Chava Alberstein: Israel's first lady of folk

Chava Alberstein

by Seth Rogovoy

It was the early 1960s, and all over the world the most pressing question was who was bigger – Elvis Presley or Cliff Richard (for those who don’t know, Richard was the English Elvis).

Things were no different in Israel, where a young nation had yet to develop much of a popular culture of its own, and where the lingering influence of the former colonial rulers might well have tipped the scale toward the Brit. So when a teenage girl named Chava Alberstein went looking for someone to accompany her to a Tel Aviv concert by her personal music hero, she hit a brick wall.

“I went to see Pete Seeger by myself,” remembers Alberstein. “Nobody wanted to come with me. Nobody was interested. It was my own world, the world of folk musicians.”

In spite of her inability to share it with friends, the concert proved to be a transformative experience that has informed the career of Chava Alberstein, who since her quick rise to national prominence in the late 1960s has reigned as Israel’s “first lady of folk.”

“It was a really great experience,” says Alberstein of the Seeger concert, speaking in a transatlantic phone interview last September from her home in a Tel Aviv suburb. “It was so warm and so human, the way he touched people and sang with people and the way he played all the instruments. It was one man on the stage, but it gave you such a rich feeling that so many things were happening. It was like traveling all over the world with a very good guide who could take you to different places.

“This was really the biggest influence on me. First of all, the directness of singing, to take a guitar and open your mouth and the two vocal cords in your voice add to the six strings of your guitar and become one unit. It’s so simple and pure.

“And I said there that this was what I’d like to do. This is the way I would like to communicate with people. And this is what I’m trying to do until today. I hope that’s what I’ve accomplished.”

In the course of her 30-plus-year career, Alberstein’s accomplishments are legion. She has released nearly 50 recordings, mostly in Hebrew and Yiddish, and in a range of styles including traditional and contemporary folk, pop, rock, jazz, cabaret, world-beat and Old World klezmer. She has toured internationally, and her press kit is stuffed with laudatory clippings in Dutch, Spanish, Swedish, Flemish, Chinese, Italian, Russian, and German. She has starred in a one-woman show; hosted a weekly children’s TV program; appeared in two children’s musicals; authored a children’s book; acted in feature films; and produced an award-winning documentary film about modern Yiddish poets.

Throughout all this, she has maintained the independent streak that first drew her to Pete Seeger instead of Elvis. Her first Israeli recording was in Yiddish, a language that had been all but officially banned by a culture in the nascent Jewish state that favored modern Hebrew, the language of Zionism. When Israelis were dancing to accordions, she was strumming Leadbelly tunes on the acoustic guitar. “It’s funny to say, but I was born in Poland, I grew up in Israel, but my roots are American folk music and blues and spirituals,” she says.

Perhaps most tellingly, while Israel’s writers and artists had a long tradition of political protest, her musicians had little to no such public inclination. Thus, in 1989, when Alberstein recorded “Chad Gadya,” a not-so-subtly veiled reworking of the traditional Passover children’s song remade into a protest against the Israeli army’s harsh response to the Palestinian uprising called the intifada, it sparked great controversy, with leading politicians calling for the song to be banned. It was the first time an Israeli musician received death threats. Shades of Pete Seeger, indeed.

In stark contrast to the image of a fiery firebrand, however, Chava Alberstein is a diminutive woman, standing barely over five feet, with unassumingly pretty features surrounded by soft, blonde curls. She laughs when her interviewer stumbles for a polite way to describe the disparity between her forceful appearance in concert and her slight stature in real life. “You’re a small woman with a very large presence,” I suggest, and she immediately corrects me. “A very small woman,” she says.

Alberstein is one of those rare performers who can get up in front of a concert hall with just her voice and guitar and by sheer force of personality grab an audience that not only doesn’t know her material, but doesn’t even speak the language. Partly it’s due to her voice, a fearsome, diva-like instrument she wields with the emotional sophistication of Edith Piaf, the ballast of Barbra Streisand and the narrative control of Joan Baez.

Partly it’s the magic power of music. “I heard a lot of Greek songs and South American songs when I was a child and I didn’t understand a single word, but they spoke to me, touched me, the voice of the artist, they way he created the sounds from the throat, the sound of the words, which are music by themselves.”

But as anyone who has seen Alberstein perform knows, it’s more than that. She does communicate on a more direct level, finding ways, partly through English, partly through her deft skill in working an audience, to introduce her material and set the tone so that the audience becomes part of the performance, part of the songs.

“Sometimes I have people come up to me in Hong Kong after a show and say they didn’t know they could understand Hebrew. Of course they don’t. But in a way they felt they understood. This is the magic of art, this is its power.”

Alberstein was born in Szczecin, Poland, and moved to Israel with her family at age 4. Her father taught piano and accordion and her mother was a fan of European folk music like Polish tangos and Russian ballads. She credits her older brother with exposing her to jazz. “I think maybe it’s the strongest influence on me, an artistic way of thinking.”

Alberstein got her first recording contract at age 17 from CBS Israel. By the time she was drafted into the Israeli army she had already had a hit record. As a result, her army duty was to travel throughout the country with her guitar singing for the troops.

In the 1970s and early 1980s Alberstein primarily recorded songs by other writers. When she became less enthusiastic about the material they were providing her – “it was very well written from a technical point of view, but it didn’t excite me” – she decided to try her own hand at writing. “It wasn’t easy,” she said. “I was used to the best.” Slowly she became more comfortable and adept at writing her own lyrics and music; she now writes the majority of her own material.

In 1998, Alberstein teamed with the Klezmatics for The Well, a collection of songs Alberstein wrote based on modern Yiddish poems. Produced by Ben Mink of k.d. lang fame, the album is a poignant tribute to the beauty and resilience of a language and culture that, despite the Holocaust, refuses to roll over and play dead. For the last year or so, Alberstein and the Klezmatics, the leading American neo-klezmer group, have been performing together in North America and Europe.

In spite of her international success and her work with the likes of Ben Mink, with whom she plans to record her next album, the reality is that as an Israeli artist singing primarily in Hebrew and Yiddish, Alberstein’s potential audience is ultimately limited. Would the fluent English-speaking singer every consider applying her golden pipes to an album of English-language, folk-based pop music?

“I wrote one song for my next album in English. It’s called ‘Foreign Letters.’ It’s a conversation between two people who speak English, but English is not their mother tongue. It’s very strange, immigrant English, so the language itself is the subject of the song.

“But the world is full of pop singers and the whole world sings English all the time. So I think I’ll go on singing Hebrew and Yiddish.”


London, 1989, CBS #465470-2
Crazy Flower: A Collection, 1998, Shanachie #8030
The Well (with the Klezmatics), 1998, Xenophile #4052
Techef Ashuv (Be Right Back) , 1999, NMC #20415-2
Chava Alberstein Sings Yiddish, 1999, NMC #465115-2

[Copyright Seth Rogovoy 1999. All rights reserved.]

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