Interesting story today on NPR about a new movie documentary on the classic Jewish song Hava Nagila (Hebrew for Let us rejoice). Anyone having attended a Jewish wedding or bar mitzvah is likely to have heard the song and seen the ceremonial hoisting in the air of the honored individual(s) in a chair. According to the story, the song originated as a Hassidic nigun, or wordless prayer or melody from Ukraine and text was subsequently added by Jewish musicologist, Abraham Zvi Idelsohn in 1905. Idelsohn had lingusitic and political movitations, according to film maker, Robert Grossman: “There were people who were, of course, revitalizing Hebrew as a modern spoken language, and then there were people who were using that modern spoken language to create poetry…Edelson had in his mind that if you could create a repertoire of folk song drawing on the roots of Jewish music from all over the world, in this case from Eastern Europe, and added Hebrew lyrics to it, then you could create a folk repertoire for the new nation, and that would help build the nation.”
Strangely, Hava Nagila became widely known in the United States, through its performance by Harry Belafonte, someone culturally far removed from the song’s origins. In the film, Belafonte recalls singing Hava Nagila in Germany, “It hit me kind of hard that here I was, an African American, an American, standing in Germany, a place [that] just a decade earlier had been responsible for one of the greatest mass murders the world had ever known. And here were these young German kids, singing this song, this Hebrew song of rejoicing. ‘Let us have peace. Let us rejoice.’ And I got very emotional.”
Mitt Romney’s comments in Israel during his recent trip abroad raise interesting questions about the relationship between cultural values and economic success. He compared the much higher per capita income in Israel compared to Palestine: “Culture makes all the difference…and as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things.” He didn’t enter into any specifics on what cultural differences he had in mind, presumably aspects of the culture that favor industry, frugality, and an entrepreneurial spirit? Or was it individualism (Israel) versus collectivism (Palestine)?
This echoes the discussion that has arisen from President Obama’s comments that successful businesses in the United States were not built exclusively by the business owners, but owed part of their success to the infrastructure created by American tax payers. Objections were quickly raised that business owners created success exclusively through their own initiative and hard work – the triumphant result of unbridled individualism. Reminds me of the hefty debates over Hilary Clinton’s “It takes a village” and the criticism of this advocacy of “collectivism”. A particular virulent attack on collectivism comes from the “one government” critics.
Romney’s remarks were criticized in that he didn’t talk about the very unequal opportunities in Israel and Palestine. He was also way off in stating that personal income in Israel is twice that in Palestine: it’s more like 20 to 1. Of course what Romney meant by “success” was exclusively economic prosperity – as a businessman that is understandably his focus. Is the point of his comparison that Palestinians would be well advised to change their cultural values? It would be interesting to see where the Israel and Palestine rank in happiness indices.