Film Review: ‘Hava Nagila’ by Bari Biern

97533_galFirst, take out your No. 2 pencils and answer this question:  Where did the traditional Jewish song, “Hava Nagila” originate?

(1)    Jerusalem
(2)    Warsaw
(3)    Miami

Okay, it’s a trick question. The real answer will surprise you, and it’s only one of the many fascinating facts revealed in producer/director Roberta Grossman’s Hava Nagila (The Movie).

To most of us raised in the Jewish faith, “Hava Nagila” is a longstanding institution— part folk song, part anthem. We sing it at weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and all manner of other celebrations, and we never sing it sitting down. At the first chords of the song, everyone in the room jumps up, forms a circle, and dances the Hora. “Hava Nagila” without the hora is like a bagel without cream cheese or Laurel without Hardy. They’ve been together as long as we can remember.

Director Grossman approaches the history of “Hava Nagila” with curiosity generously laced with humor. She questions scholars, musicians, spiritual leaders, Bar Mitzvah boys and Harry Belafonte. She tracks the song from one corner of the globe to the other until it reaches the shores of the United States. As with all great stories, not all versions agree and that conflict only enhances the lure and lore of the song.

“Mitten drinnen,” as we say in Yiddish—in the midst of it all—there are performances by Belafonte, Danny Kaye, Connie Francis, Lena Horne, Glen Campbell, and even a young Bob Dylan.

Photo courtesy of 'Haca Nagila (The Movie) website.
Photo courtesy of ‘Haca Nagila (The Movie) website.

Wikipedia devotes only a scant four lines to the history of “Hava Nagila.”  A song of such enduring significance deserves better, and gets it in Grossman’s movie.  Best of all, you don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate “Hava Nagila” So, go!  Enjoy!

Running Time: One hour and 13 minutes.

Hava Nagila (The Movie) is currently playing at West End Cinema and the Avalon Theatre. Buy tickets here.

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Bari Biern is an actress/playwright/lyricist whose first musical, 'A Dance Against Darkness: Living with AIDS' (with composer Roy Barber) was nominated for Helen Hayes Awards as Outstanding New Play and Outstanding Resident Musical. She wrote the lyrics for 'Riddle Me a Prince,' a children’s musical which premiered at Imagination Stage, with book by Ernie Joselovitz and Harry Bagdasian, and music by Emmy Award winner, Lenny Williams. She contributes lyrics to the political satire troupe, the Capitol Steps, and has been performing with them since 1993. Bari was the lyricist for the critically-acclaimed In Series production of 'The Marriage of Figaro: Las Vegas Version.' That opera (with dialogue by Elizabeth Pringle) was presented by Philadelphia’s Poor Richard’s Opera Company as part of the 2010 Philly Fringe Festival. Poor Richard’s also presented 'Gianni Schicchi,' featuring Bari’s English libretto. In 2011, Bari was the librettist for WAM2, a co-production of the In Series and the Washington Ballet. She also wrote the script for the In Series’ 'Arlen Blues & Berlin Ballads,' which premiered earlier this year. Bari has reviewed theatre and film in the DC area for WAMU-FM’s Metro Connection.


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