Folk Singer Observes a Pensive ‘Holiday’


Some years ago, folk diva Chava Alberstein discovered therundown immigrant neighborhood around the south Tel Aviv central bus station.For the Israeli superstar, the area became a refuge, a place to stroll or sipcoffee unmolested by fans. The residents were foreign workers from countriessuch as China, Thailand, Nigeria and Romania.

But as their numbers swelled to replace Palestinians afterthe intifada, Alberstein — considered Israel’s Joan Baez — saw conditionsdeteriorating.

“These people are brought to Israel, their passports areconfiscated so they can’t go anywhere and they’re forced to live in the worstsituations,” she said. “You see people crawling out of the most unbelievablehovels. It’s bothered me for a long time.”

So Alberstein, 56, did what one would expect of Baez: Shepoured her indignation into an album. Her new CD, “End of the Holiday” (RounderRecords), due in stores Jan. 13,  provides heartbreaking glimpses into thelives of Israel’s estimated 200,000 foreign workers. In her song “FridayNight,” homesick Romanian men sit at dingy snack bars listening to Gypsy music.In “Real Estate,” laundromats and garbage bins are transformed into workers’lodgings in cramped south Tel Aviv. In “Black Video,” an African house cleanertapes tourist sites, rather than his shabby room, to send home with all hissavings.

Speaking from her Tel Aviv home, Alberstein said she isespecially moved by the foreigners’ plight because she, too, immigrated to Israel.

“It’s important to me that the Jews, who were temporaryresidents of so many countries, should be able to welcome the stranger,” shesaid. “I would love to give other people the chance to make Israel their home,as I’ve made this country my home.”

Alberstein, the daughter of Polish Holocaust survivors,arrived in Israel around 1950 at the age of 4. Her father, a piano teacher, wastoo poor to purchase a piano, so he bought an accordion and made Chava hisfirst pupil. At age 12, Alberstein was riveted by a Pete Seeger concert andbegged her father for a guitar; he procured for her a used one from a sailor inHaifa. Several years later, she was inspired by American folk musicians whodrew on their ethnic roots to put out her debut album in Yiddish. It wasconsidered a bold, even controversial move in the Hebrew-dominated state.

Nevertheless, the singer-songwriter went on to record almost50 albums and become one of Israel’s most celebrated folk icons, along withartists such as Shlomo Artzi and Yehoram Gaon. “She is the same age as hercountry, and she has captured its growing pangs in her music,” said SimonRutberg of Hatikvah Music in Los Angeles.

Indeed, Alberstein’s dusky alto has often served as a voiceof conscience for the Jewish state: Her “Chad Gadya,” a scathing riff on thePassover tune, admonished Israel for perpetuating the cycle of violence duringthe first intifada. The 1989 song was virtually banned from the radio and ledto canceled concerts and threatening phone calls to Alberstein.

More recently, the folk artist returned to her immigrantroots by writing songs based on Yiddish poems and recording them with theKlezmatics. The resulting CD, 1999’s “The Well,” drew critical praise in theUnited States, as did Alberstein’s cabaret-flavored “Foreign Letters,” recordedin Yiddish, Hebrew and English.

She wasn’t intending to begin a new album two years ago,when her husband, filmmaker Nadav Levitan, showed her poems he had writtenabout foreign workers.

“I thought I was resting,” she said. But then Albersteinread his work, which included “Vera From Bucharest,” about a caretaker strandedwhen her elderly charge dies. “I cried when I read the poems, and I knew I hadto set them to music,” she said.

Alberstein infused the songs with melodies she had heard onthe streets of south Tel Aviv: Romanian strains for “Vera,” for example, andAfrican rhythms for “Black Video.” But while the album is melancholy, she said,it is not about despair.

“It’s about people who are desperate, and who findthemselves in a bad place, but who are struggling to make their lives better,”she said.

The album has been well received in Israel, according toAlberstein.

“It’s accepted with enthusiasm, especially by young peoplewho realize there are so many issues we don’t deal with as we tend to obsessonly about war and peace,” she said. “Because of the political situation … weoften forget there are other people with other problems in the world. Andsometimes they are just around the corner.”

For more information about Alberstein, visit www.aviv2.com/chava.