A part of Israel passed away on Tuesday night. A slice of its soul has departed. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis, possibly millions, have lost a close personal friend, an intimate lifelong companion. A voice of Israel – the voice of Israel, for many – will sing no more.
His name is Arik Einstein, and he died on Tuesday night at the age of 74. He may not have been very well known outside of Israel, but he was, in many ways, the most adored of Israeli singers, the most admired, the most iconic. He was our Frank Sinatra, our Elvis Presley, our Bruce Springsteen all rolled into one.
Einstein was the embodiment of the new, liberal, secular Israel that we once thought we would be. He was the quintessential, apolitical, fun-loving king of Tel Aviv decades before the city became so hot and trendy. A superstar by anyone’s standard, he remained shy, modest and unassuming until his very last day.
He was the antidote to arrogant generals, the antithesis of pompous politicians, the polar opposite of crass capitalists and manipulative machers. He was no heroic kibbutznik, no daring commando, no pretentious preacher or dogmatic fanatic. He was unencumbered by history, unburdened by Jewish suffering, undaunted by the bombastic ideology of his elders and peers.
He was a genuine sabra, Tel-Aviv-born, locally grown - less Diaspora Jew, more reborn Israeli. He was a normal sabra and he sang of the mundane, day-to-day things that a normal Israeli would wish for, if he could only be normal.
He wrote the words for some of his songs and composed the melodies of a few of his hits, though “not enough to challenge Mozart,” as he once laughed. But he had a canny eye for budding young musicians to take under his fold, an incomparable ear for the zeitgeist of his times, a baritone as smooth as silk and the dashing looks of a Hollywood star.
His popularity has withstood the passage of time. His tunes for children pick up new fans as soon as they are born, his challenge to conventions continues to entice rebellious teens, his love songs – his exquisitely tender and romantic love songs - endeared him to lovers both young and old. He resuscitated, almost singlehandedly, the songs of the first Zionists, the hymns of “Good Old Israel,” the days of early innocence and boundless optimism, when hopes were high and possibilities seemed endless.
But he belonged to people my age - 10 years older, perhaps, and 10 years younger - more than to any other generation. He was our comrade in arms, our partner in life, our guide to a brave new world. He gave us our first pop combo, our first supergroup, our first Hebrew rock and roll, our first protest songs, our first rebellion, our first defiance, our first taste of forbidden fruit, our first detoxification from the constrained and conservative Mapainik dogma that governed every part of our lives. He was a beach bum in Tel Aviv, a connoisseur of wine, women and song, a voracious consumer of Lebanese hashish before we knew what that was.
He became a singing sensation from the day he joined the army’s popular Nahal singing ensemble at the age of 18, a popular actor, comedian and impersonator before he was 25. But it was with the “Yarkon Bridge Trio” that he set up with two other singers in 1964 that Einstein began to trail blaze his way in Israeli music, to churn out a seemingly endless supply of legends and anthems and immortal tunes that Israelis know by heart to this very day.
With his Hebrew covers for the Beatles and Animals, Einstein took Israelis by the hand and weaned them off the Italian songs and French chansons with which they had been force fed in late 50s and 60s. Together with bad-boy songwriter Shmulik Kraus and the American-born singer Josie Katz, he formed Israel’s first-ever pop group, “the High Windows” in 1966, thrilling young Israelis with a Mamas and Papas style harmony and shockingly irreverent songs about the bible and the military that were banned by both Israel and Army radio.
But it was after the group broke up that Einstein began producing the iconic songs that etched a generation. He gave Israel its first ever rock album, with “Poozy." He linked together future superstar singers, songwriters and comedians in the Shablul ensemble that produced not only stellar albums but, with his pal Uri Zohar, unbearably funny television comedies as well.
Together with the young Shalom Hanoch, later a rock god himself, Einstein produced hit after smash hit after megahit and, from that point onwards, he never stopped once. He plucked one musical genius after another from obscurity and catapulted them to stardom, collaborated with the best and the brightest, gave a voice to budding songwriters and genius poets from the classic Haim Bialik to the modern Yankale Rotblit and many others as well.
He sang of the old Tel Aviv of his childhood, of his passion for sports, of youthful promise and later disappointment, of jaundiced journalists and crooked politicians. And he sang of love, always of love, providing the background music and upfront lyrics that seduced entire generations. He steered clear of politics and division and territories and Palestinians, enabling him to stay above the fray and remain loved by all.
Einstein continued producing music well into his 60’s and 70’s. In 2010, at the age of 71, he was, astonishingly, still the most widely played singer in the country. In 2011 he produced yet another album, his 35th. And it was only a few days ago that the newspaper Maariv announced that Einstein had agreed to write a weekly column.
On Tuesday night he suffered from an aortic aneurysm and died a few hours later. His death brought forth an outpouring of collective grief that is reserved only for those who are truly worthy of worship. Israel, everyone knows, won’t be the same without him.