Film ‘Hava Nagila’ finds laughs, purpose in song

A scene from “Hava Nagila (The Movie).”

You’d expect a movie about a song that has become the Hebrew “Hokey Pokey” to be playful. And “Hava Nagila (The Movie)” is that, in spades. That wedding, party and bar mitzvah staple, a song that the whole world knows and virtually no one knows anything about, is a ready punchline, a musical eye-roller for some and a no-brainer for any band or singer who works the wedding circuit — Jewish or not.

“Something lights up in your DNA” when you hear it, one expert witness declares in the film.

But Roberta Grossman’s cute documentary gives weight to the tune, tracing its lineage to a town — Sadagora in the Ukraine — and the 19th century. It bubbled to life as a “Nigun,” a wordless hymn or prayer, more hummed than sung.

It became the song to which to dance the Hora (that hand-holding circular group folk dance).

A Jewish music scholar in Palestine co-opted it and wrote lyrics to it for a celebration of the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. It became a favorite there, and was stood front and center when Jews in Palestine, after the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, embraced its jaunty tune and celebratory lyrics. “Let us Rejoice” is how the title translates, and that turned eyes from a terrible past toward a hopeful future.

And then American Jews got hold of it. And Harry Belafonte. And Connie Francis. And Elvis. And Glen Campbell. And Jo Anne Worley.

Grossman spins all this history, sacred and silly, into a movie that skips by, using generous samples of everything from “Curb Your Enthusiasm” to “Fiddler on the Roof,” performed by everyone from The Muppets to The Simpsons.

The film’s chapter titles range from “Rhythm & Jews” to “When Hava Met Harry,” which is about how Belafonte turned the tune into a worldwide hit. “Hava Haters” (The Klezmatics) have their say.

And like the song itself, “Hava Nagila (The Movie)” ends just before it turns annoying. Because even the “Hokey Pokey” wears out its welcome after a while.