My Word: Arik Einstein’s genius

Everybody had their Einstein, and it comes with an inseparable dose of nostalgia.

Arik Einstein 390 (photo credit: Courtesy:PR)
Arik Einstein 390
(photo credit: Courtesy:PR)
I am blessed with being not only bilingual but also bi-cultural. I can quote the very British Monty Python sketches and the archetypal Israeli Hagashash Hahiver with equal ease. I sing along equally happily to the music of the Beatles and Kaveret, who recently held what was billed as its absolutely final reunion.
This week, I rejoiced at the news that the Monty Python team was getting together again – and marveled that tickets for the first performance sold out in 43.5 seconds, faster than I could have dialed the number on the type of phone we had when the team was in its prime.
I still find the Python team’s “Dead Parrot” routine funny after all these years. But I also feel sad when I hear Israeli singer Arik Einstein’s song that concludes with the death of his parrot, Yossi.
And this week, I wasn’t the only one shedding a tear over Einstein’s sudden death of a ruptured aneurysm at the age of 74. But that’s Einstein for you. Immensely private, to the point of being a virtual recluse in recent years, Einstein was nonetheless a communal asset. He provided the music that the whole country sang.
As I wrote in a piece that appeared in The Jerusalem Post Magazine on the occasion of his 70th birthday, in January 2009, “it’s hard to imagine Israel without Einstein.”
Many eulogies described him as “the sound track of the nation.”
To fathom the nature of his loss, you have to understand the nature of Israeli life – the collective ups and downs, and the tendency to sing along as we ride the national roller-coaster.
Since no other country has its Memorial Day for fallen soldiers back-to-back with its Independence Day, no other country hears Einstein’s Dmaot shel malachim (“The tears of angels”) in the morning, and his rousing Shir Hashayarot (“Convoy song”), about the ingathering of the exiles, in the evening.
The aftermath of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination is accompanied not just in my mind by the sound of Einstein singing “Shalom, haver” and his version of Aviv Geffen’s “Cry for you.”
The return of Gilad Schalit from five years of Hamas captivity is indelibly inscribed in the Israeli collective consciousness with Einstein’s “Kama tov shebata habaita” (How good it is you’ve come home) and a song he recorded especially for the occasion.
Everybody had their Einstein, and it comes with an inseparable dose of nostalgia.
I first heard his music when I was still in London in the mid-1970s. I played the album Al hadesheh etzel Avigdor (Sitting on the Grass with Avigdor) so often that I got a non-Jewish music teacher hooked.
It doesn’t matter who you are and where you are, as Einstein noted, “kulanu yeladim shel hahaim” – we’re all children of life.
Einstein accompanied my aliya and has never left me in the more than 30 years since. No wonder I felt bereft this week. It was as if a link in a chain to the Good Old Days had suddenly snapped, and we were left dangling.
For the piece I wrote on his 70th birthday, I asked people about their favorite Einstein song. With scores of hits to his name, it is not an easy choice to make; perhaps it depends on your mood, or the state of the country that particular day and hour.
My neighbor, who sings in a choir, finally settled for “Atur mitzhech” (“Wreath of gold”), often voted Israel’s all-time most popular song. A close friend noted she has always liked the song “Yachol lehiyot shezeh nigmar” (“It could be that it’s over”) reflecting the way people always say how great things used to be. A quiet friend picked: “Ohev lihiyot babayit” (“I like to stay home”), which could have been Einstein’s own theme song.
Another opted for Einstein the rocker with his: “Ma ata oseh kshe’ata kam baboker?” (“What do you do when you get up in the morning?”) Children told me they liked “Boker tov Adon Shoko” (“Good morning, Mr.
Chocolate”). One wag who found it hard to decide sang “Yoshev al hagader, regel po, regel sham” “Sitting on the fence, one foot here, one foot there.”
A soon-to-be immigrant confused Arik Einstein with Albert Einstein, and we decided she might like: “San Francisco al hamayim” (about the Israeli who feels so far away from home).
Whenever I’m far from home, nothing brings me back faster – at least in spirit – than an Einstein song, be it Agadat hadesheh (recalling the crowd of friends on the lawn), Ima Adama (Mother Earth) or Sa le’at (Drive slowly).
Parents with children marking a milestone at school, going into the army or leaving home will inevitably recall Einstein’s “Oof gozal” (“Fly away young chick – but just don’t forget there’s an eagle in the sky, take care!”) Einstein used his talents as a lyricist, musician, actor, comedian and, above all, as a singer to make us feel better when we were sad, and even happier when we had something to celebrate.
“Ani ve’ata neshaneh et ha’olam,” sang Einstein, and we sang along with him: “You and I will change the world.” And if he did not change the entire world, he certainly helped shape Israel and make it a better place.
Einstein was the ultimate Tel Aviv-born Sabra whose work reflected a love for life and the country.
In the movie Sallah Shabati, he played the kibbutznik who falls in love with the daughter of the eponymous Sephardi newcomer. In Metzitzim (Peeping Toms) he played one of the beach bums, along with Uri Zohar, who was then at the height of his secular days.
Zohar, now an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, was one of the many who cried as they eulogized Einstein. Their lives were linked more than most as two of Einstein’s daughters married two of Zohar’s sons, later turning them both into great-grandfathers at the same time.
Einstein, a former champion high-jumper, kept leaping ever higher, from the moment he joined the IDF’s immensely popular Nahal entertainment troupe at the age of 18, through his work with the Yarkon Bridge Trio, the High Windows, Shalom Hanoch (a rock legend in his own right), Miki Gavrielov, Yoni Rechter, Itzhak Klepter, Shem-Tov Levy, Yehudit Ravitz and so many more. In each case, Einstein created a partnership based on talent and harmony and enriched us all.
Having carefully steered clear of politics (his love for Hapoel Tel Aviv Football Club, perceived as left-of-center, and a few songs that turned into anthems for peace notwithstanding), Einstein’s send-off crossed party lines with tributes pouring in from President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu down.
In a country never short of news, mass-circulation daily Yediot Aharonot dedicated the first 10 pages of its November 27 edition to the cultural icon who had died the previous night.
It’s hard to do him justice in one simple column such as this.
On the day of Einstein’s funeral, the radio played his sad songs, but toward the evening the tone changed, in that oh-so-Israeli contrast.
One moment, I was singing along to “Lama li lakahat lelev?” (“Why take it to heart?”) and the next I was singing the blessings as we lit the first candle of the Hanukka holiday. Memorial candles flickered while Hanukka candles burned brightly.
As I write these lines, I imagine Einstein performing Arkadi Duchin’s “Yesh bi ahava” – I have love and it will prevail.
It seems a good note on which to end a tribute to a cultural giant and a mensch.
The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem Post.
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