Hava Nagila, that old musical standby, the song that used to be played at every Jewish gathering, is increasingly becoming musica non grata at weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, and other festive occasions.
"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.
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."