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‘Hava Nagila (The Movie),’ Documentary on Jewish Adaptation

Aug 12, 2023Aug 12, 2023


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By Rachel Saltz

"Hava Nagila": maybe you find it too kitschy, too clichéd, too easy a shorthand for all things Jewish. Or maybe you find it catchy and incontrovertible, a song you associate with losing yourself in a crowd, shoulder to shoulder with other revelers at a wedding.

Whether it makes you squirm or dance, you’re in good company and part of a larger tale, as the director Roberta Grossman and the writer Sophie Sartain show in their buoyant documentary, "Hava Nagila (The Movie)." Through the unlikely prism of this song the documentary manages to tell a complicated story of cultural adaptation while providing a fresh look at a good chunk of modern Jewish history, from poverty to plenty, from the shtetl in Ukraine to Israel to the suburbs of America, that "other promised land."

The interviews are mostly good and instructive, but the well-chosen historical footage is better. A montage of fancy bar mitzvah spreads is highlighted by a molded something — chopped liver? — decorated with a Torah scroll and the name Sidney.

The filmmakers mix the playful and serious, with only occasional lapses. (The voice-over narration is grating and cutesy.) And interesting tidbits keep coming. Harry Belafonte speaks movingly of performing the song in Germany after the war. Glen Campbell learned it playing bar mitzvahs when he moved to Los Angeles.

And then there's Bob Dylan. The music critic Josh Kun calls Mr. Dylan's stuttering, lopped-off version, complete with Jimmie Rodgers-style yodeling, "an embrace and a refusal," which seems like just the right attitude.

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Opens on Friday in Manhattan.Directed by Roberta Grossman1 hour 13 minutes; not rated


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