Israeli folk singers latest a heartbreaking Holiday

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

But as their numbers swelled to replace Palestinians after the intifada, Alberstein saw conditions deteriorating.

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

So Alberstein, 56, did what one would expect of Israel’s Joan Baez: She poured her indignation into an album. Her new CD, “End of the Holiday” (Rounder Records), provides heartbreaking glimpses into the lives of Israel’s estimated 200,000 foreign workers.

In her song “Friday Night,” 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 housecleaner videotapes images of tourist sites, rather than his shabby room, to send home with all his savings.

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

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

The daughter of Polish Holocaust survivors, Alberstein arrived in Israel around 1950 at the age of 4. Her father, a piano teacher, was too poor to purchase a piano, so he bought an accordion and made his daughter his first pupil. At age 12, she was riveted by a Pete Seeger concert and begged her father for a guitar. Several years later, she was inspired by American folk musicians who drew on their ethnic roots, to put out her debut album in Yiddish. It was considered a bold, even controversial move in the Hebrew-dominated state.

The singer-songwriter went on to record almost 50 albums and become one of Israel’s most celebrated folk icons.

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

More recently, the folk artist returned to her immigrant roots by writing songs based on Yiddish poems and recording them with the Klezmatics. The resulting CD, 1999’s “The Well,” drew critical praise in the United States.

Chava Alberstein will perform May 7 and 8 at Brava Center for the Arts, 2781 24th St. S.F. (415) 647-2822. Information: www.brava.org/index-v3.html; or www.aviv2.com/chava.

Naomi Pfefferman

L.A. Jewish Journal