Described as Israel’s “first lady of folk,” Chava Alberstein has devoted over three decades to the power of song, the principles of nonviolence, and the preservation of the Yiddish language. She has recorded over 50 albums in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish. “In her native Israel,” wrote Christopher Muther of the Boston Globe, “Alberstein is considered a national treasure. She has won six Kinor David awards (the equivalent of the Grammy Award), starred in her own one-woman show, acted in feature films, hosted a children’s television series, and written a children’s book.”
In the mid-1980s Alberstein began to include political messages in the songs she wrote, often expressing support for nonviolence and peace. “The tone of her songs is not militant or defensive, but reflective,” wrote Jon Pareles of the New York Times of an Alberstein performance. “Introducing a Passover folk song with a circular structure, she warned, The circle of violence should be stopped as soon as possible.’” Alberstein has also recorded a number of songs in the Yiddish language, telling Gabriella Coslovich of the Age, “I am singing (in) Yiddish for very selfish reasons. It is a beautiful language….”
Alberstein was born in 1946 in Szczecin, Poland, and moved with her parents to Israel when she was four. “My parents escaped the Holocaust,” Alberstein told Garth Cartwright of the Guardian, “by fleeing Poland to Siberia….” Her father was a music teacher, and her mother, a musical seamstress. At age 12, Alberstein requested a guitar and began to learn traditional songs. “My parents were worried that I was singing old songs,” she told Cartwright. “Israel is a young country and people want to run away from the past.” She brought home folk songs, her brother preferred jazz, and her father, the classics. “There were terrible wars in the house about music,” Alberstein told the Jerusalem Report, “until slowly everyone started to give in, to listen to the others’ music.”
At the age of 16, in the early 1960s, Alberstein began listening to American folk music. “It’s funny to say,” Alberstein told Seth Rogovoy of Sing Out! “I was born in Poland and grew up in Israel, but my roots are American folk music and blues and spirituals.” She once tried to find a friend to attend a Pete Seeger concert with her, but her friends were only interested in Elvis and Cliff Richards. “I went to see Pete Seeger by myself…,” she recalled. “It was a really great experience…. I knew right there that this was what I’d like to do. This is the way I would like to communicate with people.” She learned Lead Belly songs on the guitar and listened to the records of Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald.
Alberstein made her first appearance on the radio in 1963. When Dahn Ben-Amotz invited her to sing on his show, “she sang a gospel number, a Spanish folk song,
Born in 1946 in Szczecin, Poland.
Received recording contract from CBS Israel, age 17; charted with first hit single in Israel, 1964; drafted into Israeli army for two years, 1964; recorded K’Mo Tzemach Bar (Like a Wild Flower), 1975, and Kolot (Voices), 1982; appeared in Intimate Story, 1981; began writing own material, 1986; released Crazy Flower: A Collection, 1998; collaborated with the Klezmatics on The Well, 1998; recorded Yiddish Songs, 2000, and Foreign Letters, 2001.
Awards: Kinor David Award, 1967-68, 1970, 1974, 1982; First Prize for documentary Too Early to Be Quiet, Too Late To Sing, Magnus Museum, 1997; Itsik Manger Award, 1998; Golden Feather Award, Association of Composers and Musicians (ACUM), 1999.
Addresses: Record company —Rounder Records, One Camp Street, Cambridge, MA 02140, phone: (617) 354-0700, website: http://www.rounder.com.
something by French pop composer Jacques Prevert, and a Yiddish song,” wrote the Jerusalem Report. A positive response to her appearance won her a spot on the more popular Moadon Hazemer program. When she was 17, Alberstein signed a recording contract with CBS Israel and in 1964, released her first hit. She recorded her debut album in two hours, but her musical career was sidetracked when she was drafted into the Israeli army.
For two years, Alberstein used her talent to entertain troops. “They’d hoist me up on a tank and I’d stand there with my guitar and sing,” she told Cartwright. “I was young and naive.” Upon her discharge, she recorded another album and continued her career. “Maintaining this busy and diverse schedule,” wrote Craig Harris of MusicHound World, “she performed a one-woman show and two children’s musicals, and also played with a jazz band, Hoplatina.”
In the mid-1980s Alberstein began writing her own material. Unlike her previous work, her new songs often contained political content. She rewrote the lyrics to “Chad gadya,” a children’s Passover song, and in 1989 it became her biggest hit. It also proved controversial because it was critical of Israel’s aggressive response to the Palestinian uprising of 1987. The song was banned for a short time from radio play and even provoked discussion in the Israeli Parliament. “I wrote it in the late ‘80s at the beginning of the intifada,” Alberstein explained to Don Heckman of the Los Angeles Times. “It’s a song that we usually sing in a very happy manner. But when the troubles started, I saw it differently, as a song about the circle of violence, in which everybody is chasing everybody else, no one wants to stop, and in the end the big winner is the Angel of Death.” She also wrote “The Magician,” a song that criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu without mentioning his name.
Alberstein also uses her songs to expand appreciation of the Yiddish language. “Sadly,” Alberstein told Heckman, “Yiddish is becoming a memory. It’s not really a living language anymore.” She recorded four songs in Yiddish on her first album, and in 2000, released an album entitled Yiddish Songs. “Not many people know what Yiddish is about,” she noted to Coslovich, “and how this beautiful language was destroyed and vanished from the world because of the Holocaust.”
Alberstein toured with Argentinean singer and activist Mercedes Sosa in 1996 and reintroduced herself to American audiences with Crazy Flower: A Collection in 1998. During the same year, she recorded The Well with the Klezmatics, and together they performed on Prairie Home Companion. “Alberstein’s achingly wistful voice,” wrote Li Bobbins in the Globe and Mail, “is at its best in songs of love and loss, and they’re in no short supply here.”
Alberstein maintains a busy schedule. She wrote a children’s book, I Am Not Perfect, and appeared in several films including Intimate Story and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. She has traveled to Sweden, Spain, Germany, Russia, Italy, the United States, England, and China, and her songs seem to reach audiences no matter what language she is singing in. “She is a searching spirit who weaves ancestral voices from Yiddish… into fresh contexts,” wrote Christina Roden of All Music Guide, “moving past mere nostalgia to fashion sounds as full of hope as tomorrow.”
Crazy Flower: A Collection, Shanachie, 1998.
Yiddish Songs, Blue Note, 2000.
Foreign Letters, Rounder, 2001.
McGovern, Adam, editor, MusicHound World: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 2000.
Age, January 8, 2001, p. 5.
Boston Globe, January 12, 2001, p. D14.
Globe and Mail (Canada), January 28, 1999.
Guardian (United Kingdom), April 20, 1999, p. 8.
Jerusalem Report, June 21, 1999, p. 42.
Los Angeles Times, December 7, 2000, p. F40.
New York Times, December 12, 2001, p. E5.
Sing Out!, Winter 2000, p. 82.
“Foreign Letters,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (February 2, 2002).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
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