A Long-Lost Notebook Sheds Light on the Origins of “Hava Nagilah”

Sept. 20 2019

In the West, perhaps no tune is so associated with Jews and Judaism as “Hava Nagilah” (“Let us rejoice!”), written by Abraham Zvi Idelsohn in the early 20th century. Born in 1882 in what is now Latvia, Idelsohn trained as a cantor before studying music formally at German conservatories. He then settled in Jerusalem. Edwin Seroussi and James Loeffler explain how he came to write “Hava Nagilah.”

Living next door to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew, Idelsohn set as his own goal the creation of a modern Hebrew music to accompany the national rebirth of Jewish life in the ancient homeland. In the spirit of the Zionist philosopher Ahad Ha’am, Idelsohn began to collect all the riches of Jewish musical traditions that he found in Ottoman Palestine and throughout the Diaspora.

Using the emerging recording technology, he began to transcribe folk songs and make field recordings in order to forge an old-new musical sound that would be (in his view) authentically Jewish. That meant uncovering what he imagined to be the oldest layer of pre-exilic melody common to all Jewish traditions and liberating it from the foreign accretions resulting from the exile.

Like other architects of this new Hebrew culture, Idelsohn sought out Jewish religious culture in order to refashion it into new secular national traditions. It was in this context that Idelsohn premiered a new song, “Hava Nagila,” at a mixed-sex choir concert in Jerusalem sometime in 1918. . . . Much later, in 1932, Idelsohn wrote that he originally transcribed the melody from a Sadegurer Ḥasid in Jerusalem in 1915.

There are several possible explanations as to how and where Idelsohn encountered this Ḥasid. A recently catalogued collection of his papers, which had languished for decades in the library of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, seem to suggest the meeting took place even earlier.

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More about: Israeli music, Jewish music, Zionism

The Evidence of BDS Anti-Semitism Speaks for Itself

Oct. 18 2019

Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs recently released a lengthy report titled Behind the Mask, documenting the varieties of naked anti-Semitic rhetoric and imagery employed by the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction the Jewish state (BDS). Drawn largely but not exclusively from Internet sources, its examples range from a tweet by a member of Students for Justice in Palestine (the “world would be soooo much better without jews man”), to an enormous inflated pig bearing a star of David and floating behind the stage as the rock musician Roger Waters performs, to accusations by an influential anti-Israel blogger that Israel is poisoning Palestinian wells. Cary Nelson sums up the report’s conclusions and their implications, all of which give the lie to the disingenuous claim that critics of BDS are trying to brand “legitimate criticism of Israel” as anti-Semitic.

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More about: Anti-Semitism, BDS, Roger Waters, Social media