Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit,” “Hava Nagila” is a song worthy of its own biographical
treatment. It started in Ukraine and
became a staple of Jewish American celebrations, but the identity of its
composer remains a controversy. Documentary
filmmaker Roberta Grossman tells the story of the song and those who sing it in
Hava Nagila: the Movie (trailer here), which opens this
Friday in New York.
was based on a nigun, a wordless prayer chant incorporated into the services of
the Nineteenth Century Ukrainian Hasidic community. To commemorate the Balfour Declaration, it
was adapted into the song now commonly heard at weddings and bat/bar mitzvahs. Just who adapted it depends on whether you
talk to the Idelson or Nathanson families.
Likewise, it means different things to different musicians. To a serious Klezmer artist like Frank
London, it is rather a cliché. Yet to
old school entertainers like Glen Campbell and Irving Fields, it is a rhythmic
crowd-pleaser. Yes, that Glen Campbell. He recorded “Hava” as the B-side to his “True
Grit” single and shares some pleasant reflections with Grossman during an
interview recorded at his synagogue a few years back.
Hava will certainly change many
viewers perception of Campbell, but it is the ageless Irving Fields who truly
demands his own documentary. Known for
fusing traditional Jewish music with Latin dance music, the ninety-four
year-old Fields still gigs as a leader six nights a week in Manhattan—and could
easily pass for a man at least twenty-five years his junior. The music must keep him young, naturally including
Hava boasts some
impressive musician-commentators, including Harry Belafonte (interviewed in the
Village Vanguard, where he once performed when Max Gordon also booked folkies),
Johnny “They Call Me Bruce” Yune, and Russian indie singer-songwriter Regina
Spektor, who relates “Hava” to the Russian Refusenik experience.
successful is the rather muddled 1960’s section, in which we are told the
Jewish children of the suburbs embraced the song as some kind of folky communal
something or other. The film’s chatty
tone also becomes somewhat problematic over time. Co-produced by Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman, Hava’s shticky title cards and comedy sketch interludes often feel
like a sitcom trying too hard to be irreverent.
Although plenty of talking heads consider “Hava”
corny, it is hard to dislike a song so deeply associated with celebration and
the early founding of the State of Israel.
It is also hard to argue with the likes of Campbell, Elvis Presley, and longtime
Israel booster Lionel Hampton, all of whom covered “Hava.” Despite its weirdly inconsistent tone, Hava puts “Hava” in the proper
historical context. Recommended for
those interested in the intersection of Jewish history and musical tradition, Hava Nagila: the Movie opens this Friday
(3/1) in New York at the Lincoln Plaza.
Labels: Documentary, Glen Campbell, Hava Nagila, Irving Fields