Arik Einstein, 1939-2013: The Soundtrack of Israeli Culture

Israeli music legend didn’t scream or shout, but was nonetheless the founding father of Israeli rock.

Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
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Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

Ten years ago Arik Einstein and the poet Eli Mohar met for a series of talks that led to the book "It's the same love." One of the most interesting conversations in the book, published after Mohar's death, dealt with Einstein's great talent, the art of performing a song.

"How do I sing this song? Is that something that crosses your mind?" Mohar asked. "Yes, but it's not something you can put in words, I mean, you can, but it would be superficial," Einstein responded. "But is it something you work on, or is it completely intuitive?" Mohar insisted.

"Well it's different from song to song," Einstein answered. "There are songs which are so… I would call it 'well placed;' songs that are placed correctly. And that means that all you have to do is not to ruin them. There are more problematic songs, and then, sometimes, I feel the song needs more power, or emotion, depends on the song. If there's something which I might call a 'thin thread,' something that I'm often missing, and I probably think about, it's the smile - some sort of smile that comes through even when you're saying something that seemingly doesn't call for a smile; that this, too, will have a smile that conveys some sort of acceptance. Even when it borders on pain. A sort of acceptance.

"I always take an example from the blues, when they sing really painful lyrics – 'you left me, and I'm feeling down, and it's raining, and I'm lost' – but then you always have the 'oh, baby, baby, baby,' and you get it. Despite the pain there's also a smile."

Einstein was the Israeli singer, second to none. He achieved this elevated status, which he didn't share with any other singer, first and foremost, because he was a great singer, who always knew how to "be completely in the song, but at the same time, be outside it, from a distance, as an observer," as Eli Mohar put it. Einstein was also a godfather of the new Israeli music, that erupted in the end of the 1960's, and personified the link between the Russian-Hebrew tradition and Israeli rock. Furthermore, he had the most amazing knack for spotting musical talents. His refined taste and sharp senses led him to anonymous, or practically anonymous young talents such as Shalom Hanoch, Ya'akov Rotblit, Mickey Gavrielov, Yoni Rechter, Shem Tov Levy and Yitzhak Klepter; Einstein identified the great talent of each of them, and gave them his complete trust at a very early stage of their careers.

From a wider perspective, not strictly focusing on his immense musical contribution, it seems that Einstein was the most beloved Israeli artist because he personified Israeli culture, but at the time he was an ideal figure that Israeli culture wished to be identified with, even though this wish was far removed from reality.

Einstein was a direct and honest artist, coarse, warm, caring, straightforward. But at the same time he was an extremely elegant singer, with perfect style and brilliant diction. He never sweated his songs, despite the Israeli heat, and the sweat on his shirt. And he had an un-Israeli bashfulness, and an un-Israeli distance, and a deep un-Israeli need to shut the door of his home and not allow the guys to party in his living room.

And still, it was his voice and the manner in which he controlled it. "When one discusses Einstein's voice, it's not only the wide and many-shaded baritone, but the large scale of his performance: the rare marriage of musical sensitivity with a perfect sense of timing, the combination that produces what is known as phrasing, that perfection between harmony, lyrics and melody, that delightful preciseness of placing the lyrics in the melody which was the most obvious trait of Einstein's art."

"It seems," Mohar continued, "that a slight sense of moderation was protecting him – from the superficiality of an emotionally empty, over-elaborated, exaggerated performance, from 'over-stickiness' as he called it, from the temptation to fall to sentimentality. Actually, this was never a temptation; nothing put him off more than sentimentality. Because Arik is never only emotional. He almost always also pensive, also living the moment, but at the same time he seems to recall the moment, often smiling, often watching from the wings."

Einstein was very conservative. "If I were one of the first humans on earth, the world wouldn’t develop at all," he once said. "I would be content with what already exists. I wouldn't want to invent anything, not fire, not electricity, I would be happy with how things are." Still, at the same time he was almost forced to be innovative. His gaze, his sensitivity for young talent, paved the way for the great change in Israeli music from the dominant Russian-Hebrew style to pop and rock, which he led and personified.

Einstein was never a rock singer. He didn't shout or scream. In only one song "Once upon a time," from the album Puzi, he unleashed his deep pain at the death of his friend, the young pianist Ziggy Skarbanik. Despite that, Einstein was the most important figure in Israeli rock music. The three albums he released in the late 1960's and early 1970's – Puzi, Shablul and Plastelina – drew the outlines – together with Shalom Hanoch – of the Hebrew song in the post Russian-Hebrew era. These outlines still serve Israeli musicians up to this day.

"Musically, I was born in the right era," he said. "I managed to get to know the founding generation, and hear, as a child in the 1940's the music of David Zehavi, Matetyahu Shalem, Nahum Nardi… people who came from the freezing Russian landscape and wrote about the sand dunes, the Bedouin and the camels. Then there was all the music surrounding the War of Independence: Wilensky, Argov, the Chizbatron. And then there were the military music groups, and we too, our generation, entered the scene."

More than any artist in his generation, Einstein altered the way in which an Israeli song was sung. He did away with the artificial mannerisms of the Russian-Hebrew song and the military music groups, and changed the tone to relaxed and natural. His singing style and the content of his songs from the end of the 1960s did not represent the collective. And yet, the "I" he expressed, despite his famous withdrawal from society, was never an "I" completely isolated from the collective. It always somehow reappeared behind his "I".

Einstein quit live shows at the beginning of the 1980s. "I performed from the age of 18 until I was 42," he told Mohar. "That's quite a while and eventually it was too much for me. I simply felt my true potential wasn't there. Not in live shows. I wasn't exactly a stage animal. I was held back by the embarrassment, the bashfulness, and it became more evident as the years went by. Of course there were shows I enjoyed, and when I was already onstage it was alright. But the hours before the show, the day before, these were always so difficult. By the way, when I say bashfulness, I'm not proud of it. People often see it as a good quality, but it isn't. I wish I could grab a microphone and sing like a Sinatra, but I don't have what it takes, and a person should adapt to his capabilities. On the other hand, in the studio, I blossom. That's my natural habitat, where I'm not bashful. The problem is that this profession has its field mines: success is accompanied by fame and a form of adoration, and I really don't get along with that. That's where I draw the line. It's pleasant to be loved, but not more."

Illustration: Arik EinsteinCredit: Ayala Tal
Legendary Israeli singer Arik Einstein.
Arik Einstein.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Arik Einstein, left, with Dafna Armoni and Shalom Hanoch in 1979.
Arik Einstein, left, with Shalom Hanoch in 1979.
Mourners gather outside Arik Einstein's house.
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Arik Einstein, left, with Dafna Armoni and Shalom Hanoch in 1979.Credit: Ya'akov Sa'ar
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Arik Einstein, left, with Shalom Hanoch in 1979.Credit: Yaakov Saar / GPO
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Mourners gather outside Arik Einstein's house.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Arik Einstein, 1939-2013: The soundtrack of Israeli culture

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