JCC film festival captures both sides of the tale

JCC film festival captures both sides of the tale

Hora! Hora! Hora!

A part of every good simcha – Hava Nagila, the hora and a frightening balancing act. Jenny Jimenez.

When you walk out of the film “Hava Nagila,” showing at the Lafayette Theater at 7 p.m. on Sunday, April 21, you’ll have a detailed understanding of the history of the iconic Jewish song.

You’ll also have it stuck in your head.

Directed by Roberta Grossman, “Hava Nagila” made its debut as the opening night film of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in July 2012. Since then, it has played to Jewish film festival audiences across the country. Its hora-antic appearance at JCC Rockland’s 10th International Jewish Film Festival is sponsored by the Rockland Jewish Standard and the Crowne Plaza hotel, Suffern.

“Everyone can relate to ‘Hava Nagila.’ We’ve all heard it. We’ve all sung it, and we’ve all danced to it,” said Marla Cohen, editor of the Standard. “I figured you can’t go wrong sponsoring a film about a song with such broad Jewish, and even cross-cultural appeal. The film really demonstrates how embedded it is in our culture.”

Grossman would agree about the song’s universal nature. She grew up fascinated with the song, and its almost instantaneous effect on any Jewish celebration.

“When I was a kid growing up in a religiously assimilated, but strongly Jewish-identified family in Los Angeles, ‘Hava Nagila’ was a touchstone,” she said. “I remember all those weddings and bar mitzvahs when suddenly, it would happen…The band would play the first few notes of ‘Hava Nagila’ and everyone would jump to their feet, join hands in a circle and begin fumbling joyfully through the Hora. These were powerful moments, laden with meaning. In the circle, holding hands with my mother and grandmother, I felt a tribal connection. I felt Jewish.”

Three years ago, Grossman said, she was thinking about those memories and realized she knew nothing about the song.

“Was it 100 years old or 1,000?  Did someone write it?  Or did it come down from Sinai?” she said. And so began a quest to uncover the history, mystery and meaning of the ubiquitous standard.

The result is a film heralded by the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News and JWeekly, among others. It had a very successful showing at Manhattan’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, along with an exhibit about the song and its impact.

The film follows the song on its journey from the shtetls of Eastern Europe to the modern homes of America. It features interviews with Harry Belafonte, Connie Francis, Glen Campbell, Leonard Nimoy, Regina Spektor and more, taking viewers from Ukraine and Israel to the Catskills, Greenwich Village, Hollywood – and even Bollywood – using the song as a springboard to explore Jewish history and identity and to spotlight the cross-cultural connections that can only be achieved through music.

Grossman is an award-winning filmmaker with a passion for history and social justice. She has written and produced more than 40 hours of documentary film and television. Her last film, “Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh,” was shortlisted for an Academy Award, won the audience award at 13 film festivals, was broadcast on PBS and nominated for a Primetime Emmy.

Grossman also was the series producer and co-writer of “500 Nations,” the eight-hour CBS mini-series on Native Americans hosted by Kevin Costner. Her feature documentary, “Homeland: Four Portraits of Native Action,” premiered in February 2005, and screened and won awards at festivals worldwide. “Homeland” aired on public television stations in November 2005. Other writing and directing credits include “In the Footsteps of Jesus,” a four-hour special for the History Channel; “Hollywood & Power: Women on Top,” a special for AMC; “The Rich in America: 150 Years of Town and Country Magazine” for A&E; “The History of Christianity: the First Thousand Years,” a four-hour special on A&E; and “Heroines of the Hebrew Bible and Judas” for the A&E series “Mysteries of the Bible.”

For Grossman, ‘Hava Nagila’ transcended both its folk and kitsch past.

“Time after time, the film seems to magically transform a group of individuals into a laughing, clapping, singing community.”