Calling someone her country's greatest singer would be a huge compliment to most performers. In the case of Chava Alberstein, however, it only tells a small part of the story.
Alberstein is undoubtedly Israel's most accomplished singer, having released nearly 50 recordings since the late 1960's, many of them now gold or platinum. Alberstein is Israel; her development as an artist mirrors Israel's development as a country; her growing pains are Israel's growing pains. Alberstein and Israel are even the same age - both turn 50 - and they both share a tiny but powerful stature.
But Chava Alberstein sees herself as much as a singer of the world as just a singer of her beloved Israel.
"Even though I have lived in Israel nearly my entire life, I am constantly questioning my place in the world," said Alberstein. "Maybe this searching comes from being an artist, maybe it comes from being a Jew. I'm not really sure."
This bittersweet tension between the national and the universal is most evident in all of her recordings. From tender love songs to defiant songs about peace and oppression. There are prayerful songs celebrating the beauty of the human form and more melancholy songs about loss, poverty, and solitude.
Alberstein has lately released “The Well” , an album of Yiddish poems she has transformed into folk songs, with the renowned klezmer group the Klezmatics.
“In Israel, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone today composing and singing in Yiddish," said Klezmatics lead singer Lorin Sklamberg. "Some people still see Yiddish as the language of soft Jews who can't protect themselves. But Chava understands the joy and depth of the language."
Yiddish was the mother-tongue of Alberstein's family in the small town in Szczecin, Poland, where Chava was born. Her family moved to Israel when Alberstein was only 4-years-old, but Chava says she has never totally lost the feeling of being a stranger.
"No matter where I am, even if it's in my own country, I feel like a bit of a guest," she said. "People can appreciate this today, because they move around so much. Every country you go to in the world is filled with so -called foreigners."
Since the very first time she ever sang in public - a four-song set, which included songs in French, Spanish, Yiddish, and a gospel standard in English - Chava Alberstein has been a performer of "World Music."
Chava has released more than 40 albums in Hebrew, six of which have been awarded the Kinor David prize, Israel's Grammy. She has also released six albums in Yiddish, and an English album of standards ranging from Gershwin to Lennon and McCartney.
A dozen of the records have gone gold, six platinum, and one triple platinum.
Alberstein's early Hebrew recordings, with names like "Songs of My Beloved Country," "Beaches," and "Like a Wildflower," speak to Israel as a fledgling country. They are external, almost frontier.
"Israel was like a little child in those days," Chava recalled. "Discovering all the parts of her body.."
"If we have a true folk singer, it is Chava Alberstein," Yediot Aharonot, Israel's largest daily newspaper said about Alberstein, naming her the most important female musician in Israel's history.
With a half century of life and song under her belt, Chava Alberstein, like Israel, has come to understand that good art, like good state craft, is best achieved by looking inwards and outwards. She is a singer who accomplishes that greatest, most precious rarity of all: she speaks for a culture, a tradition.
“Everything is good only in the proper measure,” Chava sings in one of her songs. It seems her career is yet to see tremendous achievements.
Chava Alberstein’s album, “Foreign Letters”, produced by Ben Mink, was released on French label Naive in September 2001 and in North America on Rounder/Universal on December 11, 2001. “Voices, A Musical Celebration” a Public Television concert special starring Chava Alberstein aired world wide starting November 2001. Her latest album, "End of the Holiday" (Motzai Khag), was released in Israel to rave reviews and will be released on Rouner records worldwide in January 2004. In September 2003 a box set with Chava's earlier recordings was released in Israel. The box includes over 200 songs never before released on a CD format.
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End of the Holiday
An Israeli friend once remarked, "If one morning Israel woke up to find all the Palestinians vanished in the night, there would be a civil war by noon." Chava Alberstein is not so pessimistic, but with her latest album, the veteran voice of Israel's left explores the other challenges facing her homeland, ones that may not make the newspapers here, but are just as crucial. End of the Holiday, a series of vignettes of lives lived away from the security fences and front lines, strikes a universal chord that will resonate as deeply in New Jersey as in Jerusalem.
You'd be hard pressed to find another 56-year-old singer that remains as engaged with her people and nation as Chava Alberstein. With over 50 albums to her credit -- a recently issued sixteen-disc box set covers only her early recordings -- she is often lauded as her country's Joan Baez, the voice of its conscience. With this album, she turns a clear eye on the south Tel Aviv neighborhood that for her is a microcosm of Israeli society. It's an immigrant neighborhood, packed with the eastern European, Chinese, and Thai workers who have replaced Palestinians since the borders were closed. It's also become a magnet for young creative people who've fashioned a sort of bohemia among the old synagogues, liquor stores, and lottery kiosks. "They are all mixed together, the old people of Tel Aviv, the new immigrants, the young people living there because it's cheap. It's a very dynamic place," she explains, describing a gentrifying area akin to New York's Soho decades ago.
