Last week, Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's largest circulation daily and the parent company of Ynet, featured a cover story of Israeli singer Chava Alberstein in its weekend magazine. The interview with Alberstein by Ariana Melamed, (exemplary as always) spread over five dense pages.
Alberstein is a genuine piece of Israeli history, and most definitely worth it. If she isn’t the country’s most important singer then she is certain in the top five, an icon.
The interview reminded us why it’s preferable to hear her sing than talk. There was something painful in reading the article, sort of like when you discover that someone you love doesn’t love you in return and Chava doesn’t really love us.
When asked her about ‘A Star is Born’, (the Israeli version of American Idol) she was disgusted: “What, you want me to talk about pornography, about abomination? It’s like a religious person being forced to watch hooligans trample a Torah scroll and then rip it to shreds.”
Also: “Real art will always be a concealed source of power,” she said, “and not four people who are appointed as the judges and a million text messages …This instant fame that ‘A Star is Born’ fosters together with the horrible declaration that ‘Anyone can do it’. Who says anyone can do it? That’s how pornography begins, a vulgar circus of performing fleas, I can’t stand it, in my eyes it’s almost criminal.”
Long before Chava Alberstein, there was a man by the name of Johann Sebastian Bach. One day he applied for a position as the musical director of the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. Four people reached the final stage in which they had to appear before a panel of examiners – you guessed it, just like ‘A Star is Born’ – with a new musical composition. The piece that Bach wrote for the exam was called ‘St. Matthew's Passion’. It is considered one of the greatest classical pieces of music and yes, he got the job.
I am not saying that one can compare Ninet (winner of the first Star competition) to Bach (nor to Chava), but art is created and produced for many reasons, some dumb, some superficial, most of them meaningless. The end result has little connection to the initial motivation.
Shakespeare the producer
Velasquez painted because he sought a nobleman’s title. Mozart was always short of money and Picasso was jealous of Mattise. The critics insulted Hemingway and Chandler only began his writing career after being fired from his job.
Shakespeare was producer, director and actor in most of his plays. He was also the owner of the Globe Theatre and checked to make sure everyone bought a ticket. He invested the money he earned in real estate. If Shakespeare had lived during Chava’s time, she surely would have described the Globe as a circus for trained fleas.
I can't figure out, then, what upsets her so much about them. Young, enthusiastic people singing the Hebrew lyrics of classic Israeli tunes by such greats as Wilenski, Zeira, Alterman, Shlomo Artzi, sometimes even of Chava Alberstein. At a time when most of the world is addicted to infantile pop songs in English, these kids are singing about fields of flowers or Matti Caspi’s puppy who is again ho-bi-di-bum-bum.
And just when the Hebrew song is experiencing a revival, she decides to stop performing in Israel. She prefers to take a 12-hour flight in order to perform on the campuses of Miami and Massachusetts and above all, not to have to look at Israelis.
I’m sorry to disappoint her but the people sitting in the front rows are ours. They are Israeli émigrés and emissaries and students who heard that she was coming so they infiltrated into the audience in order to get excited ‘Like a Wildflower’.
Clearly, she doesn’t have a problem with that. Her annoyance begins when she returns home. Many things make her uncomfortable. She doesn’t like the amphitheater at Caesarea, and doesn’t like people on the street who ask her “where have you been?” (I don’t understand what’s wrong with this well meaning question, but I guess it’s my problem).
She doesn’t like artists whose parents have built them studios in their homes and she detests television. She is appalled by artists who advertise products on the side and in general, by any one who actually makes a living, God forbid, from his art. “People sell their souls for money,” she said, ‘they are for sale to the highest bidder.”
Working for the man
This is of course because it is shameful to work for money. Leonardo Da Vinci must have been humiliated when he painted the Mona Lisa, as a commission for a cloth merchant in Florence who had just moved into a new home. He didn’t create it out of hardship or romantic desperation, and he was well-paid for his work which became the world’s most famous painting.
He was a rich man, Leonardo, but according to Chava Alberstein it is better to die like Shoshana Damari: Poor, lonely, forlorn, forgotten. Alberstein obviously does not have this problem. “Me,” she announces rather abruptly, “they won’t forget.”
Not the most modest statement in the world, but maybe she is right. On the other hand, it is not sure that she will want us to remember everything.
Israelis really annoy Chava Alberstein, and without noticing, she actually does the most Israeli thing in the world: She defines herself through contempt of others. More than half the article is devoted to her love of the Yiddish language. At first it seems poetic, the way she has devoted herself to the revival of a dying language, its beauty, the vast reservoir of memories it holds.
It’s only when she talks about other cultures within Israeli society, she oozes condescension. If someone succeeds, it’s bad. If someone moves most of the people, it’s bad. If something is popular, for sure it’s bad.
Strange, Yiddish was once the street language spoken by degenerates, shoemakers and milkmen, and it didn’t take itself very seriously. “Tomorrow,” promises one of Alberstein’s most famous songs, “I will be far away. Don’t look for me. That tomorrow is already here, and she is so distant and it is unclear if she has what to look for.”
Tuesday's elections are about the same thing. It’s about those who have cut themselves off and those who have chosen to identify with the Israeli mainstream. It’s between those who care only about what happens in their backyard or on their hilltop and those who believe that despite everything, there is a central ground that is worth looking for.
It is about those who are so smug about each time they divorce us, and those who believe the marriage is worth fighting for. If anyone is wondering about the success of Kadima, that too is an answer. Because with all due respect to Chava and her ilk, we still prefer to fight for the ‘Us’.