Israel is a much poorer country for having lost Arik Einstein, who died last week at age 74.
I have frequently drawn up lists, especially around Independence Day, of what I love most about Israel and invariably Arik Einstein has ranked high.
Einstein was in many ways the epitome of the modern Israeli, the sabra. He is often described as a folk singer, but that term is misleading. His music contained much of what is positive and beautiful in the contemporary Israeli soul. He was among the best that Israeli culture has produced.
I believe that Israel’s greatest artistic achievements are in its music, especially its popular music. There are many different styles and flavors and countless superb singers and performers. And in the midst of all this, Einstein always stood out. He was the secular sabra from the bohemian circles of Tel Aviv who refused to pursue the political fads of so many of the other members of the chattering artsy classes. His was a deeply felt if humble pride in his Israeliness.
He never preached. If he had political opinions, he kept them to himself. He never had the saccharine melodrama of singers like Yehoram Gaon.
It is said that Will Rogers never met a man he did not like. I do not think there is a single Israeli who did not like Arik Einstein. His appeal crossed all barriers and lines and classes and subdivisions.
There are styles of Israeli music that appeal to only subsets of the population – Oriental music, religious music, etc. But Einstein was beloved by everyone from all walks of life.
His secularism never alienated the religious. (He was best friends with Uri Zohar, the Israeli megastar of the 1960s and 70s who famously became religious; in fact, two of Einstein’s children are married to two of Zohar’s children and live as haredim.)
His quiet love of country never offended the politically correct. His patriotism was not a political proclamation; rather, it was expressed in songs of affection for and attachment to country, to land, to places, to Ein Gedi, to history.
He loved “Land of Israel” songs, ballads reflecting love of country from yesteryear. He could sing Palmach songs from the 1940s without sounding corny, stale, or archaic. He could sing old songs of the pioneers and then transition into modern love ballads.
One of his most famous songs was about the beauty of San Francisco, a song also filled with deep longing for home in Israel and anticipation of returning to mundane life in Tel Aviv. The Ashkenazi northern Tel Aviv bohemians saw him as one of their own, and even they raised no objection to his patriotism as he sang, “This land, this land is ours.”
His was the life of the Ashkenazi sabra salt of the earth. Born in Tel Aviv, he made his musical debut like so many of the generation of the 1960s in Israeli army musical troupes. He worked in theater after completing his military service.
His humor was legendary and characterizes many of his clips, movies, and performances. He played the young kibbutznik in the classic Israeli movie “Salah Shabbati” (one of the few Israeli films worth watching). His music was a bit of Paul Simon, a bit of Woody Guthrie, a bit of folk rock, and so many other genres.
His musical career lasted for decades. Several years ago he stopped performing in public. Rumors circulated that he was suffering from depression. But though the live performances came to an end, his music continued to dominate the airwaves. In 2010 a survey found that his were the most widely played and heard songs on Israeli radio. He spoke to the ordinary Israeli. His songs were about driving old cars, eating watermelon, strolling in Tel Aviv, doing reserve service in the army.
One of my very favorite songs of Einstein’s was “Fly Away Little Bird.” It is a lovely description of the fears and hopes of parenthood as a child strikes off in independence. It is a song to which few parents can listen with dry eyes. It is a highly typical Einstein song.
A highly atypical song, but another of my favorites, is Einstein’s parody of Greek music. Einstein had a delicious sense of humor. (YouTube features a number of Arik Einstein clips. Just go to YouTube.com and type his name in the search box.)
Arik was buried in Tel Aviv’s Trumpeldor Cemetery. For 48 hours Einstein’s death and funeral dominated the news and the talk on the street, and every radio station played Arik Einstein songs nonstop.