Chava Alberstein: Yiddish Songs


By PopMatters Staff

A quote runs thus, as offered in the liner notes of Yiddish Songs, and attributed to an unknown Yiddish comedian: “I look forward to going to Heaven, because there I have my biggest audience.” The Yiddish culture of Europe has been dying since World War II, in Poland and Romania and beyond. The Jewish peoples of Israel have since been attempting to find their own culture, their own face, their own cultural identity. Yiddish is a language that represents the European life before WWII. Yiddish is dying.

Chava Alberstein refuses to accede to the fact that Yiddish is dying. She realizes that the language will surely perish, but to this woman—born in northern Poland, just after World War II—Yiddish is still a poignant reminder of Jewish culture as handed down from previous generations, despite the fact that Hebrew is the main language of Israel. Chava Alberstein on Yiddish Songs is clinging wonderfully to her own culture and attempting, however futilely, to preserve it as long as she can.

The 21 songs on offer are a slice of Jewish life from the streets of Poland. There are thieves’ cants (“Avremi Marvikher/Avreml the Con Man”), gypsy ditties (“Tsigainer/The Gypsy and His Fiddle”), love songs from WWII (“Friling/Spring”), and memoirs of childhoods long past (“Kinder Yo’rn/Childhood Years”). There is the defiant “Zog Nit Kein’mol/The Partisan’s Song,” an anthem of the partisan’s during the rebellion of the Warsaw ghetto, and the parody based on the prayer “Hamavdil beyn kodesh beyn kodesh le-chol” (He who makes a distinction between the sacred and the profane) titled “Hamavdil,” a chilling dirge with building male chorus behind the fortitude of Alberstein herself.

Overall, Yiddish Songs is a hearty salute to a dying language and a way of life that will surely drown with the search for Israeli identity, an identity that has already, sad to say, refused to emulate the Yiddish history of old.

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