‘Hava Nagilah’ and Questions of Jewish Joy

Both a cringe-worthy cliché and an icon of Jewish Americanism, this song shares a very simple lesson in life.

I remember the moment like it was yesterday. I must have been ten years old, sitting next to my father at my first hockey game; my Philadelphia Flyers hosting the visiting Montreal Canadians, a moment of pure Americana (or “Canadiana” if you will.) When suddenly, the organ plays a familiar tune – slowly at first, but with increasing volume and tempo – it was the all-too-familiar “Hava Nagila” and it seemed so strangely out of place to me. “Dad,” I whispered with wonder “is everyone here - Jewish?” My father smiled a wry smile and said, “No son, just the organ player.”

It was the first moment where my Judaism, an intense, but mostly private experience, and my secular Americanism clashed in stunning Technicolor. That ten-year-old boy simply couldn’t comprehend the depth of valiances in that moment; how something natively Jewish could so seamlessly become a part of irreligious American culture. And as I watched Aly Raisman, a Jewish girl from Needham, Massachusetts, win gold for the U.S. gymnastics team as she performed her floor routine to the ubiquitous tune of Hava Nagila, those questions came rushing back.

Was this a Jewish moment? Was this an American moment? Or was this simply a human moment, devoid of any profound layers or complicated conversations about ethnic distinctiveness, assimilation, or the amazing narrative of the American-Jewish experience?

The fact is that Hava Nagila has become part and parcel of Jewish culture in America – the song that everyone knows is purely Jewish, despite the feeling that no one is really sure what it means, or where it came from. It can be heard at the ballpark, the hockey arena, the Jewish wedding, the inter-marriage, and I even heard it performed (badly) by a confused, but enthusiastic reggae band at a wedding I officiated in Negril, Jamaica. Indeed there is even a pending documentary about the journey of the song and the Jewish people who have sung it called, “Hava Nagila (The Movie).”

Perhaps it is because of its extreme ubiquity that the song makes many a committed Jew cringe at its opening, clichéd chords. After all, aren’t there a myriad other Jewish wedding songs which nod toward a more religious sensibility? “Od Yishama,” “Keitzad Merakdim Lifnei Hakallah?” “Yerushalayim” to name a few of the most popular. Surely there is something seemingly “too American,” “too secular,” “too assimilated,” about Hava Nagila in our times, something that threatens to remove it from the category of a natively-Jewish experience, and serve instead as a frightening metaphor of the dilution of Judaism in America.

But, one cannot avoid the simple fact that Hava Nagila is, in its most essential form, a song of joy – and that is precisely why it is so popular. The words are achingly modest and evocative:
Hava Nagila – “Let us rejoice. Let us rejoice and be happy. Let us make song, make song and be happy. Arise, arise my brothers. Arise my brothers with a joyous heart; with a joyous heart!”
That’s it. That’s the whole song! The message can be reduced to a simple imperative – “you must be happy.” After all, as the Hasidic master Rabbi Nahman taught us, “It is a great mitzvah to be constantly happy.”

And this is where my overly-intellectualized, over-wrought existential questions about American Judaism are reduced to utter drivel. Happiness is simple – when you are willing to stop thinking and allow yourself to experience the joy that accompanies the feeling of letting go of our very real, but all-consuming anxieties.

And this is precisely what Aly Raisman did. In that stunning final moment, sticking the landing she had practiced a thousand times, accompanied by the joyous words of a Jewish anthem, with the eyes of the world watching her, she smiled, and happiness overwhelmed her - and all of us as well.

Rabbi Joel Seltzer is the director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos, a Jewish Summer Camp experience under the educational auspices of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.