Why We Sing “Hava Nagila”

Purple Tree Photography

At just about every Jewish wedding, we are familiar with dancing the Hora, hoisting the newlyweds on chairs, and celebrating them to a certain joyous song. This iconic song and dance have a deep history, but just over 100 years ago, they were relatively unknown. Today, most people know “Hava Nagila” and it is possibly the most recognizable Jewish song in existence.

How did a relatively unknown song reach such prominence? In an excellent article, Tablet Magazine did some digging and made a number of interesting discoveries about where the song came from. Unsurprisingly, they uncovered that “Hava Nagila” has deep (and still mysterious) roots.

The Roots Run Deep

Image from Tablet Magazine

In the early 1900s, the cantor Abraham Zvi Idelsohn was researching traditional Hebrew music in and around Jerusalem. His project led him to discover a melody while at the court of the Sagurer Hasidim, who had immigrated to Jerusalem from what is now part of the Ukraine. The lyrics were inspired by Psalm 118, particularly verse 24, but were kept secular to increase their appeal. Idelsohn was a Zionist and cantor who wished to unite and invigorate the growing Jewish cultural identity, and correctly guessed that “Hava Nagila” would be a wonderful addition.

“Hava Nagila” was first performed publicly in Jerusalem in 1918, and quickly became extremely popular across the Jewish diaspora, spreading through the world with the first commercial recording completed in Berlin in 1922, along with publication in a songbook. The choreographer Baruch Agadati performed a Hora dance to the song for the first time in 1924. By the 1930s it was well known and very popular in Zionist circles.

Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, “Hava Nagila” was performed by many prominent artists including Harry Belafonte, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, and Lena Horne. Harry Belafonte in particular helped make the song well known, and his impassioned performances helped boost its popularity. Its upbeat lyrics made it a natural fit for the Hora, a dance that also has deep roots in eastern Europe, which today is danced at weddings as well as bar and bat mitzvahs.

A Glorious Legacy

Photograph: Luminous Weddings

Singing “Hava Nagila” and dancing the Hora are a recent but cherished part of our heritage, and come from a time when modern Hebrew was still being formed into a spoken and living language. Idelsohn’s rediscovery of this joyful song brought it out of obscurity and cemented it as a landmark tradition that helped the cause of Zionism and also gave all Jewish people a shared experience and tradition that has lasted over a century and shows no signs of weakening!