Is That ‘Hava Nagila’ I’m Hearing at the Club?

On a Monday afternoon in May, “Hava Nagila,” the infectious Jewish folk song, was reverberating through the Monte-Carlo Beach Club, a resort on the Mediterranean Sea in Monaco. The music was coming from a cliff-side, open-air venue, where revelers dressed in suits and dresses were dancing in circles and swirling cloth napkins in the air.

Some people passing by remarked how lovely it was that a Jewish wedding was taking place. But a server quickly corrected them. That was no Jewish wedding, he said. It was an after-party for the Formula 1 car race from the previous day.

“Hava Nagila,” a song traditionally played at Jewish life events including weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs, is now making appearances at highly secular, non-Jewish gatherings. You can hear it at sporting events, trendy bars and clubs, music festivals and private parties.

“It is played from time to time here at Citi Field, especially when we have an organist,” said Julia Baxley, a spokeswoman for the Mets baseball team, in an email.

It is played at least once a weekend at Calissa, a Greek restaurant in Water Mill, N.Y., that hosts big-name D.J.s and performers like Samantha Ronson and Wyclef Jean. “We give our D.J.s a list of songs that we would like to work into their set, and this is one of them,” said Kylie Monagan, one of the owners, noting that they also play other culturally significant tracks, like “Zorba’s Dance” and songs by Alabina, a group that plays world music.

She said she got the idea after hearing it at restaurants and beach clubs in Mykonos and Ibiza. “We did some research, and we traveled around the Mediterranean, and we heard these very chic clubs and restaurants play this song, and we loved it,” she said. “What we found really gets people out of their seats and dancing are songs they are familiar with.”

“We even had people lift someone up in a chair recently,” she added, referring to a traditional Jewish dance called the hora, often performed at weddings to the tune of “Hava Nagila.”

James Loeffler, a professor of Jewish history at the University of Virginia who has studied the song, said he wasn’t surprised “Hava Nagila” was getting so much airtime today. “It’s a song that is about transformation and reinvention, so that is destined to keep happening,” he said. “It’s always had new lives.”

The song was written in 1918 by Abraham Zvi Idelsohn, a composer who believed the Jewish people needed new music at a time when Zionism and the push for a Jewish homeland were gaining strength. “He wanted to create a melody that captured the spirit of the people,” Professor Loeffler said of the song, whose title translates from Hebrew to “let us rejoice.” (Other lyrics include “let us rejoice and be happy,” “let us sing” and “awake my brothers with a happy heart.”) “He took melodies from ancient Judaism, from Hasidism and text from Jewish psalms, and turned it into this punchy little chant-anthem.”

“It became an instant informal hit,” he said. (A banger, if you will.) Jewish youth groups, inside and outside the United States, adopted it. By the 1940s, Jewish people in the diaspora started singing it in the aftermath of the Holocaust. “It became a symbol of happiness, and a symbol of joyful renewal and survival, and it kept going on from there,” Professor Loeffler said.

Harry Belafonte, who was married to Jewish woman, Julie Robinson, recorded the song in the late 1950s, making it even more mainstream. “That lent it a huge appeal,” Professor Loeffler said. “People started to do other versions of it.” By the 1990s, European soccer teams were playing it in their stadiums, and Eastern European gymnasts used it for their floor routines.

“It is so recognizable, and it is this very simple, very easy, very ubiquitous thing,” he added. “That’s why it works at the ballpark, it works at the ice skating rink.”

Musicians playing it today report it being an instant crowd-pleaser.

Alex Megane, a 44-year-old D.J. and producer from Greifswald, Germany, made a club mix track of the song with Marc van Damme, a sound engineer. “I’ve played it in Australia, Germany, France, Italy, Estonia, Poland — basically all around Europe,” he said. “The record really catches the people, and they love it.”

The timing may seem surprising, given the rising number of antisemitic incidents. “We live in an odd moment in which in this country in particular, but also in Europe, there is soaring antisemitism,” Professor Loeffler said. But research also shows, he said, that Americans like the religion of Judaism, and Jewish culture is popular. “I think the ‘Hava Nagila’ is an interesting reflection of this,” he said.

“People everywhere and every time sing along,” he added.

In May, Brian St. John, 35, who leads a New Jersey band called the Brian St. John band, found himself playing “Hava Nagila” during a gig by accident. “We play these Grateful Dead songs, and normally to transition from one song to the other, we tease other melodies in, and all of a sudden I started doing the ‘Hava Nagila’ melody,” said Mr. St. John, who is not Jewish. “The other guys caught on, and we got such a good response from the crowd, we decided we were definitely doing it again.”

They repeated the same performance during a music festival over Memorial Day weekend. “Everybody in New Jersey has at least been to a Jewish wedding, so it elicits a response from everybody,” he said. “They were a little confused why we were throwing this 100-plus-year-old Jewish song into our Grateful Dead songs, but they started clapping along.”

Mr. St. John said the band would consider playing it as a stand-alone song. “Why not?” he said. “I will play anything that gets people excited.”

For some Jews, hearing “Hava Nagila" out of context makes them feel nostalgic or proud.

Marie Salome, 36, an art curator in Brooklyn, used to hear it at Chez Georges, a wine cave she frequented when she lived in Paris. “Everyone would just do these little circles even though the bar was so narrow and embrace and be happy,” she said. “The song is literally about joy and dance. It was just so fun.”

Ms. Salome, who is Jewish, is at a point in her life where she doesn’t have as many Jewish weddings or bar or bat mitzvahs to go to, so she would love to hear the song in more settings, even secular ones. “I love the idea of people dancing to each other’s cultural songs,” she said. “It’s a way to share a little bit and come together.”

But Professor Loeffler can see why other Jews may be taken aback. “I do think that when I hear it played in all these random contexts it does feel like trivialism, and there is an element of mockery there,” he said. “It’s a cavalier attitude toward this minority culture and group of people.”

He encourages people, however, to remember that this is a sign that the song is being appreciated and loved. “I think every culture both wants to preserve its identity and uniqueness and be valued by the world,” he said. “I do think Idelsohn would be excited that the Jews are giving something to the world.”

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