The first full collaboration between Alberstein and her husband, the filmmaker Nadav Levitan, who wrote all the lyrics to End of the Holiday, the album marks a new direction for Alberstein. Her celebrated U.S. releases The Well (with the Klezmatics), Yiddish Songs and the gorgeous Foreign Letters introduced Alberstein as a sensual song interpreter and Yiddish preservationist -- she's since been slated for a Jewish Research Lifetime Achievement Award from the YIVO Institute -- whose sunny hopefulness seemed to emanate from her own golden curls. This album is different, as times now are different. It is all in Hebrew, for one thing, although Alberstein remains devoted to the Yiddish of her youth. And while today's Israeli pop is hopeful and light, End of the Holiday, like its title track detailing the change "from freedom to burden," is weightier. "I don't have anything against music as escape. Maybe this is what music has to do, to make things easier," Alberstein says. "But for me the thing was always to look into reality and turn the truth into an art -- not to run away from it."
Taking her place alongside artists such as Leonard Cohen and Italy's Paolo Conte -- though her sumptuous voice would never be mistaken for the gravelly tones of these gentlemen -- Alberstein delivers almost journalistic accounts, centered on haunting images. A beach empty after a holiday, a solitary man in a neglected synagogue, immigrants clustered around drink-and-snack bars, "like honeycomb attracts bees / Like bathhouses attract men." Through these songs she addresses local issues that could unfold anywhere: immigration ("Vera From Bucharest" and "Black Video"), racism ("Shadow"), environmental destruction ("Dying Creek"), and how difficult times encourage a turning towards faith ("Psalms") even as growing secularization leaves spirits unfed ("Empty Synagogue").
Without preaching or moralizing, Alberstein inhabits each song -- and after all, she herself is an immigrant who came to Israel from Poland as a child, and grew up speaking Yiddish, a language scorned in the nascent country. The same age as the Jewish state itself, she is its most eloquent spokesperson. Never has the relationship between Israel -- the Israel that struggles under the myth of the Holy Land, groans beneath the weight of world, even cosmic, events -- and America seemed closer than through Chava Alberstein's voice.
Identified with her country's doves, most notably Yitzhak Rabin, Chava Alberstein makes no apologies for the somber, inward tone of End of the Holiday. "You can only sing about peace and hope for so long," she says, having done so for much of her career, "before the words have no meaning, and you would rather just say nothing." But she counsels against taking her silence as weakness. Rather than join in the chorus of platitudes that Israelis refer to as "the word laundry," she has found other corners to shine the light of truth upon. Each jewel-like song on End of the Holiday is, as so many acts of resistance, a small step, a stand against incomprehension and futility. "Because of the situation we're in," she says, referring to the incessant violence wracking her home, "we can't concentrate on other people's suffering. I think this is the worst price for the occupation, that we are losing our capacity to have mercy on others. Nobody has exclusive rights to suffering."
With compassion and clarity, Alberstein and Levitan have created a boldly universal album. In its quiet intimacy, End of the Holiday speaks volumes about relationships both political and human, framed by the luminous voice of Chava Alberstein.
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Too Early To Be Quiet, Too Late To Sing
A film by Chava Alberstein
"Too Early To Be Quiet, Too Late To Sing," wrote Yiddish poet Binem Hiller, expressing the status of Yiddish literature today. This also describes the atmosphere in Chava Alberstein's film. A flourishing Yiddish culture of poetry, music, drama, and literature came to an abrupt end with the Holocaust.
Six million Jews perished and with them their spoken language. A small core of survivors continued to create in Yiddish after World War II, spread out among the communities of the United States, Canada, Argentina, and Israel. Now, fifty years later only a few Yiddish poets remain alive, most of them in Israel.
Chava Alberstein set out to interview these last writers of Yiddish poetry, to hear their poems and stories. Along the way she sings a superb collection of Yiddish folk songs. With numerous albums to her name, Chava Alberstein, "The First Lady of Israeli Song" has continues to record and perform Yiddish songs. Her highly acclaimed CD "The Well", where she set to music 15 poems of the greatest Yiddish poets of the 20th century, sprang from this film, and is a collaboration with New York based band "The Klezmatics".
"Too Early To Be Quiet, Too Late To Sing" is a personal film, in which Chava Alberstein perpetuates the last living Yiddish poets and gives expression to her endless love of poetry and Yiddish. The film is available for public screening and home viewing. To purchase, please contact Aviv Productions Inc. for details.
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