‘Artists should be individuals, look for their own way, their own language to express themselves,” Israeli singer Chava Alberstein insists. “No one artist represents” all of Israeli culture.
Still, it may be fair to say that if one singer has come to personify Israel through the years, it’s Alberstein. With her mane of curly blond hair, her bold soprano voice and her guitar slung across her chest, she is one of Israel’s most popular and enduring singers, and probably the one best known around the world. She’s been performing for nearly 40 years across the length and breadth of the Jewish state and in dozens of countries worldwide. She’s released 50 albums of folk songs, rock, jazz, children’s music and her trademark specialty, Yiddish ballads. At every phase, she’s managed to embody what for many Israelis is the Jewish soul of the Jewish state in an honest way that no other artist can.
Her newest album — just out in Israel — continues that heartfelt honesty. Titled “Motzei Hag,” or “End of the Holiday,” it is, she said, “like a documentary film.” Alberstein wrote the music and her husband, Nadav Levitan, wrote the lyrics.
“It takes place in South Tel Aviv,” Alberstein told the Forward in a telephone interview from her suburban Tel Aviv home. “It’s about the places and people not in the center of life.” Once the heart of a young city, South Tel Aviv today is home to tens of thousands of foreign workers who live a hardscrabble life amid equally poor Israelis. Alberstein sings about “the foreign workers hiding, working without permission,” she said. “It’s very melancholic, sometimes sad, not too sad…” It’s about “the people who are usually living in the shadow of our lives.”
Born in the Polish town of Szczecin in 1949, Alberstein immigrated with her parents to Israel when she was 4 years old and was raised near Haifa. At 17 she was invited by Dahn Ben-Amotz, a legendary Israeli humorist, to sing on his live radio show. Her debut included songs in Yiddish and French. She was a huge hit, and by the time she joined the army at 18 she was a star. She spent her army years entertaining the troops and recording her first album.
The Israel Alberstein embodies is a nation that thrives on an ethos of universalism, hope and peace. Over the years she has set to music the lyrics of some of Israel’s most famous wordsmiths, from the pre-state poet Leah Goldberg to the contemporary playwright Hanoch Levin. She has been writing her own songs since 1986, frequently in collaboration with her husband. Whether it’s her own songs or someone else’s, though, Alberstein says she chooses songs very “instinctively.” “You fall in love with something you want to share,” she said.
Her earlier albums include love ballads and celebrations of Israel’s raw natural beauty. Since the first intifada broke out during the late 1980s, however, Alberstein’s repertoire has developed an increasingly pronounced edge of social protest. The protest reached its height with her rock and roll version of the Passover children’s song “Had Gadya,” or “One Only Kid,” a powerful antiwar statement that was released on her 1989 album “London.” The album went platinum, even as it was banned from the airwaves by the Israel Broadcasting Authority.
The original “Had Gadya” is an allegory of Jewish fate, telling of a kid, purchased at a market “for two zuzim,” that was eaten by a cat, which was eaten by a dog, which was beaten by a stick, which was burned by fire, and so on up to the Angel of Death, who is slain by God. Alberstein’s version, intertwining the Haggada’s Aramaic text with modern Israeli Hebrew, and performed with a throbbing bass-and-drum accompaniment that sounds like gun shots, takes the allegory a step further: “Once I was a sheep and a peaceful goat. Today I am a tiger and a predatory wolf. Once I was a dove, I was a deer. Today I don’t know who I am.” Finally, evoking Passover’s Four Questions, Alberstein ends by singing: “On all other nights I asked only four questions. This night I have another question — how long will the circle of horror continue?”
Alberstein still sounds skittish when recalling the furor the song caused. “I’m ready to pay the price of people forgetting about the song,” she said. Instead, as a new Passover approaches 14 years later with no end to violence in sight, Alberstein’s song seems as relevant as ever.
Alberstein says she doesn’t necessarily set out to make political statements with her music. “I won’t call it politics, because politics is sometimes just a word,” she said. “Moral injustice is the issue. Somehow I feel that this situation, that we are controlling the life of a million other people, is not good for the other people and ruins something inside Israeli society…. I know it will change. It will take a lot of innocent victims before it will change.”
Her 2001 album, “Foreign Letters,” includes songs in English, Hebrew and Yiddish. Alberstein, who spoke Yiddish growing up, often records and performs songs in Yiddish, drawing on her Polish roots. With her husband, she made a film called “Too Early to be Quiet, Too Late to Sing,” a tribute to Israel’s remaining Yiddish poets. She has collaborated with the contemporary American klezmer band the Klezmatics on a recording and performed with them in East Berlin’s newly restored grand synagogue.
Alberstein’s determination to mine her Yiddish roots, a rarity among Israeli pop singers, allows her to find links among the Jewish experiences of past centuries that are richly portrayed in her music. On “Foreign Letters” she performs a song in Yiddish from a poem by the poet Moshe Leib Halperin, who was part of the Yiddish radical literary renaissance of the 1920s in New York’s Lower East Side. Although Halperin died in 1933, the poem, “Back Home,” set to music by Alberstein, is haunting in its evocation of Israel’s current
predicament. “It’s hard for me to live like this, I’ll go back home and go to stay…. I’ll share everything I have with those who don’t have quite as much, and won’t forget about the pain that human gifts can never touch…. I’ll treat my enemy just like a father treats his child. It might help to purify this soul that I’ve defiled. And maybe if I do all this, I’ll find the peace I crave. And Grandpa, too, might get some rest, way down there in his grave.”
Although Alberstein remains a critic of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, she’s also sharply critical of the anti-Israel sentiment that has swept Europe since the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000. “There is a big problem in the last two years, with a very negative response to Israeli artists in Europe. Some of the places are saying it isn’t a good time for an Israeli artist right now. This was a shock for me, a very bad feeling to make this collective guilt, mixing art and politics…. They don’t want to listen to anything. It is against everything. It’s difficult to show them there are so many voices in Israel.” Nonetheless, “Foreign Letters” recently reached the No. 1 spot on Korea’s record charts and has been released in Taiwan. Her latest concert tour includes a performance in Singapore.
American audiences will have a chance to hear this legendary chanteuse for themselves in the coming weeks. Alberstein will begin an American tour in Skokie, Ill., on March 29, with stops at New York’s 92nd Street Y on April 2, Cleveland on April 4 and St. Louis on the April 5.