“Hava Nagila,” that beloved, hackneyed Hebrew song that’s become a symbol of celebration and is sung at many a Diaspora bar mitzvah and wedding, and plenty of places beyond, turned 100 this year.
It’s an anniversary that’s gone remarkably unnoticed, with the possible exception of one local singing duo, Project Hora Groove, who have made it their personal task to bring back all the Hebrew oldies, often set to a newer beat.
Hora Groove, Jackie Even Chen and singer Mazal Levy, together with guitarist Gilad Argas, percussionist Or Binyamin and musical producer Alon Ohana, will perform “Hava Nagila” and other age-old favorites on Friday, September 14, 11:30 a.m., at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.
It’s mostly an older crowd that comes to hear them, said Even Chen, although there’s always a scattering of younger folks as well.
“It’s for people who appreciate a genre of music that’s getting lost,” said Even Chen. “These songs are not taught to kids in kindergarten any longer; they teach them the more recent songs, like those by Naomi Shemer and Uzi Hitman, but these songs, that were the first of the first, are forgotten.”
Well, not completely forgotten, but nearly. The 100-year-old song is still a staple at American Jewish celebrations, as documentary filmmaker Roberta Grossman showed in her 2012 film, “Hava Nagila (The Movie).”
But in Israel, where this tune was composed, it’s not always an obvious addition to the playlist.
Even Chen thinks “Hava Nagila” lost its place among Hebrew favorites because its tune is Hasidic at the core, a sound that the early settlers discarded, eschewing any connection to the old country and the languages of their previous lives.
“There were other songs that were more about patriotism and the homeland,” he said.
“Hava Nagila” — ‘Let Us Rejoice” — was written in celebration of the arrival of General Edmund Allenby in Jerusalem, explained Talila Eliram, director of the Israeli Folk Music Research Center at Bar Ilan University. The residents of the city rejoiced to be rid of the Ottoman conquerors and were overjoyed about the end of a difficult period for Jews in Israel.
“General Allenby entered Jerusalem and the Jews saw it as a sign of the Messiah,” said Eliram. “They waited for Abraham Zevi Idelsohn, a music professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, to offer a symbol of this elation.”
Idelsohn, who had originally trained as a cantor in Latvia, took a Hassidic tune, a niggun of the Sadigurer Hasidim, and used it without words to create the first version of “Hava Nagila.”
He wrote in his 1921 book, “Sefer Hashirim” (“The Book of Songs”), that it became a popular folk song, a “Palestinian” song that had originated from the Balkans when he first wrote in 1915, and that he used it in 1918 when the city needed a song to celebrate the arrival of Allenby.
Idelsohn arranged the piece in four parts for his male-and-female choir, and later wrote that it caught the imagination of the audience and spread throughout the city, the country and then the Jewish world.
There is, however, another version to the story, said Eliram.
According to the second story, Idelsohn brought the tune to his students at the Lemel School in Jerusalem, asking them to write words that would fit the elation of the time period. One student, a future cantor named Moshe Nathanson, later said that he chose the words from the Hallel prayer, “Ze hayom asa hashem, nagila v’nismecha vo.”
“This is the day that God has chosen, let us rejoice and celebrate in it,” is a line that comes from Psalm 118.
Eliram said she thinks that the latter story, as told by Nathanson, is the correct version because it just seems more likely.
“But we really don’t know,” she said.
The song was eventually recorded by a choir of cantors who sang it very slowly. Later on, the beat got faster, often joined by a circle of people dancing the hora.
The words have also changed, slightly, over time.
In the original version, the words were “ur achim b’lev sameach,” “Awake brothers with a happy heart!”
In recent years, said Eliram, it’s often sung as “muhrahim b’lev sameach,” “One has to have a happy heart.”
“A lot of Sabras sing it that way,” said Eliram.
Chen and his fellow musicians sing it according to the original text, he said.
“It was the new immigrants who turned it into ‘muhrahim,’ he said.
These days, Chen and his Project often take their show to schools, where they teach kids some of the older songs, often showing them the similarities between the songs of yesteryear and more modern music.
“Hava Nagila” is just one of the 50 or 60 songs in the Project’s repertoire, all originating from the first aliyah to Israel in the late 1880s, when Jews began learning Hebrew, as well as Hebrew songs, said Chen.
The band also works with Zemer Reshet, a company that has digitized many of the old recordings and offers them online, including “Hava Nagila.”
“It’s a song that’s just caught the imagination of a lot of people,” said Even Chen. “Harry Belafonte made a career out of it.”
The Project takes it all a step further, renewing the sound with a twist of reggae, some rock ‘n roll and even punk, said Chen. They’re now on their fourth album, which includes “Hava Nagila.”
“I always ask my students if they know it or don’t know it,” said Eliram. “They always know it, because it has a good beat and it’s happy and it’s sung whenever you want to be happy.”