I must begin this text confessing that I always thought this song, which has been accompanying me practically from birth, was way too hackneyed. I think you all know it, the “Hava Nagila” that has been danced and sung hundreds of times at weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, and other celebrations all over the world. Yes, if there’s one thing that softens the nuisance of (always) feeling like a foreigner is the real possibility of finding other Jews anywhere — in some places more than in others — and sharing jokes and songs with them without further delay.
For example, this sensation had considerably diminished the cultural gap between Alan and me when we first met, although we have never danced or sung “Hava Nagila” together until today. Imagine if this wasn’t the case.
Still, I did not hesitate one second to stop working early and postpone Rosh Hashanah dinner for a couple of hours in order to watch the “Hava Nagila” movie on PBS, as I’ve seen announced a few days before.
I did not regret it.
A lot of what I saw on the screen I have lived, or heard about, having been born precisely in the time and place where thrived the chalutzim, the Jewish pioneers who settled the recently declared State of Israel starting in 1948. And let’s not forget, having been educated by Mrs. Eva Cohen, or Chava, a former leader of the Jewish youth movement in Belo Horizonte, a position I have occupied myself years later. That’s how the spirit of the music was ingrained in me, but I have never experienced the deep emotion this melody has raised, and raises still. And if neither did you, if like most of our compatriots you believe that “Hava” is boring and a little outdated, it’s because you don’t know anything.
In the movie, we learn that “Hava Nagila” was created to celebrate the intrinsic joy of being Jewish, perfectly expressed in the Hassidic traditions. And more: to counteract a history marked by losses, exiles, destruction, to prove that a Jew can lose everything, even himself in a certain way. What he never loses is his connection to spiritual fulfillment — not associated with religion, but with the hope of eternal integration, with the more than human need and sensation of belonging to a family.
At some point, however, the narrator reminds us that proverbial Jewish joy always carries a sense of tragedy, a personality trait that never allows a Jew to completely surrender to happiness (except for the brief minutes of a melody). And that, let’s face it, is something I know well.
Although I have never personally endured any of the worst collective woes that have afflicted us throughout history, from the remote Egyptian exile or maybe even before, I carry inside this propensity to suffering that never leaves me, a permanent feeling of impending catastrophe, which, lately, has been materializing before our very eyes in Brazil, the country I left behind. And that comes to add to my real suffering, making it grow exponentially.
Anyway, what deeply embarrassed me, saddened me, to the point of motivating this chronicle that has nothing to do with anything, was to understand that I have failed miserably to let myself be carried away by joy. Even if I never give up a discreet degree of optimism, striking enough to make me move forward, no matter the situation at hand, I keep this schizophrenic tendency to jump to the dark side of things.
Therefore, that’s what I intend to learn in this week that is not expected to end before we qualify to be “pardoned” for our faults — at least for this year’s faults, a year I am about to complete (speaking of the Jewish year, but also of my first year in American territory).
After all, this God that does not exist, and that if existing would lack the time and will to take care of my personal dramas, we must agree, has been good to me.
And while a wave of plainly justified sorrow takes over the land I left behind, I promise to do my best in order to understand that, with all the difficulty and harshness of the challenges I have faced, I am safe from random misfortunes, stable, quiet, in this place where I chose to live.
It never hurts to remember that here in this country to be a Jew is so meaningful that they show “Hava Nagila” on South Carolina’s ETV on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, and that’s not all. The United States allegiance to Israel and the Jews, although threatened so many times, was one of the stars (no pun intended) of the Republican debate on CNN. (We are six million Jews in America, so I heard the other day, in response to the question proposed by the vicious Ann Coulter — six million, a cabalistic number of rebirth.)
For every situation in life there are at least two ways of foreseeing what’s about to come, in my case the certainty of death or a North that reveals a fully open horizon, at least full of new possibilities. And for this, age does not seem to be important.
So here I go, singing my way towards an intangible future that might bring renovation, nice surprises, and it will. It pays to be optimistic; pessimism, on the other hand, does not makes us any stronger.
Shalom! Have a nice week!
Hava nagila/ Hava nagila ve-nis’mecha/ Uru, uru achim, uru achim be-lev sameach. [Let us rejoice/ Rejoice and be merry/ Rise, brothers, rise with a joyful heart.]