Some months ago, I read about a new documentary film called Hava Nagila (The Movie). I took immediate notice, but there was just one problem: small films like this have a hard time making it to screens in Minneapolis. How was I ever going to see it?
I had some hope when I recently made what has become an annual pilgrimage to Palm Springs — so many Jews in the desert during Passover and SO close to L.A. Sure enough, the film was playing on one screen there. But alas, the timing just never worked out.
Upon my return to the frozen North, I kept bugging my TC Jewfolk colleagues that we should try to put on a screening right here. And then an e-mail came telling me that a local screening is already on the schedule. Even better, I got to see it early!
Hava Nagila (The Movie) tells the story of the song we all know, but know nothing about. The story of its origins surely surprised me, and I expect it to surprise most people under the age of 80. The film asks all of the right questions. Why have I never wondered about the song’s meaning, history, or relevance? Why do we sing it and dance to it at every wedding and bar mitzvah? Why do we lift people up in chairs? Who came up with the Hora? Why does the Hora only work with Hava Nagila? Why do old people who can’t even walk somehow muster the energy to be part of this classic song and dance combo?
If you want the answers to these questions, you’ll have to go see the film. I’m surely not going to tell you.
The filmmaker, Roberta Grossman (who will be at the screening on May 23rd), is as sarcastic as I am [Editor’s Note: Very sarcastic], and I loved how she didn’t take herself too seriously in the making of this film. Her style and deadpan voiceover kept me more entertained than some of the film itself.
Grossman also taps into Hava Nagila as a Jewish benchmark in pop culture, with interviews from an odd, but fascinating mix of Hava Nagila aficionados. For better or for worse, dozens of clips from well known TV shows and films show how Hava Nagila has become more than just a Jewish song performed at weddings. But this isn’t just a happy-go-lucky film; because what Jewish film would be, right? There are the Hava Nagila detractors, those who are bored with it or who find no meaning in it’s simple melody. These Jews — who probably won’t include Hava Nagila on their own wedding and bar mitzvah playlists — also probably hate Disney World.
Meanwhile, this semi-corny Jew, who loves Disney World and the Hora, was touched by this film in two ways. The first time I perked up on the couch was when Grossman dived into the melody of Hava Nagila and its origins as a nigun. I was immediately 5 years old again and with my grandfather as he hummed nigunim to me (I thought he was just mumbling). Or maybe I was 10 and my Great Uncle Aaron hummed those nigunim to himself.
Really good stuff. If you’ve ever been to a Jewish wedding or bar mitzvah, you need to see this film.
Hava Nagila (The Movie)
Riverview Theater (3800 42nd Ave. S., Minneapolis, 55406)
Thursday, May 23, 7pm
Special guest appearance by director Roberta Grossman, and live music by Judith Eisner Klezmorim
Tickets: $10 / $5 for students and children, available at the door or through the St. Paul JCC.