The beloved song ‘Hava Nagila’ has come to life in a children’s book by an author from Montreal

She is a Jewish woman who wears a traditional Indian sari, but was born in a Ukrainian shtetl. And although she is now almost two centuries old, she still dances across the globe bringing the same delight she always has to Jewish people, whether they are celebrating or enduring hardship.

Her name is Hava Nagila and this super-heroine is the creation of Freda Lewkowicz, author of the new children’s picture book I Am Hava: A Song’s Story of Love, Hope & Joy, illustrated by Siona Benjamin.

Like the song, Hava spreads happiness wherever she goes.

“I hope I have brought the song’s history and meaning to life,” said Lewkowicz, who recently retired after 39 years as an English teacher at Rosemere High School, north of Montreal. “’Hava Nagila’ is the soundtrack to Jewish lives, the most famous Jewish song in the world, a Jewish anthem, yet its melody floats across borders, religions and cultures. Today, it embraces everyone.”

She found the perfect partner for her poetic text in Benjamin, an Indian-Jewish artist living in the New York City area, who sees the character’s blue skin tone as a way to instil appreciation of diversity. As a member of the ancient Bene Israel community, Benjamin knows what it is like to be viewed as different, even among fellow Jews.

Hava’s sari and the tallit that billows cape-like behind her symbolize these two identities.

Lewkowicz dedicates the book to her Holocaust survivor parents, Mara and Marek Lewkowicz, who danced to “Hava Nagila” while living in the Hasenhecke displaced persons camp in Germany after the war. It lifted their spirits as they looked toward rebuilding their lives in a new world.

“Their resilience and courage showed me that there is light even in darkness,” she says.

Why blue? Obviously, it’s the “Jewish” colour, associated with the Israeli flag. But Benjamin gave more thought to her choice.

“Blue is the colour of the sky and the ocean, it is everywhere,” she said at the book’s launch during Jewish Book Month, sponsored by the Jewish Public Library. “Hava belongs everywhere and nowhere at the same time. This is a universal story.”

Benjamin knows that feeling having been born in Mumbai in a predominantly Hindu and Muslim country, attended Catholic and Zoroastrian schools, and immigrated to the United States. A seasoned artist, she had, however, never illustrated a children’s book before and this was a commission that required careful research.

The two women were matched by the book’s publisher, Seattle-based Intergalactic Afikoman, which was founded two years ago by Brianna Caplan Sayres, a Jewish educator and author.

Her vision was to start a small independent house that would publish the type of books for Jewish children that she feels are lacking. She is on the lookout, in particular, for stories that have fantasy, adventure and maybe zany humour, while still conveying Jewish wisdom.

Suitable for kids aged 5 to 8, I Am Hava, as narrated by the eponymous protagonist, begins in the tiny village of Sadagora, Ukraine where a niggun, or wordless melody, is hummed by the Hasidim on Shabbat, dispelling the gloom and danger of their lives.

Early in the 20th century, the melody, now personified as the flying Hava, accompanies these pious Jews on their miserable voyage to Jerusalem.

In the Holy Land, musicologist Abraham Zvi Idelsohn is captivated by these newcomers’ melody and writes Hebrew lyrics for it entitling the song “Hava Nagila,” or come and rejoice—or maybe one of his students did.

The song was first performed publicly in Jerusalem in 1918 at the First World War’s end. It soon swept the nation, which danced the hora to it. At independence in 1948, “Hava Nagila” echoed through a rapturous land.

By 1930 “Hava Nagila” was becoming popular in North America, and not only in the Jewish community. In 1959, singer Harry Belafonte recorded a version, just one of the hundreds that have been made.

What greater proof that Hava’s spirit lives on today, notes Lewkowicz, than U.S. gymnast Aly Raisman selecting the melody for her gold medal-winning floor routine at the 2012 Olympics.

Siona Benjamin, discusses her thoughts about her debut picture book, I Am Hava: A Song’s Story of Love, Hope & Joy written by Freda Lewkowicz and shares her belief in the importance of multicultural books: