Chava Alberstein: Multilingual Folkie

In Hebrew, English and Yiddish, this legendary Israeli singer has created an unparalleled body of music.

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Reprinted with permission of the author from the June/July 2002 edition of Hadassah Magazine.

She's a tiny woman with a big guitar and a voice so warm and mellow it wraps itself around you like a hug. And Chava Alberstein, one of Israel's best-loved singers, does it in three languages--Hebrew, English and now, more than ever, Yiddish.

"We must all...believe in...a devil down below [or] a good Lord up above," she belts out to a rollicking klezmer tune. Then, turning from faith to romance, with a snappy rhythm she explains why a girl must have two boyfriends: one to go to war, the other to devote his life to her.

Leaving the old chestnuts behind, Alberstein has set modern Yiddish poems to her own melodies. The tunes are close enough to traditional ones so they don't jar, yet different enough so they burst with life, though often tinged with sorrow. The deceptively sweet song, "Mayn Shvester Khaye," tells of the poet who still writes in Yiddish for the sake of his sister, Khaye, murdered in Treblinka.

American Folk Roots

It was Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and The Weavers who first inspired Alberstein, back in the '60s, to make Yiddish her signature. She was attracted by the content of their music: prisoners, railways, struggle. "In Hebrew there weren't any songs like that, about real life," Alberstein explains. "The Hebrew songs were more romantic." Then her father, a music teacher, brought home some booklets of Yiddish songs, which had traditionally been performed by cantors. Alberstein gave them a new twist--"I sang them as I heard Pete Seeger and Joan Baez sing in English"--accompanying herself on guitar.

Since then she has cut more than 40 albums in Hebrew, six of which have been awarded the Kinor David prize, Israel's Grammy; six albums in Yiddish; and an album of English standards, from George Gershwin to John Lennon. Recently, Alberstein has returned to Yiddish with renewed vigor.

"It's a miracle that at the end of the millennium [I could record] 15 new songs in Yiddish," the musician says of The Well, which she cut in 1998 with the Klezmatics, the avant-garde New York klezmer group.

So enthusiastic has the response been to these songs in concert, in the United States and in Europe, that Alberstein has recorded another all-Yiddish album and included five Yiddish songs on her latest album, Foreign Letters. Yiddish songs featured, too, in a recent PBS special of her in concert in Berlin.

"Yiddish was always another part of my being Israeli," says Alberstein. But she has no illusions about reviving the language and adds emphatically, "Yiddish is a dead language."

"Farewell to Yiddish"

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Esther Hecht is a writer who lives in Jerusalem.