Nearly 30 years into her career as an acclaimed director and producer, Roberta Grossman is finally tackling “Hava Nagila” – the song looming in the background of every Jewish simcha since childhood. She teamed up with co-producers Sophie Sartain and Marta Kauffman (co-creator and executive producer of “Friends”) to tell the tune’s story. What began as a curiosity unfurled into a three-year journey.
“Hava Nagila: The Movie” kicked off the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival’s opening night event at The Cobb Energy Center, but worry not if you missed it. Starting May 3rd, film fans can enjoy “Hava Nagila” at Lefont Sandy Springs 8 or Plaza Theatre.
Grossman spoke with The Atlanta Jewish Times about this personal undertaking and what “Hava” means to the community at large.
Atlanta Jewish Times: Why “Hava Nagila”?
Roberta Grossman: I grew up in L.A., in a very Jewish-identified but very religiously-assimilated household. But those “Hava” moments at weddings or bar mitzvahs, they felt downright religious – spiritual for sure, tribal definitely.
Everyone would hear the first few notes and jump up and run to the dance floor, holding hands with relatives. Everybody’s so happy. And it wasn’t forced happiness; it sort of evoked people’s hope for the future of the bar mitzvah boy, the bat mitzvah girl or the married couple.
AJT: How did you end up working with Marta Kauffman?
RG: Our daughters ended up playing soccer together a long time ago, and we really got to know each other. She was the executive producer of my last film, “Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh.”
I was talking to her for a long time about “Hava,” and she was like, “Eh, not so much.” Then finally one day, I knew enough about it, and I was on fire enough about it to convince her that it could be a really great film and to get onboard.
AJT: Any other surprises?
RG: Well, it was very surprising to find out – you think you’re making a story about a song, a Jewish song, and then realizing that you’re actually parsing your own identity.
AJT: How did you go about choosing these higher-profile interviews, like Leonard Nimoy?
RG: Leonard Nimoy is kind of part of the klezmer story, because – well, two things – he’s very involved in Jewish music, and his family was a family of klezmer musicians. So he had something legitimate to say about “Hava Nagila.”
AJT: And have you always been interested in telling these stories through film?
RG: Not as a kid growing up. I studied history in school, [and] I made my first documentary film right when I graduated from college. I had been thinking about becoming an academic, going on to get my Ph.D., before I realized that by making documentary films I could become an expert for a day in one subject.
I could read a whole new curriculum of books, and meet the best scholars in the field that I was researching. So it seemed like the best of both worlds. Also, hopefully it’s more a popular way to convey history. It brought those things together for me.
AJT: What was the atmosphere like at the AJFF Opening Night?
RG: The opening night of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival was absolutely the highlight – or at least one of the highlights – of the festival run of “Hava Nagila.” Atlanta really knew how to throw a party, and it was quite wonderful; huge audience, great response, good party – just class act all the way around.
AJT: And are you excited to see “Hava” finally getting a wider release?
RG: My experience is that if you have a theater of individuals watching this movie and, within minutes, they’re a community having a communal experience. It’s really quite joyful to be a part of. It’s really a great film to see with an audience.
AJT: What do you audiences take away from the film?
RG: “Hava” can kind of be seen as the poster child of Jewish assimilation. People can be getting married and have nothing Jewish in the ceremony, but then during the party they play a couple bars of “Hava Nagila” and say, “Ok, we’re done with the Jewish part.”
But for me – and what I hope people take away – is if you dive down through the layers, “Hava” is this incredible little snowball that’s been rolling through Jewish history, picking up all this culture and spirituality. It’s not about “Hava,” it’s about the Jewish people as a whole.
So I hope people don’t just walk by the banquet, just picking up a cracker.
“Hava Nagila: The Movie” opens Lefont Sandy Springs 8 and Plaza Theater on May 3.