Hava Nagila's Long, Strange Trip

The unlikely history of a Hasidic melody.

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The Lyrics

Idelsohn transcribed the Sadigorer melody in 1915, while serving as a bandmaster in the Ottoman Army during World War I. In 1918 he selected the tune for a celebration concert performance in Jerusalem after the British army had defeated the Turks. Arranging the melody in four parts, Idelsohn added a Hebrew text derived from Psalms:

Hava nagila, hava nagila                             Let us rejoice, let us rejoice

Hava nagila ve-nismeha                             Let us rejoice and be glad

Hava neranena, hava neranena                  Let us sing, let us sing

Hava neranena ve-nismeha                        Let us sing and be glad

Uru, uru ahim                                            Awake, awake brothers

Uru ahim be-lev sameah                            Awake brothers with a joyful heart

The words echo the biblical verse: "This is the day that God has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it" – "Ze ha-yom asah adonai, nagila ve-nismeha bo" (Psalms 118:24). Years later, one of Idelsohn's students, Cantor Moshe Nathanson, claimed that he had suggested the verse to his teacher. Whatever the original lyrical inspiration, the song was an immediate hit. Idelsohn himself later recalled how the song spread extremely quickly:

"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 throughout the Jewish world." Idelsohn first published the song in a Hebrew song collection in 1922. Soon it was being sung all over the world, typically referred to simply as a "Palestinian" or "Hebrew" folk song, with no mention of its origins, Hasidic or otherwise.

In the decades after Hava Nagila first appeared, it became a world-wide fixture of Jewish life. Already in the 1920s and 1930s it was sung in Zionist circles in the United States and Europe. Soon the song was included in Jewish children's songbooks in Palestine, Europe, and North America. At the same time, cantors and Jewish folk singers began to issue commercial recordings of Hava Nagila. By the 1940s, the song had become a staple of Jewish weddings, bar mitzvahs, and youth groups, where it was sung and danced as an Israeli-style hora folk dance.

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Dr. James Loeffler

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).