So what do Yankees games, old time kibbutzim in Eretz Yisrael, and this year’s Lag BaOmer m’durah (fire) in New Square have in common?
You guessed it: They all play Havah Nagilah!
It may sound shocking, but it’s true. This past Wednesday evening, on Lag BaOmer, I attended the massive fire in New Square. Thousands of chasidim were gathered on bleachers surrounding the constructed stage upon which the Rebbe sat. After the Rebbe spoke briefly, he lit the fire, and the crowd erupted, jovially singing the famous Lag BaOmer classics “Bar Yochai,” “Va’amartem,” and “Amar Rabbi Akiva.” And then the band started playing the tune of Havah Nagilah. The crowd sang along melodiously, albeit to the classic chasidic nigun (melody without words) lyrics “Oy, doy doy doy doy.”
All of us non-chasidim shared our astonishment. Were we imagining things or was this fervently chasidic gathering playing perhaps the most secular Zionistic song ever produced?
Someone suggested that either it was actually an ancient chasidic tune that the chasidim were making an effort to reclaim, or they weren’t aware of the history and symbolism of the song, or a combination of both.
A minute later, he added that there’s one other possibility: Mashiach is coming!
The following day, I did some research and discovered that the tune does have a fascinating history. In 1838, the noted chasidic Rebbe, Rav Yisrael of Rizhin, was imprisoned by the Czar. After two years, he escaped to the village of Sadiger in Austria where he began a new following. It seems that it was at that time that the tune for Havah Nagilah was composed by one of his chasidim, and it became a favorite among the chasidim.
Then, at the beginning of the 1900s, a group of Sadiger chasidim immigrated to Yerushalayim and brought the beloved nigun with them.
There was a famous composer and cantor named Abraham Zevi Idelsohn who was an avid Zionist and had moved from Germany to Yerushalayim in 1905.
Idelsohn enjoyed learning diverse Jewish musical melodies and traditions of different sects of Jews. One of the tunes he learned was the Sadigerer nigun. After learning the tune, Idelsohn decide to add words to the nigun based on the pasuk in T’hilim (11:24): “This is the day Hashem has made, nagilah v’nism’chah bo – we shall rejoice and be happy on it.”
During a concert in Yerushalayim to celebrate the end of World War I, Idelsohn performed the Sadiger nigun with his new words. It became an instant sensation and subsequently became a standard song in Zionist youth groups and weddings.
In the 1950s, the song began to take hold outside the Jewish world. Most famously, the renowned American singer Harry Belafonte would sing it.
During the last few decades, Havah Nagilah has became famous the world over. Its message about transcending life’s challenges by being happy and rejoicing resonates everywhere. These days it can be heard at weddings and sports events, such as during Yankees games. But the song remains a symbol of the Zionist world and cause. The ironic and little-known origin of the song makes it all the more intriguing.
It turns out that the chasidim are indeed trying to reclaim an ancient nigun that they feel was taken from them. Perhaps they aren’t aware of the current symbolism that the song contains, or perhaps they are aware and don’t care. But the fact is that it is shocking to hear that song being played at such an event.
We often wonder how Mashiach is going to be able to unify all of the diverse factions of the Jewish people. (That itself will be the true test of who the real Mashiach is.) Perhaps when he comes, we will all sing Havah Nagilah together. Some may be singing the words of Havah Nagilah and others may be singing Oy, doy doy doy doy. But if all Jews are singing the same tune – which may not have happened since we stood in perfect unity at Sinai – that itself is a symbol that the messianic era is upon us.