Guest Opinion: David Segal
August 4, 2012
I felt proud this week as I watched the U.S. women’s gymnastics team dance and tumble to Olympic gold. First, it was the pride of watching fellow Americans excel on the world stage. That was coupled with a sense of pride mixed with amusement that Aly Raisman’s winning floor routine was set to the music of “Hava Nagila,” the virtually ubiquitous song of American Jewish celebration. Raisman chose it because she likes “how the crowd can clap to it.” And although she isn’t the first gymnast to use it, she is the first Jewish gymnast to do so and the first to ride that melody to Olympic gold.
More than feeling pride, I was struck by the symbolic meaning of Raisman’s musical selection. For a Jewish-American girl from Needham, Mass., to dance to a quintessentially ethnic Jewish song in an international arena surely speaks volumes about how much a part of the social fabric of American society Jews have become. (See also last week’s “Special Report on Judaism and the Jews” in The Economist.)
As Jews were integrating – and, in some cases, assimilating – into America in the 20th century, the mainstreaming of “Hava Nagila” paralleled the broader social trend. It became commonplace at weddings and bar mitzvah parties to the point of cliche. Harry Belafonte, Chubby Checker, Lena Horne, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan and scores of others recorded or performed versions of the song.
As with most generational trends, the pendulum has started swinging the other way. A new generation of American Jews has grown weary of the ever-present melody, which they see as a symbol of their parents’ or grandparents’ outmoded midcentury suburban religion. A recent story in the Wall Street Journal chronicled the surge of backlash against the song, from couples’ refusal to hear it at their weddings to Jewish bands’ refusal to play it except by special request.
Of course, every generation does some combination of rejecting and adapting its ancestors’ culture. Contemporary remixes of the song, such as “Hava NaFriggin Gila” and “The H-Tune,” a funkified version, are not your grandmother’s “Hava Nagila.”
Perhaps “Hava Nagila” owes some of its prevalence to its multicultural origins: It’s an Eastern European melody, paired with lyrics written in pre-state Israel, popularized by American band leaders. In that sense, it’s a perfect song for our women’s gymnastics team. Led by Romanian and Chinese coaches, the team encompasses African-American, Jewish, Japanese, Filipino, Puerto Rican, Lebanese and Caucasian roots. And they work together in golden harmony.
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Seeing those five young women Olympians standing triumphant together, and still hearing the boisterous strains of “Hava Nagila” in my head, I was reminded of what the Olympics, at its best, represents, and what America herself stands for. These athletes are not evaluated or selected based on their language, background, creed, or skin color. Their greatness and stardom rest on their skill, talent, hard work and performance.
As a team, they celebrate their differences while contributing to their shared success. From a melange of motherlands and mother tongues, they came together and succeeded as a team. And isn’t that what the American story has always been about? It’s e pluribus unum in a whole new light.
By the way, “Hava Nagila” is Hebrew for “let us rejoice.” Indeed, let us rejoice for the U.S. women’s gymnastic team’s gold medals. Let us rejoice in the vision of the Olympics, of people judged for what they do in the world, not for who they are. Let us rejoice everyday in the hyphenated identities that America invites and integrates, and that in turn enrich and strengthen our nation. That ideal of unity in diversity is worth even more than gold.
Rabbi David Segal, of the Aspen Jewish Congregation, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-920-2536. His column runs monthly in The Aspen Times.