Hava Nagila (The Movie) Tells the Story of a Famous Song

Producer Marta Kauffman talks the new movie, growing up in Broomall, and creating hit TV show Friends.

Hava Nagila (The Movie) employs everyone from rabbis and scholars to Harry Belafonte to describe the story—and cultural impact—behind the famous song. The film, opening today at Ritz at the Bourse, is a joyous, witty ode to a single from the soundtrack of our lives. One of the producers is Broomall’s Marta Kauffman, who helped create a string of successful sitcoms in the 1990s, notably Friends. Her involvement will surprise some, but Kauffman, 56, is right where she wants to be. I talked with her recently about how Hava Nagila (The Movie) fits into her current career path and why sitcoms do not.

Humor is a strong component in Hava Nagila (The Movie). Could it have been made without it? And why is humor such a staple of the Jewish culture?
Could it have been made without the humor? Sure. Would it have worked? I doubt it. … I think you can only serve anything with humor, and serve it well, because then you’re in a different state of mind and you allow the information in rather than being preached at, which I think we all resent.

Why is humor such an important part of [Jewish culture]? I wish I knew the answer to that. I can remember an aunt of mine used to say, “If I didn’t laugh, I’d cry.” I don’t know. I can’t think of much that is better without humor—including sex. Everything is better when you can laugh. It implies a state of happiness and relaxation and openness.

As one of the creative forces behind Friends, does that show’s legendary status box you in? Or does it give you the opportunity to do projects such as this?
I think both are true. We know that Hollywood is a place that tends to pigeonhole people: “You did that, so do that again.” When Friends was over, I knew that I wanted to dig deeper, tackle some more serious topics—all with humor. But I wanted to be able to dig a little deeper and not have to worry about the joke. That was a personal thing, and I also didn’t want to have to compete with Friends. I knew I could never win.

Yes, on the one hand it has afforded me the possibilities of people to trust my storytelling enough to allow me to do things like [the Lifetime Original Movie] Five and Blessed Is the Match [a documentary on Hannah Senesh] and Hava Nagila. On the other hand, I also know that people are a little hesitant like, “Really? You? You want to do this? What? Why? You can do the other thing.” I think there’s a certain lack of trust, but that happens. We do get pigeonholed in this business; actors do as well.

Do you have a desire to go back into sitcoms?
If the right thing came along, I would consider it, but not multi-camera. I did that, and it was such a special experience in a really special time in my life. And I will never repeat it. It would feel a little bit like going back. It was a great decade of my life, and I enjoyed every minute of it, and it was stressful and exciting and creatively fulfilling and all those things and it afforded me so many opportunities. But I don’t want to go back there again. And, to be honest, part of the reason is that the schedule for the writer is brutal. It’s a brutal schedule if you want to get it right.

It must be nice to do something different.
It’s phenomenal. I love stepping into something and wondering if I’m capable of doing it, and then finding my parameters. I brought a certain number of qualities to Friends, and the qualities that I brought are the ones that I’m getting to explore independent of that show.

What is it about the Philly suburbs that nurture humor?
[Laughs] I think you have to have a sense of humor to live in Philadelphia. Besides that it’s the Newark of Pennsylvania. I think it’s changed recently, but growing up, Philly was the brunt of jokes. You have to have a certain sense of humor to be able to live there, and let’s face it: Philadelphia is weird accents, and we like things like cheesesteaks. We’re a very unique bunch. I happen to love Philadelphia. It’s a great city. It’s a great place to grow up. But we all grew up with the awareness that Philly wasn’t the place to be—[more like] the fourth or fifth place to be.

Philadelphia is one of those places that you say you’re from Philly and people say, “I’ve heard that’s a nice city.” [Laughs] Then go! We’re more than a heart you can walk through.