This article was first published in The Forward.
One day, in the summer of 2008, the question “‘Hava Nagila’ — what is it?” popped into Roberta Grossman’s head. Although she was familiar with the ubiquitous song, she was clueless about its origins. Thus began the filmmaker’s four-year quest to investigate the Jewish standard’s century-and-a-half journey, from Ukraine to YouTube. The result is her new documentary film, “Hava Nagila (The Movie),” which premieres at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on July 19.
“It turned out that ‘Hava Nagila’ is an amazing portal to 150 years of Jewish history, culture and spirituality,” the Los Angeles-based Grossman told the Forward in a recent telephone interview. “Once we started sticking our toe in the big Hava river, so to speak, we realized there was a lot out there.”
Grossman had always thought of the song as a touchstone of her own culturally Jewish childhood, but until she began researching it, she had no idea of its reach and effectiveness. The quest to understand “Hava Nagila” turned into an inquiry into her own American Jewish identity, as well as into why certain songs have such staying power.
Click here to read more and to watch a video of Danny Kaye and Harry Belafonte singing Hava Nagila.