Hava Nagila's long, strange trip
May 12, 2023
If there is one Jewish song known by Jews and non-Jews alike, it is undoubtedly Hava Nagila, which is Hebrew for "let us rejoice." From its obscure origins in early 20th-century Palestine, the song has gone on to become a perennial favorite at weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs and Jewish and non-Jewish cultural events around the world. With its short lyrics and simple yet distinctive melody, Hava Nagila has been recorded hundreds of times by musicians ranging from Neil Diamond, the Barry Sisters, and Harry Belafonte to the contemporary pop singer Ben Folds and the Serbian Gypsy brass band legend Boban Marcovic. Yet for all of its widespread popularity, few know the history of this global Jewish hit.
Eastern European Origins
Like many modern Israeli and popular Jewish songs, Hava Nagila began its life as a Hasidic melody in Eastern Europe. There the tune was sung as a nigun (wordless melody) among the Sadigorer Hasidim, who took their name from the small town of Sadigora in Bukovina (present-day Ukraine), where the Rizhiner Rebbe, Reb Yisroel Friedman (1798-1850) had settled from Russia and established his court in 1845.
At some point around the turn of the last century, a group of Sadigorer Hasidim emigrated to Jerusalem and brought the nigun with them. There the melody might have remained in the cloistered world of Jerusalem's Hasidic communities if not for one man, Avraham Zvi Idelsohn, the father of Jewish musicology.
Idelsohn was born in 1882 in Foelixburg (Filzburg), a small town in the Courland province of Tsarist Russia (present-day Latvia). He trained as a cantor in Russia and studied classical music in conservatories in Berlin and Leipzig before settling in Jerusalem sometime after 1905. He soon became active as a musician, music teacher and scholar in the Jewish community there.
As a passionate Zionist, Idelsohn sought to collect and preserve the folk music of Jewish communities from around the world, using a phonograph to record the traditional melodies of Yemenite, Russian, German, Moroccan and other communities he encountered in Jerusalem. At the same time, he sought to pioneer a new style of modern national music that would unify the Jewish people as they returned to their historic homeland in Palestine. To that end, he arranged and composed many new Hebrew-language songs based on traditional melodies. These modern songs with ancient roots quickly became popular as new Hebrew folk songs, sung in kibbutzim, moshavs and printed in songbooks in the Jewish community of pre-state Israel and beyond. Among them was Hava Nagila.
Idelsohn transcribed the Sadigorer melody in 1915, while serving as a bandmaster in the Ottoman Army during World War I. In 1918 he selected the tune for a celebration concert performance in Jerusalem after the British army had defeated the Turks. Arranging the melody in four parts, Idelsohn added a Hebrew text derived from Psalms:
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
The words echo the biblical verse: "This is the day that God has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it" – "Ze ha-yom asah adonai, nagila ve-nismeha bo" (Psalms 118:24). Years later, one of Idelsohn's students, Cantor Moshe Nathanson, claimed that he had suggested the verse to his teacher. Whatever the original lyrical inspiration, the song was an immediate hit. Idelsohn himself later recalled how the song spread extremely quickly:
"The choir sang it and it apparently caught the imagination of the people, for the next day men and women were singing the song throughout Jerusalem. In no time it spread throughout the country, and thence throughout the Jewish world." Idelsohn first published the song in a Hebrew song collection in 1922. Soon it was being sung all over the world, typically referred to simply as a "Palestinian" or "Hebrew" folk song, with no mention of its origins, Hasidic or otherwise.
In the decades after Hava Nagila first appeared, it became a world-wide fixture of Jewish life. Already in the 1920s and 1930s it was sung in Zionist circles in the United States and Europe. Soon the song was included in Jewish children's songbooks in Palestine, Europe and North America. At the same time, cantors and Jewish folk singers began to issue commercial recordings of Hava Nagila. By the 1940s, the song had become a staple of Jewish weddings, bar mitzvahs, and youth groups, where it was sung and danced as an Israeli-style hora folk dance.
Harry Does Hava
In the 1950s, Hava Nagila began to attract the attention of well-known non-Jewish performers in the United States. This was the era in which American popular singers began to perform folk songs from around the world. Along with Italian, Calypso, and other ethnic pop song hits, performers turned to Hava Nagila.
Cuban-born mambo legend Machito and his Afro-Cuban Orchestra was one such example. His 1951 recording of Hava Nagila as "Holiday Mambo" made the tune into a dance hit (to listen, click here). Dick Dale, the Californian king of the surf guitar, scored a popular hit with his 1963 version of the song (as well as his equally famous 1962 cover of "Misirlou.") But perhaps the non-Jewish musician who did the most to make Hava Nagila into a mainstream cultural favorite was international pop star Harry Belafonte. In the 1950s, Belafonte used Hava Nagila as his regular closing number because of its uplifting melody and hopeful, brotherly lyrics (to listen, click here). His 1959 Carnegie Hall live concert recording became a best-selling record. For musicians such as Machito, Dale, and Belafonte, Hava Nagila appealed because of its catchy, quirky, and distinctive Jewish melody and optimistic, joyous, and easy lyrics.
The popularity of Hava Nagila only continued to grow in the 1960s and 1970s, as it came to be featured in Israeli films and American Jewish celebrations of all sorts. Yet by the 1980s and 1990s, Hava Nagila had spread in popularity to the point of caricature. It could be heard at Romani weddings in Macedonia and Yugoslavia, in Las Vegas nightclubs, on Israeli television shows, and in European dance clubs as a techno hit. Entering into its post-modern phase of popularity, Hava Nagila began to be the subject of musical parodies by musicians, both Jewish and non-Jewish.
In recent years, the number of new interpretations have multiplied exponentially to include avant-garde jazz, punk rock (to listen to Me First and the Gimme Gimmes' version, click here), and reggae recordings. Some klezmer musicians have even taken the melody back to its roots by performing the song in the style of a slow Hasidic nigun. Traditional or ultra-modern, all of these versions play on the song's famous, easily recognizable melody. Though it continues to evolve in many different musical directions, Hava Nagila remains a universal symbol of Jewish song and celebration.