Some years ago, folk diva Chava Alberstein discovered the rundown immigrant neighborhood around the south Tel Aviv central bus station. For the Israeli superstar, the area became a refuge, a place to stroll or sip coffee unmolested by fans. The residents were foreign workers from countries such as China, Thailand, Nigeria and Romania.
But as their numbers swelled to replace Palestinians after the intifada, Alberstein -- considered Israel's Joan Baez -- saw conditions deteriorating.
"These people are brought to Israel, their passports are confiscated so they can't go anywhere and they're forced to live in the worst situations," she said. "You see people crawling out of the most unbelievable hovels. It's bothered me for a long time."
So Alberstein, 56, did what one would expect of Baez: She poured her indignation into an album. Her new CD, "End of the Holiday" (Rounder Records), due in stores Jan. 13, provides heartbreaking glimpses into the lives of Israel's estimated 200,000 foreign workers. In her song "Friday Night," homesick Romanian men sit at dingy snack bars listening to Gypsy music. In "Real Estate," laundromats and garbage bins are transformed into workers' lodgings in cramped south Tel Aviv. In "Black Video," an African house cleaner tapes tourist sites, rather than his shabby room, to send home with all his savings.
Speaking from her Tel Aviv home, Alberstein said she is especially moved by the foreigners' plight because she, too, immigrated to Israel.
"It's important to me that the Jews, who were temporary residents of so many countries, should be able to welcome the stranger," she said. "I would love to give other people the chance to make Israel their home, as I've made this country my home."
Alberstein, the daughter of Polish Holocaust survivors, arrived in Israel around 1950 at the age of 4. Her father, a piano teacher, was too poor to purchase a piano, so he bought an accordion and made Chava his first pupil. At age 12, Alberstein was riveted by a Pete Seeger concert and begged her father for a guitar; he procured for her a used one from a sailor in Haifa. Several years later, she was inspired by American folk musicians who drew on their ethnic roots to put out her debut album in Yiddish. It was considered a bold, even controversial move in the Hebrew-dominated state.
Nevertheless, the singer-songwriter went on to record almost 50 albums and become one of Israel's most celebrated folk icons, along with artists such as Shlomo Artzi and Yehoram Gaon. "She is the same age as her country, and she has captured its growing pangs in her music," said Simon Rutberg of Hatikvah Music in Los Angeles.
Indeed, Alberstein's dusky alto has often served as a voice of conscience for the Jewish state: Her "Chad Gadya," a scathing riff on the Passover tune, admonished Israel for perpetuating the cycle of violence during the first intifada. The 1989 song was virtually banned from the radio and led to canceled concerts and threatening phone calls to Alberstein.
More recently, the folk artist returned to her immigrant roots by writing songs based on Yiddish poems and recording them with the Klezmatics. The resulting CD, 1999's "The Well," drew critical praise in the United States, as did Alberstein's cabaret-flavored "Foreign Letters," recorded in Yiddish, Hebrew and English.
She wasn't intending to begin a new album two years ago, when her husband, filmmaker Nadav Levitan, showed her poems he had written about foreign workers.
"I thought I was resting," she said. But then Alberstein read his work, which included "Vera From Bucharest," about a caretaker stranded when her elderly charge dies. "I cried when I read the poems, and I knew I had to set them to music," she said.
Alberstein infused the songs with melodies she had heard on the streets of south Tel Aviv: Romanian strains for "Vera," for example, and African rhythms for "Black Video." But while the album is melancholy, she said, it is not about despair.
"It's about people who are desperate, and who find themselves in a bad place, but who are struggling to make their lives better," she said.
The album has been well received in Israel, according to Alberstein.
"It's accepted with enthusiasm, especially by young people who realize there are so many issues we don't deal with as we tend to obsess only about war and peace," she said. "Because of the political situation ... we often forget there are other people with other problems in the world. And sometimes they are just around the corner."
For more information about Alberstein, visit www.aviv2.com/chava .