One Foot Here, One Foot There

The thing called "Israeliness" has many aspects, and they are always at odds with one another. They include, alongside openness and family-centeredness, a great deal of sticky sentimentality, chutzpah, impertinence, hardheartedness and arrogance. They also encompass numerous ethnic groups and various beliefs, which create tension and hostility, along with affection and a great deal of interest in neighbors and people of various types. And this thing has a heart. A kind of internal capsule containing several valuable elements, which have survived the trials of the generations. And almost all Israelis guard these valuables like religious articles, as opposed to sacred cows.

Several of these "religious articles" happen to be singers, like Chava Alberstein and Zohar Argov, because they give expression to something that precedes divisive words and beliefs; their voices touch some essence of character distilled from the multitude of human destinies that come together in this country. Another of those voices is Arik Einstein. Don't call him "the greatest of them all," because something that is basic in him and in the precious things that are guarded in the heart of Israeliness is the total absence of signs of "greatness" - as seen in the style of the stars of Western or Mizrahi song - in addition to a profound desire to be a part of some kind of togetherness.

There is another side to Israeliness: namely, the tendency to belittle local artists due to a lack of perspective and an innate feeling of inferiority vis-a-vis the Western capitals, or because of a lack of awareness that some of them are very great artists by any standard.

After all, anyone who listens with open ears to what has been going on in the world during our time knows that Natan Zach or Yaakov Shabtai are the equals of the greatest poets and writers elsewhere.

Arik Einstein's well-known reclusiveness, his ordinariness, his averseness to pomposity and grandiosity, his modest way of belonging to this place - these should not hide from those living here the fact that he is a very great and profound artist, with an acute artistic conscience, perfect and totally unique. After all, even someone who thinks that he's the voice of Israeliness has to admit that Einstein is also one-of-a-kind in every way. He is unparalleled.

It's hard to define this perfection, but we have to try. Back in the 1960s, when he was mainly with Hahalonot Hagvohim (the High Windows band), it was clear that Einstein's voice, the baritone that conceals his dark side, is inseparable from his special tone and, in effect, from an entire human perspective. Few musicians can charge their voices so humanly and so distinctly.

It is impossible to say simply that he's always somewhat distant, because the distances change and are adjusted with the delicacy of a jeweler. When he returns to the songs of "old Eretz Israel," he is very removed, deliberately ironic. When he sings "Prague," he is grave and fragile, heartbreaking in his anxious closeness to the subject of the song; for that reason alone it became clear to his listeners that that subject, this time, was really serious. Because his basic voice is irony. In other words, there's never total unity. There are always multiple points of view. Not that mockery or cynicism (for some reason the word "cynicism" has replaced "irony" in Israeli slang) are always present, but there is always also a sense of observing things from the sidelines - leaving an opening for doubt, for criticism. That is the main opening for Einstein's extraordinary sense of humor. Indeed, here is a clearly surprising thing: This singer, who is virtually a "national singer" in this country, who admires sighs and sorrow, and prefers the value of tragedy over comedy - is a comedian through and through, and something of that is present in his melancholy songs as well.

The basic irony of his worldview has developed into an entire poetic language during the course of his lifetime: Arik Einstein, both as a singer and as a poet who writes his own songs, has searched for the divided place - the place that contains two places simultaneously. "Sittin' on the fence, one foot here, one foot there," as he and Yitzhak Klepter have written, is the basic perspective. Even in this song, although Einstein hides his emotions and explains that "being on good terms with everyone" involves "wrapping himself in a smokescreen," it is clear that "sittin' on the fence" is a fraught Hebrew symbol. Poet Haim Nahman Bialik is in the background here, belonging and not belonging, inside and outside.

Many times Einstein seems to be standing on the threshold, on the edge of reality, trying to avoid its power, to protect God's little acre, and it is clear that the entire song in this case exists against a backdrop of fear or destruction that are barely kept in check.

Approaching genius

Einstein created the place of "the home" of the Israeli song; within the world of Israeli rock, of all places, he carried out a long process of delineating the quiet place of "me" - the me who flees from the public, from the noise, searching for a nonpolitical spot. Sometimes it is a place of lack of awareness and haziness, like in "What's With Me?"; sometimes it is an old place, like "The Village Time" (words, Leah Goldberg; music, Miki Gavrielov); and sometimes it is the actual Israeli home - the genuine refuge, as in "How Good You Came Home" (Yaakov Rotblit; Shalom Hanoch), or a place embodying quiet or its absence, as in "Get Out of It," "Fragile" or the fascinating "Can't Keep Up the Pace" (Einstein; Shem-Tov Levy): "I can't keep up, I want to return, to return slowly ... to return to the quiet, to play the flute."

In "Go Slow" (music , Gavrielov), Einstein turned the scene of traveling by car all over the country into a kind of meta-symbol of the tense internal situation here. The "we" in the car find ourselves between war and rain on the one hand, and the warmth of home on the other. We are listening to the news, but reality invades and with it concern for the soldiers. Then in the same breath, "Hapoel [soccer team] lost again ..." But what is important is the state of the passengers in the car - i.e., the society they symbolize: "The rain has become heavy again and you can't see a meter in front of you ... My windshield wiper is broken ..." Traveling in the world is dangerous and fraught with the unknown and the unaware. The call to "go slow" is therefore a more significant request than that made of a driver in the rain. It is an attempt to slow down the course of reality, to bring back an intelligent understanding of it.

The fact that an outstanding rock artist created the "home" of the songs - a contrast to the noise, and to rock's poetry of instincts - is fascinating and unique to Einstein and his characteristic ironic inversion. To this place called "home" belong the children's songs that he sings and his own personal way of addressing children, which is neither childlike nor didactic. His is a serious and profound voice of an adult, who is capable of laughing at creatures like the "Banana Man," but also understands the seriousness of the "deer at night." His love songs and his unforgettable renditions of Bialik's poems, which for him are not "old," but up-to-date lyrical creations, also belong to this "home."

Einstein's art often approaches true genius. He delicately touches - in a sudden, fleeting, penetrating manner - on the truth of life that is unique to a certain time and place, raising it to the level of a great symbol and affording widespread awareness of it. Certainly one such song is his "Me and You" (with Gavrielov), which is an amazing amalgam of fate, life and history, captured in a few, simple, everyday words, and totally Israeli. Thus, the melody, which is no less a work of genius, sort of sums up what is beautiful in our music.

There are few instances when living in this place bestows so much blessing, privilege and grace.