For so many Israelis, Arik Einstein represented much of what is good about Israel. For an American immigrant like me who first came to Israel in the 1980s, he was a singer whose songs moved me in a way that connected me to both the Israeli past and its present.
He became a star more than 40 years ago and retained the modesty of earlier generations in his public persona. At times, he seemed almost embarrassed by his fame.
Clearly, what mattered to him was his music, and he brought out the beauty in every line he sang, whether it was a piece he had written or it was by one of Israel’s greatest songwriters.
He had long-term collaborations with songwriters such as Shalom Hanoch, Miki Gavrielov, Yoni Rechter and many others.
But no matter who wrote the words and music, when he sang it, it was an Arik Einstein song. Whether he was singing a romantic love song, a comic ditty or a children’s tune, he made it his own.
Generations of listeners fell in love with his music, and a good many fell in love with him as well. Yesterday in some of the obituaries, I saw him called the Godfather of Israeli Rock and the Israeli Frank Sinatra. He was both of these things, but much more.
I first heard his music on the radio in the mid-1980s. My Israeli roommates played “Me and You” (Ani ve Ata) for me and explained that it had become an anthem of the Israeli peace movement. Einstein’s music was a prism through which I learned about Israel. I was puzzled that many Israelis I knew played music all the time but would turn the sound off when the news came on (it was a bleak time, with the war in Lebanon still raging and more soldiers lost every day). They explained that they just didn’t want to know what was happening, that it depressed them.
To make their point, they played Einstein’s “Time Out” (Pesek Zman) for me, with the lines “To take a break and not think . . . Maybe it’s just a small crisis, and it will pass.”
I learned Hebrew translating the lyrics of such songs as “What’s with Me?” (Mah Iti?) and learned a little Israeli history from “Yoel Moshe Salomon” (about the founding of Petah Tikva) and “Avshalom” (about the prestate hero Avshalom Feinberg).
Why was Einstein sad in the song “Drive Slow” (Sa Le’at) when Hapoel lost? My Israeli roommates explained about the political affiliations of soccer teams in Israel. What about the line in that song, where Einstein sang, “And I think, in a little while, there’s Gaza/Just so they don’t throw a grenade/Let’s get going, damn it”? Could a grenade actually be tossed from the Gaza Strip to the highway? “You never know,” I was told.
But it wasn’t only politics and history. I learned about Israeli humor and culture as well. It was hard not to laugh along with the parody of the ideal of Israeli motherhood, mixed with genuine love and affection, in a song like “My Mother” (Ima Sheli). “Three, Four and to Work” (Shalosh, Arba La’avoda) poked fun at the pioneer ethos, as Einstein sings, “Three, four to work,” and then “Three, four to love, you owe it to yourself, you owe it to your family.” Boyfriends sang the lyrics of “When You Cry, You’re Not Pretty” (Keshe At Bocha At Lo Yaffa), and “It’s All in Your Head,” (Zeh Rak be’Rosh Shelach), the cheating guy’s classic excuse song.
When I went with one of my roommates to see the film Peeping Toms (Metzitzim) at the Jerusalem Cinematheque and actually saw the singer whose voice I already loved, I was a goner. All my movie star crushes up to then suddenly paled next to the image of this tall, angular denim-clad demi-god who, my friends told me approvingly, had been the high-jump champion of Israel. Remember, this was before Google Images and YouTube, so I hadn’t known what he looked like.
Besides being bowled over by his looks, I realized that the duo that he and his friend Uri Zohar portrayed in the film, two friends who mostly hang out on the beach chasing women and aren’t upright citizens, was far more revolutionary and even incendiary than similar characters would be in America.
It’s hard to say whether Einstein was much of an actor, since he was essentially playing himself here and in most of his other movie roles (many may not realize that he has a key role in the 1964 comedy classic Sallah Shabbati, which I saw in my ulpan).
My friends told me that the wife in Peeping Toms, whom he treats so callously, was played by Sima Eliyahu, his real-life partner, and that he was divorced from his wife, Alona, who had become ultra-Orthodox. I also learned that Zohar, who had once been a kind of Lenny Bruce figure in Israel, as well as a very gifted film director and writer, had become ultra-Orthodox, along with his wife, which was puzzling to me at the time.
My roommates and I were dumbstruck with the irony when the first of Einstein’s daughters with Alona (who died in 2006), married one of Zohar’s sons. Einstein’s second daughter would marry another of Zohar’s sons a few years later. It was a bizarre story, and in some ways it symbolizes the moment when the ultra-Orthodox in Israel came into their own. The journey and many contradictions in Einstein’s life mirror the evolution of the State of Israel.
Following a car crash in which he was badly injured and a general lack of enthusiasm for the spotlight, Einstein stopped performing years ago, but he continued to write and record. His cover of an Aviv Geffen song, “Cry for You,” became an anthem in the mid- 1990s for those in mourning after the murder of prime minister Rabin. His song, “I Have Love and It Will Triumph” (Yesh Bi Ahava) showed that he hadn’t become bitter. “How Good You’ve Come Home” (Kama Tov Sheh Ba’ta Habayita) was often used in the campaign to gain kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Schalit’s freedom and was played in celebration when Schalit did come home.
While the crowds gathering in Rabin Square yesterday to mourn Einstein were on the more mature side, Einstein has fans of every age, including children. Part of Einstein’s sexiness came from a playful and childlike side, and he sang for kids like no one else. My sons, and generations of children, have grown up on his many and wonderful kids’ songs, including such classics as “Adon Shoko” (my older son’s favorite), “Shabbat Morning,” “What Do the Deer Do?” (Mah Osot ha Ayelot) and many others.
They can hum and sing as many Einstein songs as I can.
In his classic “Fly Away” (Ouf Gozal), he sings about letting your children go off into the world. “It’s fun to get old,” he sang. And if anyone could make that line convincing, it was Einstein.
I think part of the shock that many people are experiencing today is the feeling that we were all going to grow old together, us and Einstein.
“It seems as if he was always there, and so it’s hard to believe he’s gone,” said Ninette Tayeb, a singer from a much younger generation, in an interview on Channel 2 yesterday.
Although Einstein’s hair turned white, his spirit always seemed young. He had a life and career worth celebrating, and it’s impossible to mourn him without thinking about the glitz and sleaze (think of the recent Eyal Golan scandal) that dominates the music business today, in contrast to Einstein’s simple singing style and personal modesty.
Many have said that Einstein’s music was a national soundtrack, and his complex life was a kind of touchstone for others.
But in spite of the sadness over the fact that we will not hear his voice again live, there is comfort in knowing that he has left such a rich legacy of music, and I hope it is some comfort to his family and friends.
I last heard “Fly Away” sung on a field trip with my son’s school for children with autism. The kids listened quietly, and some sang along as a counselor played it on guitar.
The voices were not Einstein’s, but he inspired them, and he will continue to inspire many. He did change our world.
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