By SAM ROBERTS
“Hava Nagila” was born in Eastern Europe, but became emblematic of Israel. It went global as a universal anthem of celebration and was recorded by performers ranging from Allan Sherman to Lena Horne. It evokes strong emotions — it has been denounced as “the kudzu of Jewish music” and hailed as “a profound haiku of Jewish history and identity.”
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Archives
Can all those reverberations from a single song be captured in a spare 900-square-foot octagonal gallery?
Well, why not?
The Museum of Jewish Heritage, a Living Memorial to the Holocaust, in Lower Manhattan, has done just that. Its curators and designers have created a jaunty aural and visual exhibition, “Hava Nagila: A Song for the People,” that portrays the song in virtually all its exponential iterations.
Few songs have proved so ubiquitous and transformative — “Amazing Grace” and “Strange Fruit” immediately come to mind — that they merited the scholarship that has been lavished on “Hava Nagila” in the exhibition and in a 73-minute documentary. The film is excerpted on one of the gallery’s two video screens (the other features an eclectic pastiche of YouTube performances from around the world).
Yes, the museum’s Rotunda Gallery is more compact than some New York studio apartments. That it is so self-contained, though, amplifies the power of the buoyant beat that resonates under life-size aluminum “umbrellas” suspended from the ceiling and activated by motion detectors to provide cones of salience for visitors.
The exhibit was designed for the museum by two Brooklyn-based practices, Situ Studio and MTWTF. (Flor provided multicolored carpet squares, which help isolate the sound so visitors hear only one version at a time.) The goal of the designers was to meld aural, tactile and visual effects into a single experience — “to communicate the diversity of the song’s infinite embodiments while also conjuring that particular joyous fervor that the melody imbues,” as Bradley Samuels, a Situ partner, put it.
A clockwise tour of the gallery begins with the history of this folk anthem, from its roots as a nigun — a wordless tune — in the court of Rabbi Yisroel Friedman of the Sadigora Hasidic community in what is now Ukraine.
During World War I, expatriates exported the melody to Jewish Palestine, where, in 1915, it was transcribed by Abraham Z. Idelsohn, a musicologist. Apparently inspired by a verse in Psalms (“This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad on it”), he is generally credited with the Hebrew lyrics.
Not long after Idelsohn’s choir recorded the song in 1922 (its rendition can be heard under the gallery’s first umbrella), “Hava Nagila” (translated as “Let Us Rejoice”) was embraced as the inexorable musical accompaniment to an imported circle folk dance, the hora, which spread to Palestine from Romania.
Depending on the tempo, the tune can be bittersweet, which transformed it into a song of remembrance and of hope (“Awake brothers with a happy heart”) embraced by Holocaust survivors and by pioneer Zionists committed to a Jewish state. Photographs in the exhibit depict children dancing the hora at the Jewish Palestine Pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York and at a displaced persons camp in Germany after World War II.
It didn’t take long for the song to resonate in America, where the beat and the joyous lyrics made it a staple of weddings (with the bride and groom precariously hoisted on chairs) and bar mitzvahs — to the point that some Jews shunned it. (Enough, already!)
“I want them to suspend their original feeling, whether they love it or hate it,” said Alice Rubin, the museum’s project manager. “When you unpack it, it has connections for everybody.” Those connections are apparent in photographs and other personal memorabilia that visitors have submitted online, through social media and in person since the exhibit opened in September.
What is so striking about the exhibit and “Hava Nagila: The Movie” by Roberta Grossman and Sophie Sartain is the song’s global crossover reach. (The film is scheduled to open for theatrical release in New York next March; the exhibit runs through May.)
Harry Belafonte discovered “Hava Nagila” in Greenwich Village coffeehouses and his recording of it at Carnegie Hall in 1959 bridged ethnic and cultural boundaries. He says it quickly became his second most popular song, just behind his signature “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).”
“The most moving experience I ever had singing ‘Hava Nagila’ was in Germany,” he says in the video. “An African-American, an American, standing in Germany, which a decade earlier had been responsible for mass murder, these young German kids singing this Hebrew song of rejoicing.”
The exhibition demonstrates how interpretations run the gamut, from a bhangra festival of Indian dance in Vancouver to a klezmer concert in Wales, from a celebration at B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan of the legalization of same-sex marriage to the musical accompaniment for the gold medal performance of Aly Raisman, the American gymnast, at the London Olympics.
“Everybody knows ‘Hava Nagila,’ yet few people know the song’s long journey — from Sadigora, to Palestine, to the global jukebox,” said Melissa Martens, the exhibit’s curator and the museum’s director of collections and exhibitions. “Its familiarity since the ’60s positioned it for new uses: as comedy, protest, politics and parody. Today the song is still often played with a purposeful nod and wink to the listener. New versions surface daily on YouTube from people all over the world who find pride, humor, nostalgia, identification or momentum in the melody we know as ‘Hava Nagila.’ ”
Chubby Checker performed it and so did Elvis, Josephine Baker, Celia Cruz, the Muppets, Dalida in sultry French and Glen Campbell on the flip side of his recording of “True Grit.” The Barry Sisters (née Clara and Minnie Bagelman) recorded “Hava Nagila” and so did Connie Francis. (“I’m 10 percent Jewish on my manager’s side,” she says in the film.) Lena Horne sang the melody to a civil rights anthem (“Now!”) in 1962 (lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the setting by Jule Styne).
“As ‘Hava Nagila’ and American Jews gained acceptance in mainstream culture, self-humor, reflection and parody came into the remix,” one caption explains. Allan Sherman sang “Harvey and Sheila” about the Jewish exodus to the suburbs. The Simpsons went caroling and sang it to neighbors with the lyric “Hava Nice Christmas.” Larry David downloaded it as a ring tone. Nowadays, you can buy a Harvey Nagila singing and dancing doll and even find the recipe to a Halvah-Nagila smoothie.
And Bob Dylan deliberately mangled it in “Talkin’ Hava Negeilah Blues” after introducing the tune as “a foreign song I learned in Utah.”
“Nothing is more Jewish than that performance because it is both an embrace and a refusal,” Josh Kun, a professor of communication at the University of Southern California, says in the film. “And, to me, that’s Jewishness at its core.”