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Review: 'Hava Nagila' a lively portrait of the Jewish song

March 14, 2013|By Gary Goldstein
  • Hava Nagila scholar Josh Kun at Canter's Deli in Los Angeles. From the film "Hava Nagila."
Hava Nagila scholar Josh Kun at Canter's Deli in Los Angeles. From… (Katahdin Productions )

The short and sweet documentary "Hava Nagila (The Movie)" is a lively portrait of what is arguably the most ubiquitous Jewish song or, as one observer wryly puts it, "the kudzu of Jewish music."

Though perhaps best known to recent generations as that infectious, hora-accompanied staple of bar mitzvahs and Jewish weddings, the tune has a significant 150-year history that's warmly tracked by director-producer Roberta Grossman, with an assist from writer-producer Sophie Sartain.

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Grossman's so-called Hava quest takes her from the iconic song's birthplace in Sadagora, Ukraine (where it was first sung in the mid-1800s as a wordless prayer, or nigun) to Israel, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and elsewhere. En route, she chats with academics, rabbis, historians, musicians and others who help flesh out this musical tale in largely chronological fashion.

It's a fun, nostalgic, informative journey. Aided by vivid archival footage and photos, the movie charts the evolution of the song through the Holocaust, the birth of Israel and the modern Jewish Diaspora.

But it's the flashbacks of "Hava Nagila" in a startling variety of movies and TV shows — plus on countless cover recordings by such diverse artists as Harry Belafonte, Connie Francis, Glen Campbell, Johnny Yune and Regina Spektor (all enjoyably interviewed here) — that truly make this valentine sing.

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"Hava Nagila (The Movie)." No MPAA rating.

Running time: 1 hour, 13 minutes.

At Laemmle's Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles; Laemmle's Town Center 5, Encino; Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Regal's Westpark 8, Irvine.

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