Jenny Jiminez

A bride and groom are hoisted above well-wishers as "Hava Nagila" is sung in "Hava Nagila (The Movie)," playing as part of Sacramento Jewish Film Festival at 3 p.m. March 10.

Sac Jewish Film Festival entry examines well-known 'Hava Nagila'

Published: Friday, Mar. 1, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 8TICKET
Last Modified: Sunday, Mar. 3, 2013 - 2:56 pm

The Sacramento Jewish Film Festival will highlight the documentary "Hava Nagila (The Movie)" the way countless bar mitzvahs and weddings have highlighted the song itself.

The song's joyful melody has made it a staple at celebrations, and its ubiquity has given it shorthand status in American popular culture. It takes only a few notes of "Hava" on a movie soundtrack, for example, to immediately suggest "Jewish."

"Hava" filmmaker Roberta Grossman heard the song all her life but did not know its origins until researching her wry, informative documentary, which screens at 3 p.m. March 10 at the Crest Theatre. (The 16th Sacramento Jewish Film Festival runs Thursday and March 9-10 at the Crest.)

"I grew up in a religiously assimilated but strongly Jewish-identified family in Los Angeles," Grossman said by phone this week. "The moments at weddings and bar mitzvahs where everybody would get up to dance (to 'Hava') were really powerful for a kid. It felt very tribal and very Jewish."

And maybe even ancient, though the song is not. "Hava Nagila," the title of which translates from Hebrew as "let us rejoice," derives from a worldless nigun, or religious song, from the 18th century Hasidic movement in eastern Europe. The nigun that would become "Hava" moved to Palestine with eastern European settlers, and lyrics were written to accompany its music in 1918.

"I was surprised by how young the song is, and I was really surprised that it had been there at so many key moments in Jewish history," Grossman said.

The film traces the song's connection to the postwar migration of city-dwelling Jewish Americans to the suburbs. In the suburbs, synagogues and a desire to rejoice grew bigger, partly in response to the horrors experienced by Jewish people during World War II.

"Hava" found mass popularity during the same period via recordings by Harry Belafonte and Connie Francis, among others. Grossman interviews them both in her film.

"Hava" plays, in various musical incarnations, throughout the documentary. Having listened to the song almost constantly for the past few years, does Grossman still want to jump up to dance the hora when she hears it?

"Right now, I want to run from it," she said. "Actually, it is more meaningful to me now than it used to be."

When Grossman's daughter was bat mitzvahed last summer, the crowd kept with tradition and held her aloft, seated in a chair as the band performed "Hava Nagila."

"My family felt like, 'Oh, they are playing our song,' " Grossman said.

The Sacramento Jewish Film Festival, usually a weekendlong event, adds a Thursday screening this year to its Saturday and Sunday programs.

"Deaf Jam," a documentary about a deaf Israeli teenager who becomes an American Sign Language slam poet in Queens, N.Y., shows at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.

"Deaf Jam," presented in ASL and English with English subtitles, "is very energetic and youthful, so we thought it would be a good choice for Thursday night," said Sid Garcia-Heberger, Jewish Film Festival co- director (with Margi Park) and Crest Theatre general manager.

The Thursday screening is meant to attract first-time festivalgoers, thereby augmenting the Jewish Film Festival's loyal existing audience.

"Our attendance is rock solid, and we are very grateful for that, but we want to kick into growth mode again," Garcia-Heberger said.

The festival's Saturday-night feature (7:30, March 9) is an Israeli narrative film called "The Matchmaker." It involves a mysterious Holocaust survivor who "finds people who are a little less than empirically perfect" to pair romantically, Garcia– Heberger said.

The art-world documentary "Portrait of Wally" will screen at 1 p.m. March 10, before "Hava Nagila." The Nazis seized "Wally," a 1912 portrait by Austrian artist Egon Schiele, in 1939, and the painting's tumultuous history does not end there.

"It plays like a suspense film," Garcia-Heberger said.


When: "Deaf Jam," 7:30 p.m. Thursday; "The Matchmaker," 7:30 p.m. March 9; "Portrait of Wally" 1 p.m. March 10; "Hava Nagila (The Movie)" 3 p.m. March 10

Where: Crest Theatre, 1013 K St., Sacramento

Cost: $10.50 for each film ($9.50 seniors and students, $8.50 for groups of 20 or more). All-festival pass is $40 ($36 seniors and students, $32 groups of 20 or more)

Information: (916) 442-5189,, (800) 225-2277,

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