Chava Alberstein is undoubtedly Israel’s most accomplished singer, having released dozens of recordings since the late 1960s, many of them now gold or platinum. Chava Alberstein sees herself as much as a singer of the world as just a singer of her beloved Israel.
“Even though I have lived in Israel nearly my entire life, I am constantly questioning my place in the world,” said Alberstein. “Maybe this searching comes from being an artist, maybe it comes from being a Jew. I’m not really sure.”
This bittersweet tension between the national and the universal is most evident in all of her recordings. From tender love songs to defiant songs about peace and oppression. There are prayerful songs celebrating the beauty of the human form and more melancholy songs about loss, poverty, and solitude.
Chava was only seventeen, a senior high school student preparing for her finals, when Dan Ben Amotz, a legendary writer and a live on stage talk show host, invited her to sing in one of his weekly programs, which took place at the Hammam theater in Jaffa. Chava took her guitar, along with her brother Alex and his clarinet, and together they went by bus from their parents home in a small town northern of Haifa, to the theater-club. In what may be called her debut performance on stage, Chava sang four songs which symbolize her musical taste and pointed out what her musical way might be. Accompanied by her guitar and clarinet she sang in English a black gospel, a Spanish folk song, a Jacques Prevert French chanson, and a song in Yiddish. The program was recorded live for the radio and there and then the Israeli radio invited her to be a guest on one of the most popular programs at the time “Moadon Hazemer”.
The program was recorded in kibbutz Beit Alfa, home for the legendary Israeli composer Nachum Heiman. This time, Chava took her mother along with herand again, by bus, went from the small town of Kiryat Haim to the kibbutz. At the end of the program, where many Israeli stars of those days performed, Nachum Heiman came over to Chava and said” you will be a very big star, and sing my songs”- Not only did he promise but also kept his word.
At that summer of 1964, CBS first formed its Israeli branch. Headed by Simon Schmidt CBS was looking to sign Israeli singers. Nachum Heiman wholeheartedly recommended Chava. Schmidt agreed to listen to the young singer and invited her to his home for an audition. Chava stood in front of Schmidt and his wife, and sang for them her repertoire of English and Yiddish songs. He decided to sign her up on the spot.
The first album she recorded for CBS included four songs in Yiddish, which she recorded within two hours with her guitar. A month later she recorded another single, this time in Hebrew. Four songs by Nachum Heiman. One of the songs managed to sneak into the hit parade and made her famous all over the country. When she was drafted to the army that autumn, this song served as her claim to fame in concerts for the soldiers. For two years she traveled throughout Israel as a one lady band entertaining the troops.
During her army service she recorded one more single and after being released she recorded her first LP with an orchestra. A few of the songs on that album live to this day (“Lilac Song”, “Cheerful Choir”, and “Lonely Night Lamp”). Side by side she recorded a children’s album. Both albums, by the way carried the same picture (budgetary restraints). The difference was in the color of the sweater which was painted in a different color on one of the covers.
Side by side, along with her many recordings and radio shows, the live on stage shows were the dominant part of Chava’s career. From the very beginning of her career at the age of 17 and until today she hasn’t stopped performing. She toured the country and the world, and performed thousands of concerts. Every once in a while she took a side road, appearing in a new way, creating new standards in Israeli show business. She performed 600 performances of her one woman show at the age of 22, performed with the jazz band “Haplatina”, performed in two children’s musicals, and lately in a rock-n-roll type show, after the mega success of her “London” album.
On television, Chava starred for two years in a weekly children’s show, in a special dedicated to her songs, and two shows that were recorded live, not to mention numerous guest appearances as both a performer and a host on television. She has also initiated and produced a documentary about Yiddish poetry called “Too Early To Be Quiet, Too Late To Sing”.
Chava has released Shir Bemantana” (“A Gift of Songs”), a book with her recorded songs, which was the first of its kind to be published in Israel, had a weekly radio show, dedicated to Israeli music, starred in two feature films, starred in “Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat, wrote a children’s book, “I Am Not Perfect” and released a book with all of her lyrics.
Chava’s fruitfulness has engaged her in working with a variety of writers of the highest quality. In 1986 Chava started writing her own music and lyrics, and almost over night became one of the most in demand song writers in Israel. Her writing of music and lyrics has opened a new door in her career and revealed a new world of subjects.
Alberstein released The Well, an album of Yiddish poems she has transformed into folk songs, with the renowned klezmer group the Klezmatics.
“In Israel, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone today composing and singing in Yiddish,” said Klezmatics lead singer Lorin Sklamberg. “Some people still see Yiddish as the language of soft Jews who can’t protect themselves. But Chava understands the joy and depth of the language.”
Yiddish was the mother-tongue of Alberstein’s family in the small town in Szczecin, Poland, where Chava was born. Her family moved to Israel when Alberstein was only 4-years-old, but Chava says she has never totally lost the feeling of being a stranger.
“No matter where I am, even if it’s in my own country, I feel like a bit of a guest,” she said. “People can appreciate this today, because they move around so much. Every country you go to in the world is filled with so -called foreigners.”
With a half century of life and song under her belt, Chava Alberstein, like Israel, has come to understand that good art, like good state craft, is best achieved by looking inwards and outwards. She is a singer who accomplishes that greatest, most precious rarity of all: she speaks for a culture, a tradition.
Chava Alberstein’s album, Foreign Letters, produced by Ben Mink, was released on the French label Naïve in September 2001 and in North America on Rounder/Universal on December 11, 2001. Voices, A Musical Celebration, a Public Television concert special starring Chava Alberstein aired worldwide starting November 2001.
London (NMC, 1989)
Yiddish Songs (Hemisphere, 2000)
Chava Alberstein: Collection (EMI Music, 2001)
Foreign Letters (Rounder, 2001)
I Will Talk to You (2003)
Voices (NMC, 2003)
End of the Holiday (Rounder, 2004)
Chava and Guitar Live at Tzavta (NMC, 2005)
Coconut (NMC, 2005)
Songs of Rachel (NMC, 2005)
Collection 2: The Wheat Grows (NMC, 2006)
Stardust (NMC, 2006)
Skies Are Clearer (NMC, 2006)
Sings For Kids (NMC, 2006)
I’ll Be Right Back (NMC, 2006)
The Man I Love (NMC, 2006)
Lu Yehi (NMC, 2006)
Lemele: Original Yiddish Songs (NMC, 2006)
Improvised Love (NMC, 2006)
If You See Me Now (I Am Walking) (NMC, 2006)
My Beloved Country (NMC, 2006)
Ha Tzorech (NMC, 2006)
Margaritkelech (NMC, 2006)
Home Pots (NMC, 2006)
My Own Way (NMC, 2006)
Wildflower New Edition (NMC, 2006)
Yiddish Collection (NMC, 2007)
My Beloved Country / Collection (NMC, 2007)
Milky Way: Lullabyes (NMC, 2007)
ברוך הבא (NMC, 2010)
ואיך אצלך (NMC, 2013)
בוא המורה (NMC, 2016)
Author: Angel Romero
Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.