ava Nagila is to music what the bagel is to food – a Jewish staple that has transcended its origins and become a worldwide hit. This hilarious and surprisingly deep film follow the song’s fascinating journey from the shtetls of Eastern Europe to the cul-de-sacs of America. Featuring interviews with Harry Belafonte, Connie Francis, Glen Campbell, Leonard Nimoy, Regina Spektor and more, Hava Nagila (The Movie) takes viewers around the world using the song as a springboard to explore Jewish history and identity and to spotlight the cross-cultural connections that can only be achieved through music.
|Running Time:||58/73 min.|
|Subject(s):||Arts and Culture, Humor, Jewish Studies, Music, Society|
|Producer(s):||Roberta Grossman, Sophie Sartain, Marta Kauffman|
|Cinematographer:||Dyanna Taylor, Mike Chin|
|Production Company:||Katahdin Productions and More Horses Productions|
HAVA NAGILA (THE MOVIE)
Hava nagila, hava nagila Let us rejoice, let us rejoice
Hava nagila ve-nismeha Let us rejoice and be glad
Hava neranena, hava neranena Let us sing, let us sing
Hava neranena ve-nismeha Let us sing and be glad
Uru, uru ahim Awake, awake, brothers
Uru ahim be-lev sameah! Awake, brothers, with a joyful heart!
It is instantly recognizable – musical shorthand for anything Jewish, a happy party tune that you dance to at weddings, bar mitzvahs and even at Major League Baseball games. It conjures up wistful smiles, memories of generations past…and no shortage of eye rolling. But as audiences will discover in Hava Nagila (The Movie), the song is much more than a tale of Jewish kitsch and bad bar mitzvah fashions. It carries with it an entire constellation of history, values and hopes for the future. In its own
believe-it-or-not way, Hava Nagila encapsulates the Jewish journey over the past 150 years. It also reveals the power of one song to express and sustain identity, to transmit lessons across generations and to bridge cultural divides and connect us all on a universal level.
“When you find a song that says ‘Let us rejoice,’ there’s no better song to leave an evening with. Hava Nagila tells us who we should be and what we, in a fundamental sense, aspire to be – peoples of love and joy and peace.” – Harry Belafonte
Featuring interviews with Harry Belafonte, Connie Francis, Glen Campbell, Leonard Nimoy, Regina Spektor and more, Hava Nagila (The Movie) follows the song from the shtetls of Eastern Europe to the kibbutzim of Palestine to the cul-de-sacs of America. It excavates the layers of cultural complexity with humor, depth and heart – traveling the distance between the Holocaust to Dick Dale and his surf guitar, sometimes in the same sentence. It stops at key places—Ukraine, Israel, the Catskills and Greenwich Village, where Belafonte performed a hopeful version in the late 1950s, only to be countered by Bob Dylan, who butchers the song in his version Talkin’ Hava Negiliah Blues. The film covers Allan Sherman’s parody Harvey and Sheila, and Lena Horne’s civil rights anthem Now—both set to the tune of Hava Nagila. The film spotlights Italian-American crooner Connie Francis, who made the song the first track on her famous album of Jewish favorites; and Glen Campbell, who released an instrumental version of Hava on the B-side of his theme song from
True Grit. It also dissects the proliferation of pop culture references to Hava Nagila in film and TV and brings the song up to the present, where it’s a rallying tune at sports games, a hot dance number in nightclubs and a global hit online.
The resulting film not only entertains us and makes us laugh; but it reminds us of the power of melody to go deep and to bring a celebration to life – offering delightful moments of discovery, one after another, on the song’s fascinating journey from
Ukraine to YouTube.
It started as a question – a question that elicited befuddled shrugs, vague smiles of recollection and a few blank stares.
Hava Nagila…what is it?
“It’s Jewish, right?”
“The bar mitzvah song?”
Over the course of three years, the makers of Hava Nagila (The Movie) discovered much more than a bar mitzvah song. They unearthed an amazing story spanning the Old Country and the formative years of Israel, the Jewish American experience in the 20th century and the explosion of American pop culture on a global scale. They received an outpouring of support worldwide when their fundraising trailer went viral. They sat at the feet of legendary performers like Harry Belafonte and Connie Francis and soaked up wisdom from spiritual giants Rabbi Lawrence Kushner and Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. In the end they wove together a film that’s high on fun and entertainment, but also surprisingly profound, tapping into universal themes about the power of music, the importance of joy and the resilient spirit of a people.
The filmmakers began their Hava journey in March 2009 at Canter’s Deli in Los Angeles. There amid the hubbub, pastrami and matzo ball soup, director/producer Roberta Grossman interviewed USC musicologist Josh Kun, who described Hava Nagila as something uniquely Jewish but also as a song that has bridged cultures in the United States and around the world. “As Josh spoke, we all exchanged glances, amazed at the depth and richness of the subject matter,” says producer Marta Kauffman, creator of the TV series Friends. “In that ‘aha’ moment, we knew we were on to something. This was a story that encompassed history, religion, politics and culture, and the global connections that can only be achieved through music.”
