Heart of a nation
by Dan Rosenberg
In a career that has spanned more than three decades, Chava Alberstein has captured the heart of a nation with her dynamic vocal range and broad repertoire. Israel's leading vocalist has recorded in Hebrew, Yiddish, and English, performing folk songs, her own political protest songs, and her settings of some of the greatest works of Yiddish poetry.
After having collected a mountain of her records, I first saw Alberstein perform live as the headliner in the 2000 Chicago World Music Festival. She was the final performer, in a gala performance that packed the city's ornate Symphony Center. With one of the most evocative voices in the world, Alberstein has the ability to communicate with audiences that don't speak Hebrew or Yiddish. However, she never takes that for granted. Throughout the show in Chicago, showing a remarkable sense of stage chemistry, Alberstein introduced each of her songs with a poignant story. She begins each song with its literal translation and a summary of its history, evoking the atmosphere of the unique Eastern European Jewish culture of the first half of the twentieth century.
The most dramatic moment of the concert was her performance of "My Sister Chaya," her setting of a Yiddish poem by Binem Heller about the daily life of a beautiful young girl who helps her mother at home, plays with her brothers, and leads the life of a normal teenager. Alberstein's tender voice creates a touchingly sentimental tone that changes dramatically at the end of the song:
| My sister Chaya with her eyes of green |
Was burnt by a German in Treblinka.
And I am in the Jewish state,
The very last one who knew her.
Shortly after its formation in 1948, Israel decided to make Hebrew the national language and to shun immigrant tongues like Yiddish. Throughout her career, Alberstein has fought this decision. She not only sings in Yiddish, she also collects and promotes Yiddish folklore, partly because people like Chaya spoke this language. She has even produced a documentary about elderly Yiddish composers and poets living in Israel.
Israel's first lady of song has led a remarkable career, with tours that have spanned the globe, six top Israeli recording awards (analogous to Grammys), and a continuing streak of critically acclaimed records. Chava Alberstein performs at Rackham Auditorium on Saturday, November 8.
[Originally published in November, 2003.]