With New Album at 70, Israeli Folk Singer Chava Alberstein Is on Top of Her Game

Chava Alberstein’s new album contains a sequence of five songs that may well be the most beautiful of her entire late career.

Chava Alberstein.
Tomer Appelbaum

We’ll talk about the whole album later, but in the meantime, is it possible to write a review of half of Chava Alberstein’s new CD, “Bo Hamoreh”? I have a powerful desire to do just that, because amid the album’s 10 cuts there’s a sequence of five songs that I think may well be the most beautiful in Alberstein’s entire late career. If the five songs were scattered across the album, there would be no justification for treating them as an autonomous unit. The fact is that in principle, other than that small twist that turns a good song into a marvelous one, these five cuts aren’t any different from the other songs on the CD, published by NMC Music. The same approach, the same world, the same spirit.

But as fate – or Chava Alberstein – would have it, the five songs follow each other in sequence, the second to the sixth cuts, and that makes one want to spotlight them and, to paraphrase an older Alberstein song, say about this small set: You’re almost a wonder. Listening to the late albums of our greatest singers is almost always accompanied by a slashing awareness of the inevitable gap between their present quality and the quality of their earlier work. That’s the case even when the singer is in excellent form, as has been the case with Alberstein in recent years. The quintuple sequence on the new album abolishes that ostensibly unavoidable disparity.

The feeling these songs engender when listened to one after the other is that the message they convey is no less valid than that of the classic songs. As new songs that stand tall alongside the glories of the past, they generate an all-too-rare moment. I don’t remember the last time I was so moved by the album of a canonical singer who, according to her age, should be “an autumnal tree,” as Alberstein sings in the song that concludes the sequence.

Several significant bridges are created in the new album and make it what it is. The first of them makes a connection between the present and the first half of the previous century, when nearly all the poems that furnish the lyrics for the album’s songs were written. Alberstein likes to draw on the work of Hebrew and Yiddish poets from that era, and this time she does so very systematically.

Yehuda Karni, Avigdor Hameiri, Itzik Manger, Anda Pinkerfeld Amir, Shin Shalom, Fania Bergstein, Yehoash: these are “her” poets this time, and like all good art, their works transcend time. Which is to say that their poetry lives in the present just as well as it did at the time it was written. In some cases, the present and its circumstances give the inherently piercing heart of their work a new edge.

“For nation is wolf to nation, and man to man / Friend digs a pit for his comrade Because the path has gone wrong and every way is blocked / From heart of man to heart of man” The feeling is that these words by Amir (1902-1981), from the album’s title song, mirror the present moment more lucidly than any poem written in our time, and part of that impression undoubtedly comes from Alberstein’s bluesy, keening rendition.

Chava Alberstein's 'Hayerusha.'

The second significant bridge the album builds links two musical continents: Hebrew song in its broad sense and deep-rooted American music. This too is hardly unusual in Alberstein, but this time it is vividly palpable. All the music on the new album is by Eran Weitz, Alberstein’s regular guitarist, who here receives exclusive rein in composing. The gamble paid off handsomely.

A small private path

The wisdom of the melody of Hebrew song resides in Weitz’s fingertips, even if in simple, unpretentious form, and at the same time he has one foot firmly planted in the old American musical forms: folk, blues and all the rest.

The connection between the two mutually remote traditions is very organic, without attaching to either excessively. The songs carve out a small private path that’s close to the two main roads, but isn’t swallowed up in either. A particularly fine example is “Hakayitz Bo’er” (“The Summer Is Burning”), which opens the five-song sequence. At the start it seems to be based on the English ballads that underlie American music, somewhat evoking “Scarborough Fair.” But then it veers away from this road and slowly winds its way into a musical essence of less external influence, and the concluding moment, when Alberstein sings “And very slowly I fall asleep in the winter / And afterward? Who knows, who knows,” is a moment of genuine grace.

The third foundation of the new album is that of the band. Alberstein has a fine backup group, who have been with her for many years (Weitz, the guitarist-bassist Ovad Efrat and the percussionist Avi Agababa, joined on this album by Eden Lieberman on keyboards). Their impact was felt mainly in her concerts. This time it’s present in the studio, possibly because the strong spirit of the American music encouraged the musicians to be more liberated and more cohesive in their playing, or perhaps it’s because of the crucial role played by Weitz – as “one of the group” – on the album.

The other five songs on the album don’t generate a feeling that one has encountered an exceptional work. They’re good songs, for the most part, but more in a standard form, without those small flights of melody, lyrics and feeling that color the five-song sequence more cogently. But this is a negligible reservation. Alberstein released this album when she turned 70 – a marvelous closure to a decade of admirable creativity. If this is indeed autumn, it’s lovelier and more fruitful than the blossoming of most of the other trees.