After the day of shooting at Canter’s, writer/producer Sophie Sartain chased down Josh Kun’s many references and began to craft an outline and treatment for a film. “We envisioned it as the biography of a song with Hava as our hero/protagonist,” says Sartain. “After his humble origins, he comes to America, assimilates and is propelled to stardom. Does he become the victim of his own success? Can he stay true to his roots? This was the story we would follow.”
In April 2009, the filmmakers shot interviews and footage of performers Irving Fields and Johnny Yune at the Idelsohn Society’s “Jews on Vinyl Review” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco. They then set their sights on meeting Hava Nagila’s greatest ambassador, Harry Belafonte, who launched the song into mainstream pop culture when he performed it in the late 1950s.
In December 2009, they interviewed Belafonte at the Village Vanguard nightclub in New York City, where he first sang Hava Nagila. In what Grossman describes as “the best interview of my career,” Belafonte shared his experiences singing Hava Nagila everywhere from Miami and Brooklyn to Israel and post-war Germany. “Belafonte made comparisons to black spiritual music and commented on the song’s deeper messages of joy, hope and peace,” recalls executive producer Lisa Thomas. “He had us spellbound.”
In New York, the filmmakers also shot man-on-the-street interviews at Katz’s Delicatessen on the Lower East Side. Finally, they filmed an interview with actor Leonard Nimoy, one of the many well-known commentators in the film. With this preliminary footage, they crafted a nine-minute fundraising trailer with editor Chris Callister. They posted the video on the crowd-funding site, www.indiegogo.com, to raise $3000 to interview a visiting Israeli scholar at UCBerkeley. That’s when things really took off. The video went “Jewish viral,” crisscrossing the globe several times and amassing more than 800,000 online views. Donations poured in. In a few weeks, they quadrupled their fundraising goal. Second and third fundraising campaigns gave them the money to jump-start production. The clip not only helped with fundraising, but it planted the film in the middle of a
Hava controversy. Angry emails and calls came in from defenders of the prominent New York cantor Moshe Nathanson. Why did the trailer say that musicologist A.Z. Idelsohn created Hava Nagila when, according to them, it was Nathanson, who was Idelsohn’s student in Jerusalem and wrote the lyrics as part of a school assignment? The filmmakers had to investigate. With the gracious participation of both the Nathanson and Idelsohn families, they attempted to solve the mystery of Hava Nagila’s origins.
From there, the producers tracked down other performers in the Hava Nagila pantheon. They met country music star Glen Campbell at his synagogue, Beth Emunah Messianic Synagogue, outside Los Angeles. He discussed his instrumental version of Hava Nagila, which resides on the flip side of his Oscar-nominated single for the movie True Grit. They jetted off to New Jersey to catch the legendary Connie Francis in concert and hear how she paired Hava Nagila with Exodus in an
arrangement that she performed in concert for most of her long and storied career.
In 2011, they completed principal photography. They visited Sadagora, Ukraine, a former center of Hasidism, where Hava Nagila was first chanted in the mid-1800s as a wordless prayer, or nigun. They traveled to Jerusalem and visited the Israeli National Archive, where scholar Edwin Seroussi placed Hava Nagila in the context of the conscious creation of Hebrew folk culture in the early part of the 20th century. In Tel Aviv, they had an unforgettable hora lesson from Israeli dance legend Ayala Goren. Back in the U.S., they returned to the Bay Area to film scholar James Loeffler, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner and the Klezmatics in concert. They rounded out their filming with an interview with Soviet-born musician Regina Spektor and with a visit to KlezKamp in the Catskills, where they interviewed the colorful and brilliant “Hava Hater” Henry Sapoznik.
“It has been a fascinating journey from Ukraine to YouTube with Hava Nagila,” says director Grossman. “I believe we managed to thread the needle between heart and humor, emotion and entertainment, resulting in an unexpectedly deep and compelling meditation on the tragedies, triumphs and joys in the modern Jewish journey.”
Premiering opening night at the 2012 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, to an enthusiastic sold-out crowd at the Castro Theater, Hava Nagila (The Movie) was hailed as an instant hit – “a toe-tapping, entertaining celebration of the song” (San Francisco Chronicle) that brought together young and old, Jew and non-Jew.
“Watching Roberta Grossman’s brilliant “Hava Nagila (The Movie)” in the Castro Theatre with more than a thousand other festivalgoers on opening night was, if not a religious experience, certainly a celebration of Jewish community. As we followed, together, the transnational migrations of what has become the quintessential barmitzvah song, we recalled our own experiences and shared something profound — a recognition of our common Jewishness.” – Sue Fishkoff, Editor, JWeekly.com