Wednesday, August 1, 2012

What's wrong with hava nagilla

At Some Happy Events, 'Hava Nagila' Isn't Invited

Standard Tune at Jewish Celebrations Faces a Backlash; Like a Knish?

CEDARHURST, N.Y.—When newlyweds Bryan Salamon and Rachel Itzkowitz entered the ballroom of Temple Beth El earlier this month, the band struck up a raucous rendition of the hora, a traditional Jewish folk dance.
'Hava Nagila' is a favorite at Jewish weddings, engagement parties, bar mitzvahs and any special occasion where there is dancing and music. But you don't have to be Jewish to celebrate with the song -- in fact it's one of the most popular party tunes in recorded history. WSJ's Lucette Lagnado reports.
For 45 minutes, the Neshoma Orchestra—whose slogan is "Your Soul Source for Jewish Music"—performed 15 Hebrew dance hits as hundreds of guests surrounded the couple, hoisting the bride high on a chair and dancing around the two in ecstatic circles.
Noticeably absent from the gleeful medley? The best known Jewish wedding song of them all: "Hava Nagila."
"'Hava Nagila' at a wedding is like pouring sour milk on cereal," said Naomi Salamon, the groom's mother. "You won't hear it in the next set or the set after that," vowed her husband, Michael.
"Hava Nagila," Hebrew for "Let Us Rejoice," has been a staple of Jewish—and some non-Jewish—celebrations for decades. The song often accompanies the hora, a traditional dance-in-the-round that is performed at weddings, bar mitzvahs, engagement parties and other joyful occasions.
As American Jews assimilated, "Hava Nagila," with its dizzying tune that incorporates major and minor modes, became one of the last cultural touchstones of the past. Even the most secular Jews craved it.
It became "the equivalent of a knish," says Henry Sapoznik, an ethnomusicologist at the University of Wisconsin. Incidentally, he considers it to be "a really crummy little tune."
Crummy or not, the melody rang off the walls of catering halls, echoed in big suburban synagogues that sprouted up after World War II and broke into the musical mainstream in the 1950s. Crooner Harry Belafonte made it one of his signature songs. Chubby Checker danced the twist to it. Lena Horne used the melody to deliver a powerful message against racism in a song called "Now." In 1961, Bob Dylan sang his own version—"Talkin' Hava Nageilah Blues"—in a Greenwich Village club.
Some of those earlier interpretations may have boosted "Hava Nagila" into an improbably cool range. Now, a backlash is in full swing.
"It is the cliché of Jewish music," insists Neshoma Orchestra leader Elly Zomick, which does some 200 wedding and bar mitzvah gigs a year. He avoids playing it—along with "The Macarena," "YMCA," and "Sunrise, Sunset"—unless specifically asked.
[image]Salzman & Ashley Studio
At their recent wedding in Cedarhurst, Long Island--where 'Hava Nagila' was never played--groom Bryan Salamon dances with his mother, Naomi, while bride Rachel Itzkowitz dances with her father, Sidney.
Among other tunes from the annoyingly redundant banquet-hall repertoire: "The Electric Slide" and the "Chicken Dance."
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Kehilath Jeshurun, a large Orthodox congregation on Manhattan's Upper East Side, isn't one to be moved. The body of Jewish musical works, he says, "has gone leagues beyond" the familiar ditties. Yet "no one sings it unless someone in the wedding party has a nostalgia for the old days."
He should know. Rabbi Lookstein presided over the wedding ceremony for Ivanka Trump, daughter of real-estate mogul Donald Trump, and Jared Kushner, publisher of the New York Observer. Afterward, the wedding party adjourned to a reception at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J. There, at the request of the couple, the band played "Hava Nagila."
"Hava Nagila" isn't in danger of becoming a musical relic. It already is one. The Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan is planning a fall exhibit on "Hava Nagila," and has collected old album covers from the years when the tune pulsated through nearly every Jewish affair. Museum staffers plan to re-create a 1960s rec room, with a dance floor. Visitors will be able to listen to Mr. Belafonte's cover of the song, or comedian Allan Sherman's droll 1962 parody, "Harvey and Sheila."
Melissa Martens, the exhibit's curator, says "Hava Nagila" has had a long, strange journey. "It came from Eastern Europe, its lyrics were written in Palestine and its final chapter is here in America," she says.
Ms. Martens says those who wish for the song's disappearance are bound to be disappointed. If nothing else, YouTube videos will keep the song alive. And it continues to surface in unexpected places. At the London Olympics on Sunday, U.S. gymnast Alexandra Raisman performed her floor routine to "Hava Nagila."
Now, "Hava Nagila" even has its own movie—a documentary that ope

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