An Israeli recently remarked, "If one morning Israel woke up to find all the Palestinians vanished in the night, there would be a civil war by noon." Chava Alberstein is not so pessimistic, but with her latest album on Rounder Records, the veteran voice of Israel's left explores the other challenges facing her homeland, ones that may not make the newspapers here, but are just as crucial. End of the Holiday, a series of vignettes of lives lived away from the security fences and front lines, strikes a universal chord that will resonate as deeply in New Jersey as in Jerusalem.
You'd be hard pressed to find another 56-year-old singer that remains as engaged with her people and nation as Chava Alberstein. With over 50 albums to her credit -- a recently issued sixteen-disc box set covers only her early recordings -- she is often lauded as her country's Joan Baez, the voice of its conscience. With this album, she turns a clear eye on the south Tel Aviv neighborhood that for her is a microcosm of Israeli society. It's an immigrant neighborhood, packed with the eastern European, Chinese, and Thai workers who have replaced Palestinians since the borders were closed. It's also become a magnet for young creative people who've fashioned a sort of bohemia among the old synagogues, liquor stores, and lottery kiosks. "They are all mixed together, the old people of Tel Aviv, the new immigrants, the young people living there because it's cheap. It's a very dynamic place," she explains, describing a gentrifying area akin to New York's Soho decades ago.
The first full collaboration between Alberstein and her husband, the filmmaker Nadav Levitan, who wrote all the lyrics to End of the Holiday, the album marks a new direction for Alberstein. Her celebrated U.S. releases Crazy Flower, The Well (with the Klezmatics), Yiddish Songs and the gorgeous Foreign Letters introduced Alberstein as a sensual song interpreter and Yiddish preservationist -- in May 2004 she's slated for a Jewish Research Lifetime Achievement Award from the YIVO Institute -- whose sunny hopefulness seemed to emanate from her own golden curls. This album is different, as times now are different. It is all in Hebrew, for one thing, although Alberstein remains devoted to the Yiddish of her youth. And while today's Israeli pop is hopeful and light, End of the Holiday, like its title track detailing the change "from freedom to burden," is far weightier. "I don't have anything against music as escape. Maybe this is what music has to do, to make things easier," Alberstein says. "But for me the thing was always to look into reality and turn the truth into an art -- not to run away from it."
Taking her place alongside artists such as Leonard Cohen and Italy's Paolo Conte -- though her sumptuous voice would never be mistaken for the gravelly tones of these gentlemen -- Alberstein delivers almost journalistic accounts, centered on haunting images. A beach empty after a holiday, a solitary man in a neglected synagogue, immigrants clustered around drink-and-snack bars, "like honeycomb attracts bees / Like bathhouses attract men." Through these songs she addresses local issues that could unfold anywhere: immigration ("Vera From Bucharest" and "Black Video"), racism ("Shadow"), environmental destruction ("Dying Creek"), and how difficult times encourage a turning towards faith ("Psalms") even as growing secularization leaves spirits unfed ("Empty Synagogue").
Without preaching or moralizing, Alberstein inhabits each song -- and after all, she herself is an immigrant who came to Israel from Poland as a child, and grew up speaking Yiddish, a language scorned in the nascent country. The same age as the Jewish state itself, she is its most eloquent spokesperson. Never has the relationship between Israel -- the Israel that struggles under the myth of the Holy Land, groans beneath the weight of world, even cosmic, events -- and America seemed closer than through Chava Alberstein's voice.
Identified with her country's doves, most notably Yitzhak Rabin, Chava Alberstein makes no apologies for the somber, inward tone of End of the Holiday. "You can only sing about peace and hope for so long," she says, having done so for much of her career, "before the words have no meaning, and you would rather just say nothing." But she counsels against taking her silence as weakness. Rather than join in the chorus of platitudes that Israelis refer to as "the word laundry," she has found other corners to shine the light of truth upon. Each jewel-like song on End of the Holiday is, as so many acts of resistance, a small step, a stand against incomprehension and futility. "Because of the situation we're in," she says, referring to the incessant violence wracking her home, "we can't concentrate on other people's suffering. I think this is the worst price for the occupation, that we are losing our capacity to have mercy on others. Nobody has exclusive rights to suffering."
With compassion and clarity, Alberstein and Levitan have created a boldly universal album. In its quiet intimacy, End of the Holiday speaks volumes about relationships both political and human, framed by the luminous voice of Chava Alberstein.