Chava Alberstein: Multilingual Folkie

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

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A Diverse Repertoire

Since her army days, Alberstein has sung every kind of music, Israeli and foreign, from folk to pop to rock, even children's songs. Critics have compared her to Edith Piaf, Judy Collins, and Joan Baez.

For Israelis, she has always been an icon, singing the innocent and romantic Zionist and land of Israel songs; poems by the most famous Hebrew writers, like Leah Goldberg, Yehuda Amichai, T. Carmi and Zelda; and songs written especially for her by the country's leading lyricists.

"I admire her for her choice of songs," Ben-Shach says. "The texts are rich with meaning." According to Ben-Schach, Alberstein also has an uncanny sense of what will work for her, collaborating with lyricists and composers. "She knows what to ask for," he says. And, like many Israelis, he believes Alberstein will best be remembered for her land of Israel songs.

But since the 80's she has performed many of her own works, filled with sly humor or sharp criticism of the country's policies. Unlike most Israeli entertainers, Alberstein has taken a stand, criticizing Israel's handling of the uprisings and challenging the popular belief in "benign occupation."

In 1989, soon after the first Palestinian uprising began, Alberstein wrote a version of the Passover song "Chad Gadya." Starting with the traditional words, the lyrics then focus on the relationship between oppressor and oppressed and conclude, "Today I know who I am."

The angry response followed quickly: Curses and threats came over the phone. A music-store owner in Beersheba told Alberstein he had dumped all her records out of his store. Then the Israel Broadcasting Authority banned the song. And although then attorney general Yosef Harish declared the ban an "unjustifiable violation of free expression," the song has hardly been played since.

Alberstein has stood fast by her convictions. "It took time for people to understand," she says. "Today people see that the occupation causes us to be violent."

Projecting Morality

Some have tagged her a "protest" singer. She, however, prefers to be known as a singer who values content, whether personal or political, and it is this that attracts her fans both young and old, even when they find her politics distasteful.

"I think she projects something moral," says law student David Gabai. "I don't accept her political views. This is beyond politics." The rock song "London," the title work of the album that includes "Chad Gadya," is one of Alberstein's all-time hits. It portrays loneliness and despair on a personal level, but also disappointment with what has happened to the country. The lyrics are from a Hanoch Levin play: "I have no illusions about Lon-don...there, too, I'll be alone...[but in London] despair is easier to handle."

There have been hard times in Alberstein's career, when her creative juices seemed to run dry. Each of these periods has marked a significant turn and a renewal. One summer, encouraged by her husband, she recorded the English album The Man I Love, with her brother accompanying her on clarinet. Also, with her husband's encouragement, she tried acting, appearing in two of his films on kibbutz life.

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Esther Hecht is a writer who lives in Jerusalem.