New Media for a Children’s Troubadour

After a long series of children's albums, veteran singer Chava Alberstein has for the first time made a DVD, 'Etz Hakohavim' ('Tree of Stars'), featuring unique animation and proper Hebrew.

Reut Abrany

Chava Alberstein was 19 when she recorded her first children’s album, almost a child herself. To the best of her recollection, it was the first record that she made. She gathered the material herself. Then in the studio, she was the only musician in the recording session, singing with a guitar. That was it. In her case, who needs more?

But why would such a young singer at the time actually choose to do children’s songs for her first album?

“I have an answer to that question,” Alberstein replies, “but it’s a new answer from the last year or two. Before that, I hadn't known how to explain it. I was 19 years old and thought of myself as a folk singer. Folk singers didn't sing about themselves at all. We sang about the world. And a young girl like me, what could I sing about? What’s the story that I could tell? There was no such story. I didn't feel like singing a love song, so what then? Children and old people. My second album was in Yiddish. That’s what I decided suited me best and the recording company went along with it. People didn’t tell Joan Baez what to do either.”

Tali Shani

The album from 1967, which featured songs such as “Osnat’s Toys,” “The Little Dream” and “The Little Elephant,” was the first in a long series of recordings for children that Alberstein made in the 1960s and 1970s. Later, in the 1980s and beyond, she refrained from doing children’s albums, but then seven years ago, at the age of 60, she returned to that world (“maybe because I became a grandmother”) and, as is her practice, put everything she had into it.

In 2007, she came out with “Shvil Hazahav” (“Milky Way”), and in 2011 she made another children’s album, “Yaldat Hateva” (“Nature Girl”). Both albums feature the poems of Sabina Messeg, who writes under the pseudonym Adula.

And now she has come out with her “Tree of Stars” DVD, which contains about 20 of her children’s songs, both new and old, each of which is animated. “I deliberated for many years,” she said about doing a video. “On one hand, I have always been in favor of [audiences] listening to the words and the music. On the other hand, children’s language today is very visual.”

Referring to her late husband, Nadav Levitan, who died about five years ago, the veteran troubadour added: “We deliberated whether to do it and decided if it was to be done, it would be with animation. We looked into all kinds of options, but it dragged on and didn't move forward, and then three or four years ago, in America, I saw a show on HBO [about poetry for children] in which famous American actors read poems by Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson accompanied by video animation. It captured my heart and I said, ‘That’s it. This is how it needs to be done.’”

When asked whether animation assuaged her concerns about an exaggerated kind of visualization of the songs, Alberstein replied: “I really love animation. It has something that is purer than film. In general at the moment, cinema is in a bad way. It’s no accident that they’re making a lot of films with animation. So yes, animation has been a way to bypass the problem, it’s true.

“They always tell about all kinds of little tribes in the Amazon who are afraid of being photographed because they are afraid it will steal their souls? Between us, they’re right. Based on what you see today, people have already sold their souls to the cameras. There is something nobler in illustrations. There’s a certain kind of distance.”

The video clips were the work of animator Reut Avrani and director Yuval Gadron, and Alberstein says that after she saw just a few examples at the beginning of their work, she understood that she could count on them so she took pains not to interfere. She did ask them, however, to integrate her own image into the animation.

“It’s something that I had dreamed about. Really, maybe it’s childish to say, but I dreamed about it.”

She decided to call the DVD “Tree of Stars” and to open the video with the title track. “A tree of stars is a sort of metaphor about art,” she explains, “touching things that are not real. That’s a necessity in life. There’s no escaping it.”

Protected space

In an interview in 2007 with the release of her “Milky Way” album, the singer spoke at length about the concept of “protected space,” which is more commonly used in Israel to refer to civil defense shelters – but she discussed the concept in the context of the lullabies that she sings. “This concept got into my head apparently because of the last war,” she said in 2007, referring to the 2006 Second Lebanon War.

And in speaking to her now, after the fighting in July and August of this year between Israel and Hamas and its allies in Gaza, it prompted the question as to whether this time she was thinking in the same terms.

“Oy,” she sighed, “No, I didn’t think that. I have tried not to think at all recently. My thoughts aren't good for me. We are not in the heyday of our lives. I haven’t thought politics and I don’t want to talk about politics.

“But I will say something that is not politics but gets into politics: the Hebrew language. I am a stickler in the children’s songs to make sure that the language is at a high level. That’s terribly important to me, even if a child doesn't know what an “afarkeset” (Hebrew for the outer ear or the opening of a wind instrument, among other things) is or a “konhiah” (conch shell), he’ll ask his mother, who will explain it. It’s a Zionist message that for me is important that they be in the songs. I believe that if we are meticulous when it comes to the Hebrew language, it will make us better citizens,” she mused. “I’m not kidding.

“People have talked a lot lately about Berlin,“ she said, referring to the controversy around young Israelis who are attracted to the German capital due to its moderate cost of living. “I think if people who leave for Berlin speak to their children in good Hebrew, these children will ultimately return to Israel. And if they go with a language in which every second word is in English, like I hear on television, then their children’s Israeliness will disintegrate. If you feed your child hamburgers, he will gain weight. This is very important to me. I want to connect the children to good material.”