"It is a measure of the cultural and political crisis within Israeli Society that its most famous singer struggles to get her songs past the radio censors and has refused to perform in the country for the last three years." (A 2005 review on Chava Alberstein)
CHAVA ALBERSTEIN. Her version of Pesach favourite Chad Gadya was banned.
It is a measure of the cultural and political crisis within Israeli Society that its most famous singer struggles to get her songs past the radio censors and has refused to perform in the country for the last three years.
Chava Alberstein is a household name in Israel, with 50 albums to her name. When commentators dub her 'the Joan Baez of Israel' this is not just a reference to a voice of beauty and depth, often accompanied solely by her guitar, but to an engagement with protest and a heartfelt call to the listeners to examine their consciences.
Since the 1980s Alberstein's songs have occupied this territory more frequently, most famously with her rewrite of the traditional Passover song Chad Gadya - an allegory of Jewish fate told through the story of animals, each the victim of more powerful forces. In her version she states (translated from Hebrew):
'Once I was a sheep and a peaceful goat. Today I am a tiger and a predatory wolf. Once I was a dove. Today I don't know who I am ... how long will the circle of horror continue?' In the country which claims to have more free speech than its regional neighbours, her song was banned from the airwaves by the Israeli Broadcasting Authority. But the citizens were ready for it even if the government were not, and it sold massively, both in Israel and abroad.
Her new album, End of the Holiday, is perhaps even bolder, as it shines a light on the fraying edges of Israeli society epitomised in the immigrant neighbourhoods of south Tel Aviv. Her voice is sombre and powerful as she relays the human stories that
illustrate the plight of immigrant workers (Vera from Bucharest), racism (Shadow), environmental degradation (Dying Creek), and, on several tracks, the loss of hope that threatens to overcome people's resilience and yearning for change. There are echoes of a melancholy Leonard Cohen melody (Famous Blue i Raincoat) in the chorus of the title track. It sets the tone for the album which has few uplifting moments, Cl but manages to convey deep warmth and purpose.
Alberstein is renowned not only for her work in Hebrew but also for her work in her mother tongue - Yiddish -which she spoke as a child in Poland, and after emigrating to Israel aged 4. Her Yiddish songs, from her earliest recordings to her fabulous collaboration with the Klezmatics on The Well, convey the full range of emotions, from desperation to ecstasy, but in her current album the emotions expressing hope and excitement are barely heard. Yet her compassion for ordinary people and their struggles to overcome their circumstances shines through.
Che Guevara said that 'the true revolutionary is motivated by great feelings of love'. I don't suppose Alberstein sees herself as a revolutionary but her mixture of protest and heartfelt humanity is certainly inspiring. And, as she asked the audience in London recently after her first number,
'Why must love for people stop at the border?'
CD End of the Holiday Chava Alberstein. Rounder Records
(first published in Jewish Socialist no.50 Summer 2005)
Posted: 18 July 2014