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Chava Alberstein, Israeli Singer and Peace Activist


Ms. CHAVA ALBERSTEIN (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)


Singer Chava Alberstein is one of Israel's most popular musicians. She's recorded nearly 50 albums in 30 years, and she's been controversial. During the first Palestinian uprising, in the late 1980s, she recorded this traditional Passover song, adding lyrics implicitly criticizing Israel. Some radio stations banned the song, and she received death threats. But that didn't stop her. Alberstein spoke with NPR's Madeleine Brand about her latest album, "Foreign Letters."


Fifty-four-year-old Chava Alberstein is the same age as Israel, and throughout her career she's tried to capture in her songs what it's like to be an Israeli and what it's like to live in such a complex and contradictory place.

Ms. ALBERSTEIN: I think about everything, and I also have in my songs, especially in the last album, confusion. I have a song called "Indifferent," which is something I would like very much to be, of course, but I can't.


Ms. ALBERSTEIN: (Singing in foreign language)

BRAND: And what are you saying there?

Ms. ALBERSTEIN: Well, I say not many things bother me lately. It also says about the fact that everything is a game, but the only thing that really interests me is I'm sitting in front of the CNN wondering what is the situation of the yen. I mean...

BRAND: The Japanese yen.

Ms. ALBERSTEIN: The Japanese yen.

BRAND: And you're being sarcastic, obviously.

Ms. ALBERSTEIN: Of course. Of course. That's the last thing that really interests me. Actually, the song was born after the terrible bombs you had here in September 11th. Like one hour after the terrible pictures started to be shown on television, under the picture was the lines running about the stock markets.

BRAND: The ticker tape ...(unintelligible).

Ms. ALBERSTEIN: Yeah. The Dow Jones and all these. You know, like it made me so angry, you know, that in the middle of a terrible, unbelievable disaster, this is a thing that people go on being interested in, how does it affect the economic situation of the world.

BRAND: And that song sounds upbeat.

Ms. ALBERSTEIN: Exactly.

BRAND: But I have to say, most of the songs--and I don't speak Yiddish or Hebrew, so I don't understand the lyrics. But I get the feeling of a melancholy. There's a...

Ms. ALBERSTEIN: There is a melancholy, especially in the Yiddish songs. Yiddish was really cut out in the Holocaust. In three years, like six million people that spoke the language were gone. So that's why there is always a kind of sadness when you sing Yiddish. It's in a way like you connect with your grandparents, you connect with ghosts, with a world that is not existing anymore.


Ms. ALBERSTEIN: (Singing in foreign language)

BRAND: Now tell me about the song "High Atop A Mountain."

Ms. ALBERSTEIN: Oh, this one I love very much. The name of the poet is Kadya Molodovski, and this song is about a mountain; high on the mountain there are two trees, and on each tree there is one bird. One bird is singing only in the morning, the second bird is singing only at night. The bird that sings in the morning is welcoming the beautiful day and blessing it. The second bird is always mourning; the day has come to an end and it's already dark, and always complaining.


Ms. ALBERSTEIN: (Singing in foreign language)

BRAND: This poem probably wasn't written to be a political poem, but it seems that everything associated with Israel now is colored by politics and by the situation.

Ms. ALBERSTEIN: That's right.

BRAND: Even this poem about two birds.

Ms. ALBERSTEIN: Exactly. If it's not about war and peace, duality is something very good and important. It makes life more interesting. But you have to understand that in Israel there are still a lot of people that are Holocaust survivors, and they have their fears and traumas. And they're just always afraid that the whole world is against them and everybody wants to finish them. The other group has different conclusions from the Holocaust, and they say, `In spite of what happened to us, I would like to be better. I don't want to do, like, an eye for an eye or something.' Both ways are very difficult.


Ms. ALBERSTEIN: (Singing in foreign language)

I believe that the cloud of the Holocaust is somehow the background of a lot of things.

BRAND: Is that, in part, what the song "Passport Control" is about?

Ms. ALBERSTEIN: Oh, yes.

BRAND: You speak in that song of a paranoia that the world...

Ms. ALBERSTEIN: Exactly. Well, the song was written a few years ago, but lately it becomes more meaningful.

BRAND: And what are you saying there?

Ms. ALBERSTEIN: He doesn't like me. He looks at me suspiciously. He's turning my passport from side to side, and I try to explain to him that the letters go from right to left. I'm sure he will send me very soon to an interrogation room. I know, I read books, I saw movies. People disappear suddenly. They'll never find me again. And all this paranoia is basically part of being Israeli. Whenever we go outside, people tell us, `Don't hold your passport open so they won't see the Hebrew letters,' you know, `and don't hold a Hebrew book in your hands.'

I think that a short while after the terrible situation you had here in New York, even Americans could have identified with the song, because suddenly being American was also a threat in certain places.


Ms. ALBERSTEIN: (Singing in foreign language)

BRAND: You're known in Israel, well, not only as a singer, but also as a peace activist.


BRAND: And I'm wondering, how do you reconcile being critical of Israel or Israel's policies right now in a moment of crisis and being branded sometimes as a traitor?

Ms. ALBERSTEIN: I can't say it's easy. It's not like there is, you know, one way of thinking and you just go on saying you have to leave the occupied territories and that's it, because while you stand in a demonstration supporting the rights of the Palestinians, in the same hour there is a terror or suicide bomb 10 minutes from the demonstration. Basically I believe that artists should criticize governments whenever they can. I mean, we are not politicians that we need voters to vote for us. So we really must say what we feel, and if we have criticism, we have to say.

BRAND: Israeli singer Chava Alberstein. Her latest album is called "Foreign Letters." You can hear more at our Web site, npr.org.

I'm Madeleine Brand.


Ms. ALBERSTEIN: (Singing in foreign language)

EDWARDS: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Bob Edwards.

Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.