“Hava Nagila V’Nismeha – Let us rejoice and be happy”. These words perfectly describe my emotions every time I step into a baseball stadium. To me, the meaning of these Hebrew words feel very fitting in the atmosphere of baseball, yet, whenever I would hear this song at baseball games, it always left me slightly confused. How did a Hebrew melody from the Levant make its way all the way into America’s pastime, one of the heart and souls of American culture? Was it simply an upbeat melody that people enjoyed, or was there an actual history behind it?
This question recently popped back into my mind when the Diamond Digest discord server was discussing Sandy Koufax, perhaps the most famous Jewish athlete ever. It sent me spiraling down the rabbit hole in an attempt to tie the knots together of this Jewish song and baseball. I spent about an hour-and-a-half at two in the morning trying to find this answer, but there was almost nothing on the internet on the topic. I then reached out to Boston Red Sox organist Josh Kantor and University of Arkansas music professor Matthew Mihalka. Three theories arose from their responses.[For those that don’t recognize the melody simply by the title, here it is as played by the Cubs Organist]
The first theory posits that it was first-played to make Jewish players feel more comfortable at games. The earliest account of “Hava Nagila” in baseball is in 1977, when it was played for John Lowenstein1 — however, despite his last name, Lowenstein was actually not Jewish and was Roman Catholic. Still, this story shows how it could be related to helping players fit in (and the organist, after finding out that Lowenstein wasn’t Jewish, switched his music to “Jesus Christ Superstar”). This is in-line with the suggestion I got from Mihalka, that it could be potentially be attributed to Gladys Goodding, who was the organist for the Brooklyn Dodgers. According to Mihalka, “she was particularly well known for performing selections that connected with particular players, usually ones with geographic references. Outside of the regular appearance in baseball, “Hava Nagila” also continues to be used around accomplishments of Jewish players, further strengthening this theory. Jason Kipnis, who’s father is Jewish, is known for his “‘Hava Nagila’ Celebrations”, which included his teammates picking him up on a “chair” and chanting, which is a traditional part of the Bar Mitzvah celebration.
Another theory has to do with the history of the song. The song was written in 1918 by Abraham Zvi Idelsohn. Shortly after writing the song, Idelsohn accepted a position to teach at Hebrew Union College, moving from Jerusalem to Cincinnati2. This helped with its popularity in America, especially in Jewish summer camps. However, it wasn’t until the early 1960s that this song really caught fire in America. Harry Belafonte recorded his own version of this song in 1959, which was immensely popular. From there, many other non-Jewish artists performed the song, including Bob Dylan and Connie Francis3. This made the song a part of the American culture at the time, which may have contributed to the rise of “Hava Nagila” in baseball.
The final theory as to how this melody found its way into baseball is that it simply has a good, up-tempo beat. Organists like playing music that can get people into the game. “Hava Nagila” also has an Eastern background, and many organists wanted to break from the Western homogeneity in sports. Kantor also hypothesizes that this is how the song “Kalinka” became popular in hockey.
“Hava Nagila” becoming a staple probably has to do a bit with all three of these theories. The popularity it gained in America culture led to it being played to welcome Jewish players into the game a bit more. The up-tempo beat kept it in the game. It has continued to be a mainstay in organist’s music selection. The history behind the song in the sport and the meaning of the Hebrew words perfectly describing the atmosphere of baseball should keep it that way.