed by the likes of Bob Dylan and Neil Diamond, and appeared everywhere from the 2012 Olympic Games to “South Park.” No longer just a musical staple of Jewish weddings and bar mitzvahs, “Hava Nagila” has become a global phenomenon that has captivated the masses with its simple message of happiness and gratitude.
“Have Nagila (The Movie)” delves into the song’s history spanning nearly two centuries, from its origins as a wordless melody in the Ukraine to the countless modern-day renditions that can be found on YouTube. Directed by award-winning filmmaker Roberta Grossman, “Hava Nagila (The Movie)” has been met with critical acclaim and audience adoration at dozens of film festivals across the nation – including the Greater Phoenix Jewish Film Festival this month.
The East Valley Tribune recently spoke with Grossman, who discussed the tune's history, her favorite rendition and why she felt compelled to tell this story.
Q: To begin with, what inspired you to make this film?
A: Well, I was finishing my last film – it’s called “Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh” and it came out in 2008. It was the story of a Holocaust heroine so it was really a very sad film, ultimately. My daughter, who was 10 at the time, was like, “Mom, can you please make a happy film next time?” I had to explain to her that documentary filmmakers are not normally very happy people but I really thought that there was some wisdom in what she said. I had this idea – really it was just this question – of “What is Hava Nagila?”
For the three or so years we were making this film, we called it “Hava Nagila, What Is It?” because I really didn’t know anything about it when I was growing up in LA, my family was very Jewish and those “Hava” moments at weddings and bar mitzvahs and dancing with my family members – it was very powerful, you know, tribal. I had no idea about it, and in 2008, I was just thinking, “I don’t know anything about it. I don’t know if somebody wrote it. I don’t even know what the words mean or how old it is.” I really knew nothing.
The culmination of those two things – my daughter’s request to make a happy film and the questions of an important part of my childhood and really what it meant – that solidified why I chose this project.
Q: “Hava Nagila” spans over 150 years of the song’s history. Were there any challenges condensing such a vast amount of time into a single film?
A: The film covers the journey of “Hava” from Ukraine to YouTube, but really what it’s doing is using the song as a portal into 200 years of Jewish history and spirituality. It’s always hard to condense. As my father would say, “If I had more time, I would’ve written a shorter letter.” Shorter is always better, and “Hava” is a pretty breezy 73 minutes long. It moves along pretty well. Could we have added in more details in there? Yes. I think that we’re always kind of struggling between entertainment and education, but I think that we were able to pack in quite a bit of history into that short duration.
Q: Was there anything in your research that you found to be most surprising about the song or its history?
A: I guess what was most surprising was that you really could trace the Jewish journey, and more particularly the American-Jewish journey, through “Hava Nagila.” That was the idea and that’s what we set out to discover, but it was really, really, really, really true. It was surprising to see that “Hava” was really there during all these important moments in the past couple hundred years of Jewish history. It’s gone on to transcend all its colloquial roots and become international and I think that sort of mirrors the international journeys of the Jews.
Q: “Hava Nagila” highlights many renditions of the song – some quite famous and others much more obscure. Do you personally have a favorite version?
A: I think my favorite is Connie Francis’ version. I love the way that it’s just so full of spirit and joyfulness. I think I just like that version the best.
Q: To wrap things up, what do you hope audiences take away from this film?
A: I hope audiences take away the power of music to transcend all borders and all boundaries, and “Hava Nagila” is not only a Jewish song anymore, it’s a song that belongs to the world and is one of the most popular songs played on the global jukebox. It’s a catchy tune but there’s something in it, something spiritual about it, a sense of pointing us in a good direction and reminding us to awake, be joyful and rejoice.
“Hava Nagila (The Movie)” plays at Harkins Arrowhead 18 in Peoria on Sun., Feb. 17, and at Harkins Crossroads 12 in Chandler on Sun., Feb. 24. For more information about “Hava Nagila (The Movie)” and the Greater Phoenix Jewish Film Festival, visit www.gpjff.org.