Chava Alberstein

Foreign Letters

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Like Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez, the Israeli singer/songwriter Chava Alberstein is a durable icon and much-loved role model. She is a searching spirit who weaves ancestral voices from Yiddish pre-war Europe into fresh contexts, moving past mere nostalgia to fashion sounds as full of hope as tomorrow. She is almost exactly the same age as her country, and her personal discoveries and disappointments have often mirrored its precarious development. Given such a background, it is not surprising that her lushly feminine alto voice typically displays a tinge of vulnerability and sadness even amid the most celebratory tunes. On this set, her sensitive singing is augmented by her own acoustic classical guitar, along with lightly applied touches of bass, cello, accordion, and nostalgic, klezmer-haunted clarinet and fiddle. The lyrics reflect the artist's aspirations and memories, as Alberstein inhabits a century-old Yiddish poem about a conceited village beauty whose lovely face belies a cold, disdainful heart. There are also warnings about the dangers of allowing a seductive cad to get in too close and a nervous recollection of how minutes can feel like hours during a tense border crossing. The English-language title song is not, as one would expect, about mail from faraway friends, but instead describes an Israeli's shy interest in an immigrant's handwriting and customs. This type of readjustment must be daily fact of life in a nation of refugees attempting to put down roots and raise families while dealing with incessant discord and threats of violence.

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