3rd Prize — Jewish Renaissance

Last June, The New York Times reported that ‘Hava Nagila’ had echoed through Monte-Carlo Beach Club at an after party for the Formula 1 Grand Prix. Its recital at a plush Monaco club reflects the secularisation and ubiquity of the century-old Jewish folk number. Yet, even as it assumes increasing status amongst non-Jews, the traditional song still offers a rich and multilayered metaphor for Jewish unity, which has become especially resonant since the 7 October attack at Israel’s Supernova festival.

Following the onset of the Israel-Hamas war, Jews have increasingly come together as a community. Synagogue attendance globally has soared, there have been surges in Star of David necklace sales, and hundreds of thousands have marched against antisemitism in Washington DC, London, Paris and beyond. But on top of these expressions of solidarity, another more spiritual approach can be found through engagement with ‘Hava Nagila’ – its history, lyrics, usage and prominent status within Jewish celebrations. In Israel, dance often acts as a unifying medium for Jews. It keeps spirits high and is a source of cultural expression. 

Since war broke out, countless videos of Israeli soldiers energetically dancing at military camps have circulated across social media. The American Haredi entertainer, Lipa Schmeltzer performed for IDF soldiers deployed near Gaza in November. He shared a video of himself dancing with them on Twitter, noting: “IDF dancing gives energy. Good energy will bring peace.” Another video widely shared on the social platform, dating back to October, shows Israeli soldiers dancing enthusiastically with a Torah as the Iron Dome (a mobile air defence machine) intercepts Hamas rockets above. 

Dance has also taken on an added symbolism since the 7 October attack. Where people should have been freely enjoying the music festival, one of the largest terror attacks in Israeli history occurred. 

Jewish dancing is a clear means of building unity – no more so than in the case of ‘Hava Nagila’, the history and lyrics of which have unity at their heart. The song’s creation was itself an example of interdenominational Jewish collaboration. Abraham Zevi Idelsohn, widely considered the “father of Jewish musicology”, developed ‘Hava Nagila’ in 1918 to celebrate the Balfour Declaration and British victory over the Ottomans in Jerusalem.

Idelsohn pioneered Reform Judaism in South Africa, but wrote that his ‘Hava Nagila’ melody was inspired by a niggun (Jewish religious song) from the Sadigura Hasidic dynasty (formerly part of the Austrian Empire) based in modern-day Ukraine. With the antithetical nature between Hasidic and Reform Jewry, it is unusual but uplifting that together they shaped what is, arguably, Judaism’s most famous folk song.

Cooperation between progressive and ultra-Orthodox Jews is rare, particularly in Israel, with Hasidic conscription exemption despised by many secular Jews. Yet, since 7 October, 2,000 of Israel’s Hasidic Jews have enlisted in military service, choosing to serve alongside their non-Hasidic countrymen in a unique show of solidarity – just as Idelsohn and the Sadigura Hasids came together in the early 20th century.

‘Hava Nagila’ has become synonymous with Jewish celebration. It is a permanent fixture at Jewish weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs across the world. At its core, ‘Hava Nagila’ is about joy and Jewish pride. Its words translate to: “Let’s rejoice and be happy… Awake brothers with a happy heart.” Edwin Seroussi, one of Israel’s leading musicologists, wrote that ‘Hava Nagila’ has become “a universal symbol of Jewish happiness”.

The ideas of joy that the folk number espouses, resonates particularly strongly given the sharp rise in antisemitism worldwide since 7 October. As breaking glass at a wedding reminds the groom of the destruction of the First Temple of Jerusalem and dark epochs in Jewish history, ‘Hava Nagila’ does the opposite. Its message serves as a reminder that even in worrying moments, there is time for cheer. Whilst antisemitism increases and it is not a time for unbounded happiness, weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs continue. There is still much to celebrate.

The song’s continued existence reaffirms Jewish resilience. It survived the Holocaust and many previous conflicts. Even in the most joyless times in history, Jews have kept hope. In May 1942, over a two day period, 42 weddings took place in Poland’s Lodz Ghetto. A unity between Jews that ‘Hava Nagila’’s lyrics suggest is vital for this resilience.

The widespread popularity of the folk song with Jews and non-Jews alike, gives it more than unifying qualities. Indeed, its consumption by non-Jews indicates an allyship and appreciation for Jewish culture, something that in recent years has often been lacking, especially in typically progressive anti-racist circles.

Numerous remixes have been produced over the years including reggae, techno, rock, and hip hop versions. The tune has spread so widely that it can be heard in the stands of the Dutch football club, Ajax, even though very few of their fans are Jewish. The Amsterdam club is perceived as having Jewish roots and, at one point, the song could be downloaded from the team’s website as a ringtone. In America, ‘Hava Nagila’ was a key part of the repertoire of Harry Belafonte, an iconic African-American pop star who was heavily involved in the civil rights movement. It has even made an Olympic appearance. Aly Raisman, an American Jewish gymnast, performed one of her routines to ‘Hava Nagila’ at the 2012 London Olympics, where she claimed two gold medals.

People of all faiths know ‘Hava Nagila’, which is why you’ll hear it everywhere and anywhere, from Hasidic weddings to lavish Monte Carlo clubs. It’s difficult to think of another traditional number that would be played by such diverse audiences.

The song’s varied usage, even if not always consciously, provides a positive message of solidarity and respect – something frequently missing in a divisive post-7 October political climate. ‘Hava Nagila’ is emblematic of the Jewish community coming together in response to spiralling antisemitism and remains as relevant today as it was when it was first written over 100 years ago.

By Adam Pogrund

Header photo: Wedding celebrations in Kibbutz Eilon, 1971

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