Thursday, September 19, 2019

The Secret History of ‘Hava Nagila’ 

Every song carries within it many stories. Before it was a universal Jewish wedding anthem, a European soccer chant, and a Jewish musical cliché par excellence, the Hebrew song “Hava Nagila” started out as a Hasidic folk melody. The song’s many lives have spawned an award-winning documentary, an Israeli court battle, and a generations-long rift between two Jewish families. But its actual origins remained shrouded in mystery. How did an East European religious folk tune become a Zionist sonic emblem only to shed both its religious and political forms and morph yet again into a generic ode to happiness?

The story begins with the musician Abraham Zvi Idelsohn. Born in 1882 in Feliksburg, in the northwest of the Russian Empire (present-day Latvia), he trained as a cantor in Libau before moving to Germany in the 1890s to study at Berlin’s Stern Conservatory and the Leipzig Academy of Music. Idelsohn then worked as a cantor in Leipzig, Regensburg, and Johannesburg, South Africa. In 1907, he settled in Jerusalem with his family.

Living next door to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew, Idelsohn set as his own goal to create a modern Hebrew music to accompany the national rebirth of Jewish life in their ancient homeland. In the spirit of the Zionist philosopher Ahad Ha’am, Idelsohn began to collect all the riches of Jewish musical traditions that he found in Ottoman Palestine and throughout the diaspora. Using the emerging recording technology, he began to transcribe folk songs and make field recordings in order to forge an old-new musical sound that would be (in his view) authentically Jewish. That meant uncovering what he imagined to be the oldest layer of pre-exilic melody common to all Jewish traditions and liberating it from the foreign accretions resulting from the exile.

Idelsohn’s project was an unabashedly political one. He denounced the cultural and spiritual “assimilation” that he experienced among German Jews. He lambasted his fellow Jewish musicians for flocking into European classical music rather than taking an interest in their own heritage. Many of his innovations—the first major Hebrew songbook for schools and synagogues, the first textbook on the history of Jewish music, the first Hebrew opera, and his seminal 10-volume work, The Thesaurus of Hebrew Oriental Melodies (Hebräische Orientalische Melodiensatz, 1914-1932)—were intended to disseminate Zionism, pushing Jews to embrace a national cultural identity rooted in the common wellsprings of renewed cultural life in Zion. Like other architects of this new Hebrew culture, Idelsohn sought out Jewish religious culture in order to refashion it into new secular national traditions.


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