Hava Nagila's Long, Strange Trip

The unlikely history of a Hasidic melody.

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Harry Does Hava

In the 1950s, Hava Nagila began to attract the attention of well-known non-Jewish performers in the United States. This was the era in which American popular singers began to perform folk songs from around the world. Along with Italian, Calypso, and other ethnic pop song hits, performers turned to Hava Nagila.

Cuban-born mambo legend Machito and his Afro-Cuban Orchestra was one such example. His 1951 recording of Hava Nagila as "Holiday Mambo" made the tune into a dance hit (to listen, click here). Dick Dale, the Californian king of the surf guitar, scored a popular hit with his 1963 version of the song (as well as his equally famous 1962 cover of "Misirlou.") But perhaps the non-Jewish musician who did the most to make Hava Nagila into a mainstream cultural favorite was international pop star Harry Belafonte. In the 1950s, Belafonte used Hava Nagila as his regular closing number because of its uplifting melody and hopeful, brotherly lyrics (to listen, click here). His 1959 Carnegie Hall live concert recording became a best-selling record. For musicians such as Machito, Dale, and Belafonte, Hava Nagila appealed because of its catchy, quirky, and distinctive Jewish melody and optimistic, joyous, and easy lyrics.

Still Singing

The popularity of Hava Nagila only continued to grow in the 1960s and 1970s, as it came to be featured in Israeli films and American Jewish celebrations of all sorts. Yet by the 1980s and 1990s, Hava Nagila had spread in popularity to the point of caricature. It could be heard at Gypsy weddings in Macedonia and Yugoslavia, in Las Vegas nightclubs, on Israeli television shows, and in European dance clubs as a techno hit. Entering into its post-modern phase of popularity, Hava Nagila began to be the subject of musical parodies by musicians, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

In recent years, the number of new interpretations have multiplied exponentially to include avant-garde jazz, punk rock (to listen to Me First and the Gimme Gimmes' version, click here), and reggae recordings. Some klezmer musicians have even taken the melody back to its roots by performing the song in the style of a slow Hasidic nigun. Traditional or ultra-modern, all of these versions play on the song's famous, easily recognizable melody. Though it continues to evolve in many different musical directions, Hava Nagila remains a universal symbol of Jewish song and celebration.

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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).