Burying the Illusions of 'Good Old Israel'

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On Tuesday night, after Arik Einstein’s death was announced, Itzik Sudri tweeted to his followers, “I drove all the way to San Francisco on my honeymoon to sing ‘Sitting in San Francisco.’ I’m sad. May his memory be blessed.”

Some may have allowed themselves a smile at the “victory” of Israeliness. Even the legendary spokesman of Shas, the kid who grew up in the Chabad quarter of Lod, the grandson of a kabbalist sage, who represented Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to the secular public, carries around in his head the Israeli sound track as created by the “most Israeli” singer we ever had.

But it wasn’t a victory for Israeliness, if there is such a thing. It was Sudri’s victory, he and thousands of yeshiva boys like him who succeeded, through a combination of luck, daring and rebelliousness, in growing up on the cultural icons of more than just one of the camps of Israel.

Thousands of the Israelis who flocked on Wednesday to Rabin Square for an event that had all the hallmarks of state funeral for the republic of Tel Aviv felt that this time it was theirs. Two months ago, it was the hour of the Haredim, the Mizrahim, the Jerusalemites, when hundreds of thousands brought Rabbi Ovadia to rest. Now it was the turn of the "old Israel," to mourn and rejoice in the memory of its greatest singer. The numbers are hardly comparable but at least no one on the route from the square to Trumpeldor Cemetery tried to snatch a fleeting touch of the stretcher, there was no fainting or scuffles. That’s how we are in good old Israel, reserved, respectable and decorous.

With sadness, but also elation, they took part in a ritual cleansing of Hebrew music. The front pages of the papers that last week were plastered with the shaved-headed, designer-bespectacled visage of another singer, mired in allegations of sex with underage girls, were purified by the noble brow, crowned with white hair, and the simple, trademark red shirt. Why did you go, Arik?, leaving us with Eyal Golan, reality TV and all that filth. “Drive Slow,” they wanted to shout to the undertaker’s van, in the words of his 1974 song which encapsulated the national sobering-up after the Yom Kippur War, “they won’t start without us.” Not even our own funeral. And then Bibi turned up and ruined our little land of Israel with a pompous eulogy. Doesn’t he realize that we are still mourning Rabin here?

But Netanyahu was no more absurd on Wednesday in the square than all the other mourners and real lovers of Einstein’s songs. Like him, they also wanted a last brush with the genius of Einstein, to project their living illusions on the dead man. So much like the acolytes of Maran Ovadia, worshipping at the feet of a myth of leadership and unity that never was, they desperately clung on to the hologram of the good Israeli from the good old Eretz Yisrael.

I never met Einstein, but if one believes his songs, those he wrote himself and those in which he breathed life into the words of others, he never believed in the good old Israel. He could “love to fall in love with a little land … warm and wonderful” only from afar, “sitting on the water in San Francisco.” And in the scalpel-sharp lyrics of Yehonatan Geffen’s “Could it be over” he sliced through Zionist nostalgia, mocking those who dream of how “it was all simply wonderful before we arrived.” Could it be over? The answer echoed back, no, it never existed to begin with.

But we want to believe the illusion. We want to think that the Israeli in “Drive slow” going home at night to his warm home is thinking of “the poor soldiers now in the mud.” We didn’t believe that in the cold of boot camp, we knew we were on our own, but the words filled us with a few moments of warm false hope. A hope of Israeliness, but not of all Israelis. Only those who dreamed of a “Hebrew guard on a white horse in a black night.” Those for whom “Shabbat morning” meant coffee, a newspaper and sailing on the Yarkon River, as Einstein described it in one of his most popular children’s songs. He never tried to sell himself as anything else, he just wanted to make music, and no one did it better. The illusions were of those who wanted to build upon him a limited and artificial Israel of their own – without religious people, without Arabs or new immigrants. The same kind of Israelis who felt their hearts clench when then-talk show host, Yair Lapid, would end every interview with his “What is Israeli in your eyes” question. Einstein was real, they insisted on wrapping him in their dreams. on Wednesday in Trumpeldor they finally buried their illusions, not him.

Einstein was an Israeli genius, just like Ovadia Yosef. And while the hubris of the Yoo Towers luxury high-rise would have been foreign to the “little Tel-Aviv” of his songs, sex parties with schoolgirls were not, even back then. Einstein succeeded more than any singer in the state’s history in distilling pieces of authentic Israeliana, but anyone who insists in seeing that the entire essence of the country is writing a song Einstein never sang and is about as convincing as Aryeh Deri claiming that Ovadia was the rabbi of all Israelis.

Ovadia, Arik, Eyal – our cultural icons. They are the components of the good and the bad Israelis together. Including them all in the pantheon doesn’t detract from Einstein’s greatness. As it was, he never needed any Hebrew newspaper hack to exalt him – “How do you sleep at night, my little journalist?” he mercilessly lampooned us, “What do you dream about at night after shedding the blood?”

Illustration: Arik EinsteinCredit: Ayala Tal
Ruth Kolian does not agree that the ban on ultra-Orthodox women entering politics is part of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's legacy.Credit: Michal Fattal
Eyal Golan.Credit: David Bachar

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