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Cut ups and cul-de-sacs
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Cut ups and cul-de-sacs

In The History of the World Part 1, Mel Brooks plays a waiter at the Last Supper. As Jesus (played by John Hurt!) preaches to his disciples, Brooks interrupts: “Does everybody want soup?”

This line kills me, every time I hear it. I have nothing against Christianity, mind you. What I love is the question itself. Perhaps non-Jews ask the same question at dinner parties, but it just sounds so Jewish, even if it weren’t Brooks doing the asking.

First of all, it suggests that this Last Supper (which history tells us would have been a seder) is a catered affair, or will be served family-style. Brooks steps into one of the iconic events of Western civilization, and suddenly we’re doing Pesach at a Catskills dining room.

Or maybe not. Brooks follows up by asking, “Are you all together, or is it separate checks?” Now we’re in a deli, or maybe Ratner’s. Again, perhaps non-Jews spend a lot of time after a restaurant meal scrutinizing the checks, passing around credit cards, and splitting the tab with the collegiality and good spirits of a congressional budget negotiation. But Jews have made this ritual an art form — not because we’re “cheap,” I’d argue, but because we’re just. Remember, it was Leviticus, not Marx, that declared, “do not favor the poor nor show deference to the rich.” If Cousin Ike ordered an extra beverage — dammit, he should pay for it.

Brooks is a poet of this sort of American folk Jewishness — distinct from Judaism as a religion, a people, or a nation. As he explains in a recent interview with the comedian Marc Maron, Judaism played no role in his life — neither as a kid growing up in Brooklyn nor as an adult (married, famously, to the Catholic Anne Bancroft, a woman who might have made even the Satmar rebbe question the whole taboo on intermarriage). But Brooks embodies the Jewish American vernacular — not Yiddish, really, but Yiddish-inflected; definitely not religious, but wonderfully irreverent and sometimes profane.

The Last Supper clip turns up in Hava Nagila:The Movie, which was shown last week at the New Jersey Jewish Film Festival at the West Orange JCC. The documentary is sort of an ethnography of the song, but I don’t know many other films that do as good or as complete a job in telling the history of 20th-century American Jewry. Director Roberta Grossman traces the melody back to its roots among Ukrainian hasidim and its migration to Palestine, where musicologist A.Z. Idelsohn is usually credited with attaching the words (from Psalms) and writing it all down. (The film also airs rival claims from the descendants of one of Idelsohn’s students.)

Only in America, however, does “Hava” begin to carry the weight of Jewish sociology. Sung and recorded in the wake of Israel’s independence, the song was a celebration of the Jewish state, the rebirth of Hebrew, and American pride in the “New Jew.” Transplanted to the suburbs, it became an overplayed party anthem in the fancy new synagogues being built to accommodate the pilgrims.

The movie credits Harry Belafonte for the song’s next transformation — from bar mitzva kitsch to folk music classic sung alongside sea chanteys and Negro spirituals. Belafonte recalls singing the song at a festival in Berlin — marveling at the idea of an African-American singing a Hebrew song to young Germans only 10 years after the Holocaust.

The Jewish musicians interviewed for the film are flattered by such attention — up to a point. Klezmer scholar Henry Sapoznick hates the song for the way it has come to stand for all of Jewish music — as if the American songbook began and ended with “Jimmy Crack Corn.” Sapoznick suggests “Hava” is a cultural “cul-de-sac,” not a “gateway” to deeper Jewish engagement. The film includes Bob Dylan’s anarchic “Talkin’ Hava Nagila Blues,” which in 30 seconds reduces the song to a cowboy yodel. Josh Kun, a popular music scholar at USC Annenberg, says he loves the Dylan version for the way it simultaneously embraces and rejects the legacy of “Hava.”

All this history and analysis is served up quite lightly with clips from home movies, and snippets of performances by Connie Francis, Johnny Yune, Belafonte, Danny Kaye, and even Elvis. There is an elegiac quality to the film, because it  looks at an American-Jewish culture in sunset. The suburbs, once considered the Promised Land, are looking less secure today as havens for Jewish culture and continuity. Many of those fancy synagogues are merging or moving, and rabbis complain that congregants approach Jewish life as a series of personal choices and not as a communal obligation and commitment.

Mel Brooks represented a time when being Jewish didn’t require a membership, but merely an accent, a neighborhood, and a shared language. Jewish history may one day regard his brand of Jewishness as a cul-de-sac, but as long as people lived there, it was rich, hilarious, and heartwarming.

(If you also can’t get enough of Mel Brooks, PBS will air an American Masters documentary, Mel Brooks: Make a Noise, on Monday, May 20, at 9 p.m. Go here for clips and outtakes.)

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