Jewish News January 2020
The Hora and Israeli Folk Dance
by Arlene Stolnitz

Who can resist joining a hora at a traditional Jewish wedding?  In my case, when I hear those first notes, the music speaks to my soul.  It’s as if I am being called to the dance floor by some mysterious and enigmatic sound that draws me in!

Typically set to a kind of klezmer style music, the custom of lifting the newly married couple on chairs is exhilarating as well as often scary! In Orthodox weddings men and women dance separately whereas in Conservative, Reform and Liberal Movements there is no separation.

 The hora, well known in many Eastern European cultures, each in different forms, and known throughout the Jewish Diaspora, became the symbol of the rebirth of the State of Israel and the foundation of Israeli Folk Dance. Performed in a circle with participants interlocking hands, the dance is set to Israeli music and was often performed in kibbutzim, often continuing for hours.

Tzena, Tzena and Hava Nagila are the tunes we hear most often at celebrations today; yet there are many other hora songs made popular by the Israeli Folk Dance Movement. A few well known dance songs include Mazel Tov and Siman Tov, Chiribim,Chiribom, and Yismehu Hashamayim. Other less known but equally joyous songs are Tarras Freilach and Naphtaly’s  Freilach (dance).

But Tzena,Tzena and Hava Nagila are the most familiar to us. Tzena was written in 1941 by Issachar Miron, a Polish emigrant who wrote the song while serving in the Jewish Brigade of the British Forces.

Tzena, tzena, tzena, tzena ha-banot u-r’ena ħayalim ba-mosheva/
Al na, Al na, Al na, Al na, al na titħab’ena /Mi-ben ħayil, ish tzava.

Go out, go out, go out  girls and see the soldiers in the moshav (farming community)
Do not, do not, do not hide yourself away from a virtuous man (a pun on the word for soldier), an army man.

In the 50’s the folk singing group the Weavers, and later Pete Seeger, recorded the song and, for the first time, Americans were introduced to a sense of what  Israel was about: “a land brimming with tanned and muscular kibbutznik-soldiers singing, dancing the hora and making the desert bloom.” It was an idealistic view of Israel which ignored the malaria infested swamps and tent settlements that housed Mizrahi Jews. It glorified the men and women who “fight and plant and love”.

And its upbeat rhythm provided the perfect backdrop for the emergence of Israeli Folk Dance in the 40’s.

Hava Nagila, no less popular as a hora tune, has a less defined past.  It is thought to have originated in Eastern Europe as a niggun, or mystical musical Hasidic prayer, in the mid-18th or 19th centuries. Years later it emerged in Palestine and was transcribed by famed musicologist Abraham Zvi Idelsohn who added the Hebrew text we sing today.

Hava nagila, hava nagila/ Hava nagila ve-nismeha/ Hava neranena, Hava neranana/ Hava neranena venismeha

Let us rejoice, let us rejoice and be glad, let us sing, let us sing and be glad.

Hava Nagila has been called "the Jewish party song that belongs to the world”.  Recorded by Harry Belafonte, Chubby Checker and many others, the song emphasizes joy and community with its enticing beat.  It’s hard to imagine a Jewish wedding without it.

Personally, I look forward to my next wedding invitation, and especially seeing the bride and groom precariously hoisted up on chairs as part of the dance!  Hopefully, it won’t be too long for that invite. I can hear the strains of the hora being played and can’t wait to get up and dance the hora while I am still able.