NEW YORK (JTA) — Places you expect to hear "Hava Nagila": weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, every pop culture depiction of traditional Jews and … gymnastics competitions?
In fact, the answer is all of the above.
Alexandra Raisman, 17, one of the top elite gymnasts in the United States and a member of the 2010 U.S. World Championships team that took the silver medal last year in Rotterdam, will perform her floor exercise routine this weekend to a string-heavy version of the classic Chasidic niggun, or wordless melody. And if she succeeds in making it to London for the Olympic Games in 2012, she plans to perform the routine on the sport’s biggest stage.
Raisman, of Needham, Mass., is trained by the Romanian couple, Mihai and Sylvia Brestyan, who coached the Israeli national team in the early 1990s and also is training world vault champion Alicia Sacramone. The coaches and Raisman’s mother selected "Hava Nagila" after several exhaustive late-night online searches.
Raisman, a recipient of the Pearl D. Mazor Outstanding Female Jewish High School Scholar-Athlete of the Year Award given out by the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in New York, says she is proud to be using the Jewish song "because there aren’t too many Jewish elites out there.”
Even more important to Raisman than the tune’s Jewish connotations, however, is the quality it shares with similar folk tunes — it inspires audience participation.
“I like how the crowd can clap to it,” she says.
It is this characteristic that has likely inspired other international elites, such as the 1996 Olympic champion Lilia Podkopayeva and the 2008 victor on floor exercise, Sandra Izbasa, to use "Hava Nagila" in their floor routines.
“It implicitly invites the crowd into the performance,” says James Loeffler, who teaches Jewish and European history at the University of Virginia and is the author of the “The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire.” He adds, “It almost takes the focus off the gymnast as a solo performer."
That probably comes as a relief to Raisman, who is known for her powerful tumbling and high degree of difficulty, but has admitted to not being as comfortable with the artistic aspects of the sport.
“I’m not as good a dancer,” she concedes.
Loeffler isn’t surprised that the song has been favored by gymnasts. What both the sport of gymnastics and the song have in common is kitsch.
Gymnastics, like its sister sport figure skating, is relatively free of irony. While the acrobatics may be cutting edge, everything else seems stuck in the over-the-top 1980s, a world where scrunchies, eye glitter and iridescent spandex were popular.
In the gymnastics-verse, those things are still commonplace.
“In gymnastics," Loeffler says, "you still have a certain appeal of things that in other places might seem sort of silly or even cheesy."
This works well with a song like "Hava Nagila."
“It’s a song, depending on how you play it, that can be very powerful and spiritual, or it can be glitzy, bombastic and over the top,” he says, noting that many klezmer bands refuse to play the song, which they consider old fashioned and outmoded. The bands that do play it do so to parody themselves.
"Hava Nagila" wasn’t always considered a cliche of traditional Judaism. The song originated as a niggun among the Sadigorer Chasidim in what is now Ukraine and brought to Palestine in the late 19th century, where Avraham Zvi Idelsohn, the father of Jewish musicology, gave the tune its now famously happy lyrics.
Since then the song has become an enduring shorthand for Jewish in Hollywood films and other pop culture venues. It has received similar treatment in Eastern Europe and Russia, where “it fits into a tradition of kitschy popular style folk songs” and is one of three things people in the region know about Jews, Loeffler says.
“They know about Israel, they know about the Holocaust and they know about ‘Hava Nagila,’ " he says.
The international familiarity with the song bodes well for Raisman. Should she make it to London in 2012, it’s a safe bet everyone will be clapping along.
(Watch the video: Gymnastics & ‘Hava Nagila’ … the best of.)