Hava Nagilia: The Movie

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hava nagiliaIt’s so weird. When Iron Man 3 came out last weekend, I told people to see Kon-Tiki instead. It was a better movie. This weekend, it’s The Great Gatsby everyone is going to see, and I’m telling people they should see Hava Nagila: The Movie, instead. It’s much better.

I sat down to watch this with my favorite Jewish couple – Rich and Georgi Gordon. I had a glass of wine in my hand, and a smile on my face. This documentary was so humorous and enjoyable, the smile never left.

San Diego Reader film critic Scott Marks called me the “least Jewish Jew I know.” I can explain that. My mom’s side of the family is Jewish. She married a Catholic who wasn’t religious and when they got divorced, she married a man that was raised Catholic but also not religious. In December, we had a Christmas tree in the living room, and a menorah in the dining room. Easter was about painting eggs and eating chocolate rabbits. My mom figured that was more fun for her three kids than trying to make them eat matzah and gefilte fish for Passover.

I’ve still never been in a synagogue.

My family was small. I never attended or had a Bar Mitzvah. The only time I ever heard the song Hava Nagila in person was a cousins wedding.

I was a Jew that was growing up in Mira Mesa. I went to all my Filipino and Mexican friends parties – and knew more about their culture and food than my Jewish heritage. My memories of the song Hava Nagila are from movies like Wedding Crashers, Keeping up with the Steins, Barney’s Version, or funny scenes in episodes of The Simpsons and the Dick Van Dyke Show. I was familiar with Harry Belafonte’s version, but had no clue one of my favorite singer/songwriters did a version – Regina Spektor.

And just as you think Chubby Checker is doing the weirdest version of it you’ve ever heard (in his usual twist style), along comes the bizarre version by Bob Dylan.

I wish there was a hip-hop take on it. They could use the line: Throw your chair in the air, like you just don’t care.

Lena Horne, Elvis, Springsteen, have all covered the tune. Glen Campbell made it a b-side to True Grit, and we get to hear him comment on the song (he seemed just as surprised as us to know he covered it on a 45 with True Grit).

You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy this film. Everyone will find it interesting the way they delve into the origins of the song, and the two different families that are fighting over which one wrote it.

The talking heads are all fun to listen to. Connie Francis (An Italian Catholic who did an album of all Jewish songs) tells us “I’m 10% Jew, on my managers side.”

Harry Belafonte talks about a moving experience performing it in Germany in the ‘50s. Even when it’s customers at Canter’s Deli kvetching over the tune, or academics…they all bring something to the table.

Henry Sapoznik, founder of KlezKamp – a Yiddish folk arts program – says “It’s relentless…resilient. But so are cockroaches.”

I’m not sure how that line didn’t make it onto the movie poster. He continues, “It represents, for multitudes of people, all they will ever know about Jewish music.”

Writer/director Roberta Grossman fascinates us by going all over the world to find the origins of this song. And it’s filled with such small touches of humor (identifying people onscreen with tags like “really smart historian” and “someone else”). It keeps this movie light at times and helps it flow nicely, yet there are also very profound moments as well.

As I left the Gordon’s home around midnight, thinking about the movie, the great company, and a nice wine buzz…I thought about my late grandmother. The only “Jewish” thing we ever did was have lunch at Katella Deli near Seal Beach. She’d get mad that I wasn’t “dating a nice Jewish girl.” She was furious I didn’t rush out to see Schindler’s List it’s opening weekend. She wanted me to learn Hebrew, or at least learn something about the Jews, even if that was just spelling Hanukkah correctly.

Tears started rolling down my cheeks as I thought about how much she would’ve loved this film, and loved the fact that I did too.

This gets 4 stars out of 5.

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