A Latvian Chanukah Present - Day 3 #latvia

Nancy Siegel


The Latvian Jew Who Composed the Lyrics for “Hava Nagila”

by Ann Rabinowitz 


In memory of my great uncle Max Hillman, who was born in Bauska, Latvia, and who started me on my genealogical research, which is so long ago now, I am posting a piece about Latvia every day throughout Chanukah. The posts will be about people, events, and daily life. These posts can also be viewed on the JewishGen Blog at: https://www.jewishgen.org/Blog/


One of the new facts about Latvian Jews that I learned in my research in the Historical Jewish Press website was from the article in The Palestine Post, Sunday, August 21, 1938, Page 2, which featured the obit of Abraham Zvi Idelsohn. There were approximately 115-120 references to him on the site.


He was born on July 14,1882, in Feliksberg (now Jurkalne), Latvia, and died on August 14, 1938, in Johannesburg, South Africa. A talented ethnologist and musicologist, he was known as a modern Jewish music pioneer and one of the primary individuals who brought Oriental Jewish music to the notice of the Jewish and general public.


Idelsohn spent his formative years in Leipsig, Koenigsberg, and Berlin, and then went to Johannesburg, South Africa, before his productive stay in Palestine from 1905 to 1922. He then took a position at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1922 and then settled in America in 1932.


He felt that “the key to Jewish unity and survival lies in Jewish music” and he did his best to promote that music in his studies and creations. His most famous accomplishment was the lyrics for “Hava Nagila” which was published in 1922. This song has become the favorite of the modern Jewish music repertoire and is known the world over. One can even hear it sung at athletic events such as England’s Tottenham Hotspurs games. 


In addition to “Hava Nagila”, it was Idelsohn, and his compatriot Eduard Birnbaum, who identified the melody of Chanukah’s traditional prayer, “Ma-oz Tzur”, as being related to a group of Protestant chorales and a German soldiers’ song.


To learn more details about Idelsohn and his career, check out the following site:



Nancy Siegel
Director of Communications
(San Francisco, California)

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