I never danced the Hora at Bar/ Bat Mitzvahs or at weddings! I am one of those rare people of Jewish heritage who does not know the words to Hava Nagila – the tune that this movie is based on, so I was somewhat enlightened learning that this ubiquitous song originated in the Ukraine where Jews lived in desperate conditions, and where today there are hardly any Jewish people remaining, though the former “grandiose” synagogue – a symbol of the past vitality of the culture survives - but only as a shell and through recorded memories and photographs.
The premise of the film directed and written by Roberta Grossman, proposes that if we follow the derivation of this one “nigun” (Hebrew word for song or melody) we can better understand the history of a people for the past 150 years. This ambitious hypothesis includes footage from the first glimmerings of this song – an ode to joy – from the shtetls located in The Pale of Settlement – according to Wikipedia - an area in Imperial Russia where Jews were permitted permanent residency and beyond which Jews were prohibited. This comprised about 20% of the territory of European Russian including present-day Lithuania Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland.
In a very light-hearted, complete with “cute” graphics approach, we are presented with talking heads – scholars – musicologists, researchers, rabbis, who have studied and analyzed the influence of this song over the years. Even more enjoyably we are treated to well known artists who have sung Hava Nagila such as Harry Belafonte, Connie Francis, Glen Campbell, The Klezmatics and Regina Spektor. Scenes from Ed Sullivan pop up, so do Woody Allen and the wonderful Allan Sherman whose lyrics will always make me laugh out loud.
The documentary explores the path and importance this song is/was to the “Jewish spirit”; vintage footage demonstrates the priority that music played as an “outlet” in the struggle to endure under dire circumstances. We are witness to the parallel morphing of Hava Nagila – the song itself - with the assimilation of Jews into American society up to the innovations made by our contemporary YouTube generation.