I had a quintessential Israeli experience this week. Turning on the radio to catch up with the news on Saturday night, I heard Arik Einstein singing: Shir she'aharei milhama (A song after war). Ironically, the announcer broke into the music to warn residents of Ashkelon or Ashdod - or somewhere not particularly far south - that there were incoming missiles and they should immediately take cover.
We can still dream of a time when Israel will be truly "after the war," but it's hard to imagine Israel without Einstein, who is celebrating his 70th birthday. On the Friday, just before Shabbat, radio presenter Anat Dolev discussed Einstein with her guests, noting that in his long career (he started in the famous Lahakat Hanahal army entertainment troupe), he has written and/or sung songs that suit just about every occasion (although he stopped performing decades ago).
In honor of his birthday, Dolev chose to play: "Lama li lakahat lelev?" "Why should I take it to heart?"
Inspired, I started asking people what was their Einstein favorite: My neighbor, who sings in a choir, after much deliberation settled for: "Atur mitzhech" ("Wreath of gold"), which has been voted Israel's all-time most popular song more than once.
A close friend has always liked the song: "Yachol lehiyot shezeh nigmar" ("It could be that it's over") - the way people always say how great things used to be - before she arrived - fits almost all her work experiences.
A quiet friend chose: "Ohev lihiyot babayit" ("I like to stay home"). An outgoing one opted for Einstein the rocker, settling for: "Ma ata oseh she'ata kam beboker?" "What do you do when you get up in the morning?" The kids like "Boker tov Adon Shoko" ("Good morning, Mr. Chocolate"). A witty acquaintance who found it hard to decide sang: "Yoshev al hagader, regel po regel sham" "Sitting on the fence, one foot here, one foot there."
I asked a soon-to-be immigrant what Einstein song she liked best: "Oh, I knew he left behind letters but I didn't know he wrote songs," she replied. We decided that anyone who doesn't know the difference between Arik and Albert Einstein might like San Francisco al hamayim (about the Israeli who feels so far from home).
The ultimate sabra, he nonetheless celebrates the ingathering of the exiles (to Greek tunes, no less) with hits like "Shir Hashayarot" (The Convoy Song): "Bilshonot rabot misfor dibarnu, vezeh et zeh kim'at shelo hikarnu." "We spoke in many different languages and we didn't know each other..."
I got hooked on Einstein when I heard the record Al hadesheh etzel Avigdor as a teenager in England - so long ago, I can't imagine the music in anything but mono and I didn't yet understand the words. Einstein is heavy on nostalgia. Like Dolev, I find there's an Einstein for all occasions (and I'm not revealing how I first learned "K'she'at bocha at lo yafa" ("when you cry, you're not pretty").
For many, he sums up the Israeli experience: He played the kibbutznik who falls in love with Sallah Shabati's daughter in the eponymous movie about the Sephardi immigrant. But the secular, 70-year-old Tel Avivian, who played one of the beach bums in Metzitzim (Peeping Toms) - not a film I'd recommend - is now a great-grandfather thanks to one of his ultra-Orthodox offspring.
Even if it weren't his 70th, the radio would have been playing Einstein classics this week. Far, far from San Francisco, no war, terror attack or Remembrance Day goes by without hearing "Ima adama" (Mother Earth). And "Sa le'at" ("Drive slowly," whose "eizeh miskenim hahayalim sheshochavim achshav bebotz" ("poor soldiers who are lying in the mud at the moment") suits this wintry campaign as much as the anthem: "Ani ve'ata neshaneh et ha'olam": "You and I will change the world" (and it doesn't matter if it's been said before).
It doesn't matter, indeed, who you are or where you are: Some of Einstein's genius will appeal - as he sings: "kulanu yeladim shel hahaim" ("we're all children of life"). And any parent with kids leaving home (let alone those going in the army) will identify with "Oof gozal" ("Fly away young chick - but just don't forget there's an eagle in the sky, take care").
Arik Einstein has a famously bad relationship with the press, giving birth to the song: "How do you sleep at night, my little journalist?" ("Eich ata yashen balayla, itonai katan sheli?").
This writer will sleep a bit better knowing she's help spread Einstein's words. After all, to borrow a phrase from another of his hits, Einstein is so utterly "Totzeret ha'aretz" - "Made in Israel."