‘Hava Nagila’ rejoices in song’s past

Annual trip to movies on Dec. 25 with Temple Beth Hatfiloh takes turn from the staples of ‘Fiddler’ and ‘Yentl’

Contributing writerDecember 20, 2013 

Friends sing “Hava Nagila” to the guest of honor at a bar mitzvah celebration from the 1950s in this image from the movie “Hava Nagila,” which is showing next week at Capitol Theater in Olympia. The Dec. 25 showing is put on by Temple Beth Hatfiloh.


Hava Nagila: The Movie

What: Temple Beth Hatfiloh offers something different for its 10th annual Dec. 25 film screening — a documentary about the origins and significance of the quintessentially Jewish song “Hava Nagila.”

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Capitol Theater, 206 Fifth Ave. SE, Olympia

Tickets: $8.50 general admission, $5.50 for Olympia Film Society members, $4 for kids 12 and younger

More information: 360-754-6670 or olympiafilmsociety.org

Also: The temple will collect coats and other warm clothing to be donated to St. Michael Parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Clothing Bank. The film is open to all ages. Beer and wine will be for sale in the mezzanine, open only to ages 21 and older. It’s an old Jewish tradition to go to the movies Dec. 25. If you’re not celebrating Christmas, there’s not much else to do.

Olympia’s Temple Beth Hatfiloh has put its own twist on the tradition over the past decade, hosting a screening at the Capitol Theater. Typically, the temple has hosted a sing-along to “Fiddler on the Roof” or occasionally “Yentl.”

This year, the temple went in a different direction and will show the often-funny 2013 documentary “Hava Nagila: The Movie” about the quintessentially Jewish song.

“It’s a cultural marker,” said Temple Beth Hatfiloh Rabbi Seth Goldstein. “It’s that instant go-to song. At any Jewish wedding or bar mitzvah, you’re not going to leave there without hearing ‘Hava Nagila.’”

As the film’s narrator asks: “What’s up with this song, so kitschy and yet so profound, so happy and yet it’s Jewish? Is ‘Hava Nagila’ a hundred years old or a thousand? Did someone sit down to write it, or did it come down from Sinai? And what’s the deal with the chair?” (Guests of honor are often held aloft in a chair during the hora, the circle dance.)

Even if the name “Hava Nagila” means nothing to you, you’ve almost certainly heard the tune. (Listen to a version by Harry Belafonte and Danny Kaye at youtube.com/watch?v=B971FNuLgQo.)

Belafonte is just one of the many notables appearing in the film, which attempts to dig out the truth about the song’s origins in between showing how widespread it has become in pop culture.

Also featured is Connie Francis, who recorded the song on her album “Connie Francis Sings Jewish Favorites.” She jokes in the film, “I’m 10 percent Jewish on my manager’s side.”

The film, which has played at Jewish film festivals across the country, also shows the song being used for gymnastics and ice-skating routines and being performed at a Bruce Springsteen concert.

Professor James Loeffler says in the film that he always thought of the song as “a greasy cliché of Jewish music,” but as he studied it, he found that it is “a portal into a century and a half of Jewish history.”

Donald Liebenson, who reviewed the film for rogerebert.com, sums it up as “a slight but very satisfying, and at times surprisingly moving, documentary about the inescapable Jewish anthem.”

You might even have heard it at a show here in Olympia. “Erev Rav, the local klezmer band, plays a version of it,” Goldstein said.

The rabbi said he thought it would be fun to do something different from the typical sing-along for the 10th year of the Dec. 25 event.

“There are some people who want ‘Fiddler’ every year,” he said, “and there are some people who say, ‘“Fiddler” again?!’

“I thought this would be fun because it’s such a popular song and an aspect of Jewish culture,” he added. “It’s something different.”

And if it’s not a sing along, “it is about a song,” he said. “It lends itself to karaoke, maybe.”

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