Story and Origins of Famous Songs Havah Nagilah

About the history, origins, and story behind the popular Jewish song Havah Nagilah, a staple at Bar Mitzvahs.

STORIES BEHIND THE SONGS YOU GREW UP WITH

"HAVAH NAGILAH," Abraham Zebi Idelsohn and Moshe Nathanson--1917

When the British general Sir Edmund Allenby threw the Turks out of Jerusalem in 1917, the Jews planned a victory celebration. Abraham Zebi Idelsohn decided to write and present a new song. He was eminently qualified to do so. He was the conductor of a young people's choir; a scholar specializing in the history of Jewish music; the author of a 10-volume Thesaurus of Oriental Jewish Melodies that was printed in three languages; and he had collected on wax records many old biblical songs that were in danger of being lost forever.

The melody he chose for the victory song was a Hasidic nigun he had heard when a boy. The nigunim are meditative prayers, which are supposed to lead the soul in stages to liberation from the physical world. The syllables of the nigunim--including phrases like lei-di-sei--are meaningless, and the movements--clapping and finger snapping--have a rigid, formal feel to them.

Idelsohn ran a contest among his young choir singers for the best lyrics. The winner was Moshe Nathanson, who later went to the U.S. as a singer of Palestinian folk songs. Some of the lines he wrote were "Let us rejoice and be glad./ Wake up, brothers, with a joyful heart."

The final version of the song, "Havah Nagilah," began with the restraint of the nigun, then broke out into a joyful hora, the circle dance popular in the kibbutzim.

Since 1917, there has almost never been a bar mitzvah--or any other Jewish celebration--at which the playing of "Havah Nagilah" did not signal the dancing to start.

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