The Story of Hava Nagila

November 19, 2012 by Henry Benjamin
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Every one knows it. Every one has sung it. Every one has danced to it…and last night in Sydney a Jewish International Film Festival audience heard the history of Hava Nagila from its composer’s granddaughter.

Devora Lees and Allan Bermeister

Devora Lees’ grandfather was a famous musicologist, cantor, composer, collector and music researcher in Jerusalem who was searching for suitable music to fanfare the departure of the Turks from Israel at the end of the First World War in 1918.

He found an ancient Nigun…a piece of music chanted by Chassidim with no words…added lyrics to it and produced one the best known pieces of music in not only the Jewish sphere but also in many countries throughout the world.

Lees was introduced by Alan Bermeister, president of Magen David Adom  NSW whose organisation held a fund-raising function screening of the film “Hava Nagila” as part of the Festival.

A.Z. Idelsohn

A.Z. Idelsohn was born in Latvia in 1882 and emigrated to Jerusalem in 1906 after working in Europe and South Africa where he developed his passion for Jewish music working as a cantor and a music teacher. Idelsohn set out to record the music and the traditions practised in the 300 synagogues in his new country…a 20-year project. He researched and recorded Jewish music throughout Europe and North Africa publishing results in 1914.

Lees was speaking at a Bondi cinema before the screening of the film “Hava Nagila” which features performances of the music in different environments, styles and cultures. A highlight of the movie is a comment by Connie Francis, a highly popular Italian songstress who frequently sang in Yiddish. She said: “I’m 10% Jewish on my agent’s side.”

After WWI broke out in 1914, Idelsohn was drafted into the Turkish army as a bandmaster in Gaza.

In 1919 he established a school of music in Jerusalem and lectured throughout Europe and the USA.

He moved to Cincinnati in 1924 where he became professor of Jewish music in the Hebrew Union College.

In 1922 he published the first Hebrew song book for kindergartens, schools and home which included the first appearance of his arrangement of ‘Hava Nagila’ which she said “was circulated in 90 countries”.

Lees said: “In the film we will hear that his student Moshe Nathanson and his family claimed that Moshe had written the words for Hava Nagila. Nathanson was 12 years old at the time. It was taken to court and it was concluded that my grandfather had written the words.”

Focusing on Hava Nagila, Lees continued: “In 1918, at the end of the war, the Turks were out and the British were in. The Balfour Declaration recognised the Jewish homeland. A victory concert was planned to celebrate. Rehearsals were going very well but my grandfather had no grand finale. He went through his files and chose an old Chassidic tune from Eastern Europe. He adapted the score in four parts and added some simple Hebrew lyrics. The choir, with my mother Shoshanna as soloist rehearsed this catchy new composition. The concert was packed to capacity and the last song to be sung was Hava Nagila. The audience called again and again for encores. The next day people were singing Hava Nagila in the streets of Jerusalem. Within a month it had reached Europe.”

The film itself clearly shows how this ancient nigun has become a melody belonging to the world.

A.Z. Idelsohn died at the age of 56 in Johannesburg.



One Response to “The Story of Hava Nagila”
  1. Otto Waldmann says:

    Are you absolutely sure that this is the true origin of the song !!!

    In my book it is about a girl called Gila from Havana , Havana Gila !!!

    Check your facts !

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