Who knew that the entire Jewish world would go gaga because an 18-year-old gymnast decided to do her floor routine to one of the most parodied, kitschy songs ever written: Hava Nagila. Aly Raisman could have picked so many other beautiful, catchy Jewish songs. True, most people would not have known they were Jewish. As Hava Nagila expert Dr. James Loeffler has said, this song is one of the first three things people know about Jews.“They know about Israel, they know about the Holocaust and they know about ‘Hava Nagila.”
The question is, do we truly want to be associated with Hava Nagila?
As Loeffler has written, this song is the perfect blend of the biblical, traditional, and modern Zionist. The melody began as a Hasidic niggun which morphed into a modern Hebrew folk song. How many songs can you think of that have been been greatest hits both in the shtiebel of the shtetl and the kibbutz mess hall? But that’s precisely what happened with this song, which has unified the Jewish people almost as much as the Sh’ma and Hatikva…. come to think of it, when have your ever heard Hatikva played at a Bar Mitzvah reception? But like clockwork, there is Hava Nagila, every time, somewhere between “Coke and Pepsi” and Aunt Bessie’s appearance at the candle lighting ceremony.
Yes it’s been parodied more than Sammy Davis Jr. Allan Sherman’s “Harvey and Sheila” uses the song as a vehicle to parody American Jewish culture as a whole. On “Laugh In,” they sang, “Hava nagila, have two nagilas, have three nagilas, they’re pretty small.”
But any melody that could bridge the worlds of Hasid and Halutz has a power that transcends parody. Hava Nagila’s impact has not been pretty small.
And last week, when Aly completed her final routine and then dedicated her gold medal to the slain Israeli athletes of Munich, I found myself crying to the kitschiest song ever written. Hava Nagila had itself taken a gymnast’s leap from being a source of parody to becoming a source of pride.
At its root, Hava Nagila expresses the Jewish resilience and our love of life, our age-old ability to turn sorrow into song. The lyrics, written in the early 20th century by Jewish musicologist Avraham Zvi Idelsohn, are based on Psalm 118:24, “This is the day of the Lord, let us rejoice (Nagila V’nismecha) in it.” Turns out Jews have as many synonyms for joy has Eskimos do for snow. These words also resonate through the seventh blessing of the Jewish marriage ceremony. As they wept over the ashes of the still smoldering second temple, the rabbis were able to imagine a scenario of gladness, joy and mirth. It is all about embracing life. Despite our reputation for being a depressive people, we are capable of being both Jewish and joyish. Hava Nagila is the proof that we can take “Yes” for an answer.
Plus, life cannot be celebrated in isolation. Aly Raisman chose Hava Nagila because of her Jewish roots, but also because it invites – no, demands – audience participation.People are compelled to clap to it, even if only to try to drown it out. Hava Nagila is, at its essence, a prayer and for Jews, prayer is a team sport.
So now, Aly has become Sandy Koufax, and Hava Nagila is no longer just that cheesy bar mitzvah song. It has returned to its own roots. It has become a psalm again.