Ukrainian Jewish Heritage: Hava Nagila—the song, the story and the movie

Hava Nagila. The words are Hebrew for Let Us Rejoice.

They also comprise the title of one of the most recognizable and well-known songs in the world. And little did I know just how appropriate a theme song it would turn out to be for a radio series called Ukrainian Jewish Heritage!

This Jewish folk song with the catchy melody is known and sung in countless countries around the world. It has been adapted to just about every imaginable music genre. Some have a love-hate relationship with the song, but you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who has never heard of it.

The Sadigura synagogue in Sadhora, Ukraine. (Public Domain.)

What is not so well-known is that this catchy melody actually originated in Ukraine. And that the catchy melody is actually a nigun, a wordless prayer melody sung by Hassidic Jews since the mid 1800s. Equally unknown is the amazing journey of this song from a shtetl in Ukraine into the world of pop culture.

I don’t actually recall when I first heard it. Probably on Ed Sullivan or other variety TV show popular in the 1960s & 70s when I was growing up. I do recall getting the lyrics and guitar chords from a friend in high school… but didn’t even know what language the words were in.

Hava Nagila still fascinates me today. Every time I hear it, something resonates with me … oddly, it seems to fill a void and never fails to lift my mood. To be honest, that was the case even before I knew what the words Hava Nagila meant, and years later, after I forgot what they meant.

Recently I became fascinated with the story behind the song. It started a few years ago, in Lviv. A Ukrainian man who could perhaps be called a born-again Hassidic Jew mentioned in passing that Hava Nagila had Ukrainian roots.

My immediate thought was Ha! I knew it. I could tell something about it was Ukrainian. After all, I do know a thing or two about Ukrainian music!

My friend’s claim about Hava Nagila being Ukrainian definitely piqued my curiosity. So I did a bit of online research, just to satisfy it.

I didn’t find much online. But I did find out that I was not the only curious soul looking for answers about the origins of this song. Lucky for me, and anyone else curious about it, I found my answers in Hava Nagila (The Movie).

Produced and directed by award-winning American filmmaker Roberta Grossman, Hava Nagila (The Movie) is a documentary romp through the history, mystery and meaning of this ubiquitous Jewish standard.

Hava Nagila (The Movie) is as entertaining as it is informative. It not only details the song’s origins in Ukraine, it also details its journey to become a pop culture sensation around the world. Or, as the producer and director of the movie puts it, from Ukraine to YouTube.

To learn about song’s beginnings, Roberta Grossman and her team travelled to Ukraine. There she spoke with Ukrainian speaking locals in the birthplace of Hava Nagila, a town called Sadagora, in Bukovina. She looked for Jews living there, but found none. She did, however, find the ruins of a once-great synagogue. And as luck would have it, at the same time a descendant of the famous rabbi connected with it.

From there the movie chronicles the song’s journey to Palestine, where the lyrics for Hava Nagila were written. Then came the world wars, the Holocaust, and the identity crisis of an entire people in post-traumatic shock.

But Jews are nothing if not resilient. And while a simple song can hardly take credit for their resilience, it arguably can be credited with symbolizing it.

Hava Nagila (The Movie) makes a strong argument for that claim. Featuring interviews with pop culture icons like Harry Belafonte, Connie Francis, Glen Campbell, Leonard Nimoy, and others, the film reveals the layers of cultural complexity with humor, depth and heart. It also explores the spiritual aspects of the song with well-known and respected American rabbis.

“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.”

While the filmmakers may see YouTube as the end of the song’s journey, I think it’s possible that Hava Nagila may have come full circle.

If you do a search on YouTube for Hava Nagila in Ukraine, you will come up with quite an interesting collection of performances on the stages and the streets of towns and cities across Ukraine. And I daresay, there are many more that didn’t make it onto YouTube.

You can find links to some of the YouTube videos at the Nash Holos website (below) and blog. You can also find links to where you can purchase or rent Hava Nagila (The Movie).

I highly recommend watching this movie, and sharing it with friends and family. It will make you laugh, possibly cry.

But without a doubt it is a story that will leave you amazed as well as amused.

I’m Pawlina, host of Nash Holos Ukrainian Roots Radio. I hope you enjoyed this story about Hava Nagila.

Until next time, Shalom!

Ukrainian Jewish Heritage is brought to you by The Ukrainian Jewish Encounter based in Toronto, Ontario. To find out more visit their website (here) and follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

Tune in to the Vancouver edition of Nash Holos Saturdays at 6pm PST on CHMB Vancouver AM1320 or streaming online. As well, the Nanaimo edition airs on Wednesdays from 11am-1pm on air at 101.7FM or online at CHLY Radio Malaspina. As well the International edition airs in over 20 countries on AM, FM, shortwave and satellite radio via PCJ Radio International. (To get the podcast links, click on the Listen tab in the menu bar.) In between broadcasts, please follow @NashHolos on Twitter and Like the Nash Holos Facebook page. I love to hear from you so please send me your suggestions, dedications and requests here. Your comments are always welcome!


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