18 November 2010

A celebratory Hebrew song for a Taiwanese funeral

('Hava Nagila', Hebrew song performed by Israeli singer Rika Zaraï, ca 1966)

'Hava Nagila' (Let us rejoice, lieterally), almost a standard dance number for Jewish weddings, as well as Bar and Bat Mitzvoth, is a Hebrew song, of which the tune was actually adapted from a niggun (a wordless humming tune) of a Hassidic branch of Judaism in Ukraine with the text written in 1918 by Abraham Zevi Idelsohn, the father of Jewish musicology.

It was originally written for a concert in celebration of British victory over the Turks in Palestine in WWI, together with the Balfour Declaration, which stated the British government's stance in favour of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. By setting simple Hebrew lyrics to the Ukrainian Hassidic tune, Idelsohn wrote 'Hava Nagila' as a cheerful concluding song for the concert organised by himself.

In terms of melodic structure, the song can be divided into three sections, the text set to which can roughly translate as
Let's rejoice and be happy!
Let's sing and be happy!
Awake, brothers, with a happy heart!
Indeed, it is a cheery, jaunty song.

This song has recently been quoted in Seven Days In Heaven, a Taiwanese film presenting the seven days of the Taoist mourning ritual in succession before the funeral after a father's decease and its impacts on his children.

I wonder whether the two collaborating directors of this film, Yu-Lin Wang and Essay Liu, have no knowledge of the celebratory idea behind 'Hava Nagila' but simply take it as a sonic background in the film, or their intention is to employ 'Hava Nagila' right away in the title sequence to deliver the message that a funeral may be a celebration of life as well.

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