The Song That Best Defines the Late Arik Einstein

After Einstein’s death, exactly one year ago, his ‘Sa Le’at’ moved into its own super league. Why is this song most representative of the iconic Israeli singer?

Ten years ago, when Radio 88 FM was threatened with closure, a number of Israeli singers came together to voice support for the station and to denounce the folly of shutting it down. Arik Einstein was one of them. One of the reasons Einstein cared about 88 FM was that while his more recent work generally received a chilly reception, frustrating him more than one might suspect, these songs were frequently on the playlist of the state-sponsored all-music station.

When I asked his record company for permission to interview him for a story on the closure threat, they said, “Don’t call him, he’ll call you.” And he did. A few minutes later, my phone rang. “Shalom,” he said, “Arik Einstein speaking, there was once a singer by that name, remember?”

At the time it was funny, if also a reflection of ironic frustration on Einstein’s part. But a year ago — at around 10:30 P.M. on November 26, 2013 — that sentence suddenly became a painful reality. There was once a singer. To think of Einstein in the past tense: inconceivable.

Which one of Einstein’s songs did you mourn with? For me it was “B’shivhei Hasamba” (in praise of the samba). A pretty strange choice, but it wasn’t up to me. It was only on the day after his death, in the afternoon, that I finished my required journalistic duties and could release my emotions. Up to then I had been all head; my heart had been stilled. And then, as I sat in my car alone, I turned on the radio and heard that wonderful song that Itzhak Klepter wrote for Einstein, and everything that I had shut off and silenced since I learned of his death came out in a quiet flood. That’s how “B’shivhei Hasamba” was transformed from just another much-loved song of Einstein’s into the song that symbolizes the separation from him.

But the song that underwent the most interesting process to me since Einstein’s death was not “B’shivhei Hasamba,” but “Sa Le’at” (drive slowly). In the days after his death I began to hear it in a different way. It was surprising, even strange: What could possibly change in a song you’ve heard hundreds, if not thousands, of times and is engraved on the tablet of your heart? But the feeling was clear and unequivocal. Something had changed in “Sa Le’at,” or to be more precise: Its place in Einstein’s enormous body of work had changed.

For me, as for many others, “Sa Le’at” always belonged to the super league of Arik Einstein songs, that select group of songs that defined him most of all. That league also includes “Lama Li Lakahat Lalev” (why should I take it to heart), “Ani Ve’ata” (you and I), “Baderekh Legymnasia” (on the way to the gymnasium [high school]), “Atur Mitzhekh” (“Adorned Is Your Forehead,” the lyric a poem by Avraham Halfi), “Yoshev Al Hagader” (sitting on the fence) and “Uf Guzal” (fly, fledgling). I always considered “Sa Le’at” an equal to these iconic songs, and even though I love it fiercely, had I been forced to choose from this shortlist the one I loved the most I would have picked “Baderekh Legymnasia.”

No longer. After his death “Sa Le’at” left the premier league of Einstein songs and found a place in a league of its own, a super-super league. It is the single song that most represents Einstein. It’s my own personal feeling, but nonetheless it has an objective aspect, that of course has no validity. At the same time, on the even more subjective plane of the heart’s leanings, “Sa Le’at” politely shunted aside “Baderekh Legymnasia” for the title of my favorite Einstein song.

The first question that arises from this transformation (leaving aside the question of why people rank songs in the first place) is why there is a need, after his death for a single one of Einstein’s songs to occupy the place of the representative song. The answer may have to do with the death itself. As long as Einstein was still alive, he was the physical embodiment of the priceless cultural resource known as Arik Einstein. His death created a need for a symbolic embodiment of the same treasure, and a single song is a stronger and more profound representation than a group of songs.

But why “Sa Le’at”? We can use the process of elimination, and say that “Atur Mitzhekh” is too much of an art song; that in “Baderekh Legymnasia” the first-person narrator is a character that Einstein is playing, not him; that “Lama Li Lakahat Lalev” also belongs to Shalom Hanoch and that “Yoshev Al Hagader,” “Ani Ve’ata” and “Uf Guzal” each has a clear and focused idea and thus cannot fully represent the Einsteinian essence, which is larger and more encompassing that any single idea.

“Sa Le’at,” in contrast, has no overriding theme. “Let your thoughts run in all directions,” as it says. But it shows a great deal, even if the driver to whom it is addressed “can’t see a meter” because of the rain. In his calm, nonchalant style, Einstein unfolds an amazingly broad panorama of places, people and feelings. The car, the people riding inside, the road, the night, the hitchhiking soldiers, the comedy routine on the radio, the sports fans, the woman at home, that trip to Eilat, the Beatles, the daily routine, the existential fears, infinity. You hear and think: This is a song that has everything.

And we’re not only talking about the words, of course. One of Einstein’s wondrous qualities was his ability to merge the prosaic with the art, to somehow transform the conversational into the poetic without losing the simplicity and directness of the spoken word.

“Sa Le’at” is the ultimate example of this, and the transformation felt in it is created by dint of the music: The wonderful melody of Miki Gavrielov, the gradual development of the arrangement (first verse, acoustic and bass guitars only; second verse, a thin scratch of electric guitar and then the drums come in; third verse, the electric guitar enters in all its glory), the refined and exacting beauty of the intro and the ending, and of course the voice and the presentation. Arik Einstein. There was once such a singer.