Chava Alberstein: Multilingual Folkie

In Hebrew, English and Yiddish, this legendary Israeli singer has created an unparalleled body of music.

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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." 

For an interview on her own turf--at home in Ramat Hasharon, an upscale suburb of Tel Aviv--Alberstein appears to be totally natural, her wavy blond hair pulled back in a ponytail. Padding around the simply furnished apartment in slippers, she hums to herself as she prepares coffee. Her mother, she says, used to sing to herself in a warm soprano.

Surprisingly, Alberstein describes herself as intensely shy and "not social." Yet she creates an easy intimacy, speaking freely about her life and art, anecdote after anecdote tumbling out. She can create this intimacy on stage, too, because she is a consummate actress, says Israel Radio program editor Gilead Ben-Shach, a keen Alberstein-watcher and longtime fan.

In the army she was part of a roving entertainment troupe: a singer, a standup comic and an accordion player. "It's the best school for a singer," Alberstein declares. "The conditions were awful. I had huge glasses. My skirts were always too long. And there I was, with a big guitar. The shock of seeing me kept them quiet through the first song."

Then would come the catcalls. "It was physically scary, a struggle for survival," she says. Gradually she learned how to control the crowd; then she'd squeeze in a Yiddish song.

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Esther Hecht is a writer who lives in Jerusalem.