Among Intergalactic Afikoman’s newest picture books is I Am Hava: A Song’s Story of Love, Hope & Joy, written by Freda Lekowicz and illustrated by Siona Benjamin. It tells the story of the song “Hava Nagila,” from its birth as a niggun (melody without words) in Ukraine, to Jerusalem, to when it received its name and lyrics (though exactly from whom is still a mystery), and its journey around the world to popularity well beyond the Jewish community.
Hava Nagila means “Come and Rejoice,” explains the book, and this story – told by the song herself, personified as a blue-skinned Indian-Jewish girl in a sari – is full of movement and colour. It boldly celebrates the diversity of the Jewish people and our culture.
“For me, Hava’s story is a story of universality and multiculturalism,” Benjamin, who grew up as a Bene Israel Jew in India, writes at the end of the book. “Universality is always born from the specifics. The specifics for me are my Jewishness, my Indianness and my Americanness.
“Many blue-skinned characters populate my paintings,” she continues. “Hava is blue because blue is the colour of the sky and the ocean. Blue is the colour of the globe. Blue is also such a Jewish colour. It’s in the tallit. It’s in the tzitzit. It’s in the Israeli flag.”
Montreal-born Lekowicz also connects personally with the story. She shares that her parents, after the Holocaust, were in a displaced persons camp in Germany. “Like other Holocaust survivors,” she writes, “they were broken and in mourning. Yet the joyful sounds of Hava Nagila sometimes echoed in the camp. ‘Let us celebrate,’ it urged. The song symbolized hope and resilience.”
This lovely and imaginative book does joyous justice to this well-known song.