Chava Alberstein: Multilingual Folkie
In Hebrew, English and Yiddish, this legendary Israeli singer has created an unparalleled body of music.
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Since then she has cut more than 40 albums in Hebrew, six of which have been awarded the Kinor David prize, Israel's Grammy; six albums in Yiddish; and an album of English standards, from George Gershwin to John Lennon. Recently, Alberstein has returned to Yiddish with renewed vigor.
"It's a miracle that at the end of the millennium [I could record] 15 new songs in Yiddish," the musician says of The Well, which she cut in 1998 with the Klezmatics, the avant-garde New York klezmer group.
So enthusiastic has the response been to these songs in concert, in the United States and in Europe, that Alberstein has recorded another all-Yiddish album and included five Yiddish songs on her latest album, Foreign Letters. Yiddish songs featured, too, in a recent PBS special of her in concert in Berlin.
"Yiddish was always another part of my being Israeli," says Alberstein. But she has no illusions about reviving the language and adds emphatically, "Yiddish is a dead language."
"Farewell to Yiddish"
So why this emphasis now? It began with what she saw as payment of a debt to her roots. It turned into the sheer joy of creative renewal. She had just scripted the 1999 documentary film Too Early To Be Quiet, Too Late To Sing, directed by her husband, filmmaker Nadav Levitan, and her daughter, Meira, 30, about a small group of Yiddish poets who had survived World War II.
"I meant it to be a farewell to Yiddish, though I wasn't aware of that then," Alberstein says. "Suddenly this farewell turned into the newest, freshest thing. Suddenly I started writing music for Yiddish poems, something I never thought I'd do. In three months I'd written 30 songs."
Alberstein was born in Szczecin, Poland, and arrived in Israel with her family at the age of 4. Her memories of the early years mirror those of the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who poured into the young state.
For the first few weeks the family lived in a tent and for the next year in a tin hut, in the transit camp known as Sha'ar Ha'aliya (The Gateway to Aliya). The lack of privacy and hodgepodge of languages are immortalized in her Hebrew song "Sharaliya," pronounced just as the immigrants corrupted the name of the camp.
For Alberstein's brother, six years her senior, being an immigrant was traumatic. "The younger you are, the easier it is," she says of her own experience. Yet, as she describes growing up in Kiryat Bialik, a town north of Haifa, it is clear she has never forgotten the native-born Israelis' arrogance toward the newcomers. Her family overcame it, she says, with "a sense of humor and our closeness."?
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