From the Study Hall to Carnegie Hall

When Harry Belafonte died this week, most people immediately thought of his many hit songs, his acting career, and his important civil rights activism. The first thing that came to my mind was “Hava Nagila”. Belafonte recorded a popular version of the song in 1959, and would later say that it, along with “The Banana Boat Song” were the two most popular pieces in his repertoire.

I was unaware of Belafonte’s version until I watched the entertaining and enlightening documentary Hava Nagila (The Movie) at a Women’s League event last year. For me the song has always been ubiquitous. You could have told me that it was written in 1450 and I would have believed you. In fact, while it was based on an older Hasidic melody, it was only composed, in the form we would recognize, in 1918.

The history of “Hava Nagila” incorporates many of the important aspects of the Jewish journey in the 20th century. It was written by ethnomusicologists looking for a traditional melody that they could modernize for the emerging Jewish state. Rather than a slow Hasidic chant, they made it an upbeat song about joy for the new life being built in Palestine.

In America, “Hava Nagila” also represented the new life Jews were building in the suburbs after World War II where it was played at countless bar and bat mitzvah celebrations. This is where Belafonte comes in. He claimed in an interview he gave in 2001 that “[m]ost Jews in America learned that song from me.” It’s quite possible he was correct since he was an incredibly popular performer and often it takes an outsider to get people to appreciate their own culture.

Belafonte’s singing career was build on folk music. He brought Caribbean music to an American audience but sung songs from other cultures as well. This was a time when Woody Guthrie was writing “Hanukkah Dance” and Pete Seeger and the Weavers were performing the Hebrew song “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena”. America was interested in, and hungry for, music from around the world.

Belafonte’s version of “Hava Nagila” didn’t make it to his New York Times obituary, and it wasn’t even mentioned in the Forward’s piece on the little-known movie where he played a Jewish angel named Alexander Levine alongside Zero Mostel. But for me, it is an important part of his legacy. His goal, in his music and activism, was to change minds and help people see things from a different perspective. Non-Jews who heard him sing “Hava Nagila” could appreciate the value of Jewish and Israeli culture. Jews listening to him sing their music felt proud that such a big star would embrace them.

We’re not likely to encounter an artist like Belafonte again, a popular superstar who would elevate a Jewish song with origins in the study hall of a small religious sect. Jewish music, and the Jewish people, have come a long way in the 105 years since the debut of “Hava Nagila”. Who knows where the next hundred years will take us?

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