Hava Nagilah: The Story behind the Quintessential Jewish Song

October 1, 2017

6 min read


The story of Hava Nagila spans much of modern Jewish history.

The energetic tune of Hava Nagila has its origins in the early 1800s in Czarist Russia. At the time, Czar Nicholas I enacted a number of cruel decrees against the Jewish population. Most devastating of all was the law that young Jewish boys be forcibly taken from their homes and serve in the Czar’s army for 25 years. Given such privations, many Jews tried to resist, sometimes by defying the Czar publicly, and more often in private, by maintaining their Jewish practice and spirituality at home.

One Jewish leader who gained a reputation as opposing the Czar was Rabbi Yisroel Friedman, who was born in 1797 in the town of Ruzhin, in the Ukraine. So great was his charisma that Rabbi Friedman soon became a local Jewish leader; his followers were known as “Ruzhin” Chassidim. Like many Chassidic rebbes, Rabbi Friedman acknowledged the difficulties in life and encouraged his fellow Jews to try and live lives of happiness and joy, even in the face of brutal repression. Singing is one way of creating happiness and many Chassidic communities became known for humming wordless tunes called nigunim. These catchy tunes were popular during holiday and Shabbat meals, and helped create a rousing, fun atmosphere.

Rabbi Friedman fled to Sadigora, Austria, where the local Chassidim sang the tune to Hava Nagila.

At the age of 41, Rabbi Friedman was accused of being a “rebel” against the Czar and was cast into prison for two long years. In 1840, he managed to escape and fled to the town of Sadigora in Austria, where he found refuge and was welcomed by the local Jewish community, eventually building up another group of followers.

These Chassidim were sometimes known as Sadigora Chassidim; like their counterparts in Ukraine, they engaged in happy song when together. One of these tunes was Hava Nagila, though it wasn’t yet known by that name.

Abraham Zvi Idelsohn

Around the turn of the 20th century, a group of Sadigora Chassidim moved from Austria to Jerusalem, bringing their unique tunes and nigunim with them. There, around the year 1915, some of the Chassidim met with a musical pioneer, and changed the course of Jewish musical history.

The musical pioneer was a composer and cantor named Abraham Zvi Idelsohn. Born in Latvia in 1882, Abraham Idelsohn worked in synagogues in Germany before moving to Jerusalem in 1905. He was an avid scholar and a passionate Zionist, as well as one of the world’s first ethnomusicologists: scholars who study people through the music they create.

Abraham Idelsohn was fascinated by the diverse Jewish musical traditions, and recorded thousands of Jewish songs and tunes from Asia, North Africa and Europe. One of these was the Sadigora niggun we know as Hava Nagila.

Captivated by its upbeat melody, Abraham Idelsohn created lyrics for the niggun, celebrating the return of Jews to Israel.

Captivated by its upbeat melody, Idelsohn decided to create lyrics for the hitherto wordless niggun. Excited by the return of Jews to the Land of Israel from all over the world, Idelsohn seems to have wanted to forge a new Hebrew-language musical canon that would unite Jews in the nascent country of Israel. For Hava Nagila’s words, Idelsohn turned to words inspired by the Biblical quote that forms part of Jewish holiday liturgy: Ze ha’yom asah Adonai, nagila v’nismecha bo, “This is the day the Lord has made, rejoice and be happy in it” (Psalms 11:24).

The words that Idelsohn penned capture much of this joyful feeling:

Hava nagila, Hava nagila = Let’s rejoice, Let’s rejoice
Hava nagila v’nismecha
= Let us rejoice and be glad
Hava neranana, Hava neranana = Let’s sing, let’s sing
Hava neranena v’nismecha = Let’s sing and be glad
Uri, uri achim = Awake, awake brothers
Uri achim b’lev sameach = Awake brothers with a joyful heart.

Idelsohn included this new version of the Chassidic song in a concert he helped organize in Jerusalem to celebrate the end of World War I. It became an instant hit. He later recalled the concert and its aftermath: “The choir sang it and it apparently caught the imagination of the people, for the next day men and women were singing the song throughout Jerusalem. In no time it spread throughout the country, and thence to the Jewish world”.

Hava Nagila was soon sung in kibbutzim and towns throughout Israel. It became a wildly popular folk melody and was often accompanied by the Jewish folk dance the Hora. Outside of Israel, Hava Nagila soon was a standard in Zionist youth camps and later became popular at Jewish weddings and other celebrations.

In the 1950s, the song took another great leap when non-Jewish artists began recording it. One of the first singers to start performing Hava Nagila was the American superstar Harry Belafonte. Belafonte discovered the song in New York in the 1950s, and adopted it as one of his greatest crowd-pleasers. He later recalled that the two songs he was best known for were his famous “Day-O” (also called “The Banana Boat Song”) and Hava Nagila.

Harry Belafonte sang the Hebrew song in Germany in the 1950s.

Belafonte’s most moving experience singing the hit took place in the 1950s in Germany, he later explained to the documentary filmmakers Roberta Grossman and Sophie Sartain. “It hit me kind of hard that here I was, an African American, an American, standing in Germany, which a decade earlier had been responsible for mass murder, these young German kids singing this Hebrew song of rejoicing, ‘Let us have peace, Let us rejoice.’ And I got very emotional.”

Hava Nagila has become perhaps the most recognizable Jewish song. Olympic gymnast Ally Raisman performed to its peppy beat during the 2012 Olympics and won a gold medal in the process. In 2013, when the Korean Government sponsored a “Gangman style” musical competition in Israel, the winner was a teenager named Eva Kamun, who won with a performance of this classic song.

Artists from China to Africa to Eastern Europe and beyond all embrace the song. A search for Hava Nagila on Youtube yields well over half a million videos from around the world.

The jubilation in the song and the uplifting words convey a deeply felt Jewish truth: that we all long to transcend the challenges in our lives. That we all long to be the best people we are capable of. That all of us want to be happy. And that singing and listening to the happiness in Hava Nagila can bring us all a measure of joy.

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