The rainy scene at Wilshire and Doheny Thursday night was a before-and-after/parallel universe kind of thing. Adolescents with short dresses, high-heeled boots and wet thighs mingled with white-haired patrons maneuvering walkers around the puddles. The Millenials were attending the Kidz 4 Kidz Make a Film Foundation fundraiser at the Writers Guild Theater. The Previous Millenials were attending a sneak screening at the Laemmle's Music Hall of "Hava Nagila (The Movie)."
As we took our seats, my companion surveyed the audience and asked, "Are we in Miami?"
In the row in front of us, a Chihuahua nestled into her owner's lap blanket, her collar announcing her name in rhinestones: "Pita." The lights dimmed. No one was caught in mid-text.
"Hava Nagila (The Movie)" opens on Friday, and even if you don't know a matzo ball from a basketball, this charming film would make even the kidz snicker into their spandex.
Director/producer Roberta Grossman grew up in the San Fernando Valley, part of the great Jewish Suburban Diaspora whose every ceremonial event was marked by a band, a reveler, a cheesy taped recording of a tune that is to Jews as "We Will Rock You" is to the sports arena culture, only more well-traveled.
As Henry Sapoznik, a klezmer music revivalist, says in the film, "Hava Nagila is the kudzu of Jewish music."
And like that invasive species, the song cannot be eradicated, it can only be franchised. Like Starbucks, everybody wants some. The filmmakers set out to make a documentary about a signature Jewish "nigun" (a wordless prayer or melody), and their journey, from Canter's deli in L.A. (pictured) to Ukraine to Tel Aviv, portrays how deeply everyone drinks from the melodic mug.
In the beginning, the narrator wonders why Jews everywhere are "pulled by this ancient Jewy force to the dance floor." Scenes unfold of brides in chairs hoisted high above the lubricated receptionistas (it's a Jew thing), of Torah scrolls rendered in chopped liver and bearing the bar mitzvah boy's name. We learn that "Hava Nagila" isn't ancient--its origins are 19th-century Ukraine--and it isn't just Jewy, hasn't been since the 1950s. These days, everyone boogies to "Hava Nagila." Harry Belafonte, I'm talking to you! Bollywood, come on down!
"Hava Nagila" is fundamentally a happy song with an underlying melancholy. In other words, it's fundamentally Jewish, says Chazzan Danny Maseng, cantor and musical director of Temple Israel of Hollywood. "Life is wonderful. Life is beautiful. I'm gonna die tomorrow."
Lyrics written in the early 20th century command us to rejoice and have a joyful heart, sentiments that contradict the culture's brand. After all, notes Josh Kun, associate professor at the USC Annenberg School and director of the Popular Music Project at the Norman Lear Center, "Jews invented therapy."
Now everyone's in therapy, and everyone covers "Hava Nagila." Along with Belafonte in the 50s, that nice Southern boy Elvis Presley, gave it a shot. After wondering "Where the Boys Are," in the '60s Connie Francis recorded a popular album of Jewish music with, of course, "Hava Nagila." The filmmakers asked her if she was Jewish. "I'm 10 percent Jewish on my manager's side," replied the shiksa with a sly smile.
In that turbulent decade, while Bob Dylan, nee Zimmerman, chewed it up and spat it out for 30 seconds of incomprehensibility, Chubby Checker twisted to "Hava Nagila." While Lena Horne applied new lyrics to the melody in a civil rights anthem, Alan Sherman's rewrite also included the title--"Harvey and Sheila," a parody of suburban upward mobility. Glen Campbell recorded "Hava Nagila" as the B side of his Oscar-nominated song for "True Grit," and told the filmmakers that "everybody and his dog knows it." When he first got to L.A., Campbell sang it a lot at bar mitzvahs because it was a first-class ticket to wedding gigs.
Although he never worked "Hava Nagila" into a script, Leonard Nimoy also is featured in the film, talking about Jewish music and recalling how he subversively Jewified "Star Trek" by stealing the split-fingered gesture rabbis use to bless the congregation as his Vulcan salute.
Despite Grossman's claim that "documentary filmmakers are not happy people," she has made a joyous little film larded with history and an e pluribus unum sensibility that makes the world a little smaller, a little better.
After the screening, a herd of white hairs crossed the street to dine and drink at Kate Mantilini. The kidz shivered in the parking structure, searching for their cars. They should have followed their elders across Wilshire to rejoice with joyful hearts.
Photo: Katahdin Productions