Chava Alberstein: Multilingual Folkie
In Hebrew, English and Yiddish, this legendary Israeli singer has created an unparalleled body of music.
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.
A Diverse Repertoire
Since her army days, Alberstein has sung every kind of music, Israeli and foreign, from folk to pop to rock, even children's songs. Critics have compared her to Edith Piaf, Judy Collins, and Joan Baez.
For Israelis, she has always been an icon, singing the innocent and romantic Zionist and land of Israel songs; poems by the most famous Hebrew writers, like Leah Goldberg, Yehuda Amichai, T. Carmi and Zelda; and songs written especially for her by the country's leading lyricists.
"I admire her for her choice of songs," Ben-Shach says. "The texts are rich with meaning." According to Ben-Schach, Alberstein also has an uncanny sense of what will work for her, collaborating with lyricists and composers. "She knows what to ask for," he says. And, like many Israelis, he believes Alberstein will best be remembered for her land of Israel songs.
But since the 80's she has performed many of her own works, filled with sly humor or sharp criticism of the country's policies. Unlike most Israeli entertainers, Alberstein has taken a stand, criticizing Israel's handling of the uprisings and challenging the popular belief in "benign occupation."
In 1989, soon after the first Palestinian uprising began, Alberstein wrote a version of the Passover song "Chad Gadya." Starting with the traditional words, the lyrics then focus on the relationship between oppressor and oppressed and conclude, "Today I know who I am."
The angry response followed quickly: Curses and threats came over the phone. A music-store owner in Beersheba told Alberstein he had dumped all her records out of his store. Then the Israel Broadcasting Authority banned the song. And although then attorney general Yosef Harish declared the ban an "unjustifiable violation of free expression," the song has hardly been played since.
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