Hava Nagila’s Long, Strange Trip

The unlikely history of a Hasidic melody.


If there is one Jewish song known by Jews and non-Jews alike, it is undoubtedly Hava Nagila. From its obscure origins in early twentieth-century Palestine, the song has gone on to become a perennial favorite at weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, and Jewish–and non-Jewish–cultural events around the world. With its short lyrics and simple yet distinctive melody, Hava Nagila has been recorded hundreds of times by musicians ranging from Neil Diamond, the Barry Sisters, and Harry Belafonte to the contemporary pop singer Ben Folds and the Serbian Gypsy brass band legend Boban Marcovic. Yet for all of its widespread popularity, few know the history of this global Jewish hit.

hava nagila danceEastern European Origins

Like many modern Israeli and popular Jewish songs, Hava Nagila began its life as a Hasidic melody in Eastern Europe. There the tune was sung as a nigun (wordless melody) among the Sadigorer Hasidim, who took their name from the small town of Sadigora in Bukovina (present-day Ukraine), where the Rizhiner Rebbe, Reb Yisroel Friedman (1798-1850) had settled from Russia and established his court in 1845.

At some point around the turn of the last century, a group of Sadigorer Hasidim emigrated to Jerusalem and brought the nigun with them. There the melody might have remained in the cloistered world of Jerusalem’s Hasidic communities if not for one man, Avraham Zvi Idelsohn–the father of Jewish musicology.

Idelsohn was born in 1882 in Foelixburg (Filzburg), a small town in the Courland province of Tsarist Russia (present-day Latvia). He trained as a cantor in Russia and studied classical music in conservatories in Berlin and Leipzig before settling in Jerusalem sometime after 1905. He soon became active as a musician, music teacher, and scholar in the Jewish community there.Israeli culture quiz

As a passionate Zionist, Idelsohn sought to collect and preserve the folk music of Jewish communities from around the world, using a phonograph to record the traditional melodies of Yemenite, Russian, German, Moroccan, and other communities he encountered in Jerusalem. At the same time, he sought to pioneer a new style of modern national music that would unify the Jewish people as they returned to their historic homeland in Palestine. To that end, he arranged and composed many new Hebrew-language songs based on traditional melodies. These modern songs with ancient roots quickly became popular as new Hebrew folk songs, sung in kibbutzim, moshavot, and printed in songbooks in the Jewish yishuv and beyond. Among them was Hava Nagila.

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Dr. James Loeffler is Assistant Professor of History and Jewish Studies at the University of Virginia and author of The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire (Yale U. Press, 2010).

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