Poem of the Week / Our Sinatra, Our Cleese, Our Seeger, Our Jew

The poet Karen Alkalay-Gut nails Arik Einstein’s appeal.

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Karen Alkalay-Gut

The last time I saw him
he pushed back from the table
stood and pulled up his shirt
to show his stomach.
“This,” he said, “This is solid.”
And I said yes.

Last month I passed
the restaurant,
“Crown of the East,”
and thought –
it’s still there

where I sat once with Eli
who’s long dead, and they’re always
still talking song and soccer,

and Arik still drops by now and then.

Today come the news
suddenly with his death,
and the spontaneity of a people’s love,
the same public fervor he would have said
distracts us from important issues…

Yet always, always I hear him
on the radio, on my smartphone,
in my head,
wherever I am
and I think:
this, this is solid.

-- November 26, 2013


Readers who haven’t been asleep for all of the past month are probably aware that the Israeli media have been devoting considerable space to singer Arik Einstein, his death, and his importance. However, newcomers to Israel and readers abroad might be baffled by the magnitude of the hullaballoo.

Haaretz's Chemi Shalev called him “our Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Bruce Springsteen all rolled into one...” True, but Einstein was a great deal more. He was our John Cleese, giving us unforgettable comic skits and films; our Greta Garbo, retiring from public performance at the height of his career; our Pete Seeger, giving us a picture of this land and singing for our children; and he was our icon of the new Jew, the secular sabra, lanky, athletic, gifted, intelligent but not stuffy, good-looking and with a fine head of hair.

Nonetheless, it is not obvious to whom Shalev’s “our” refers: Despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim, there is no consensus that he was Israel’s “national singer”. Indisputably, though, Einstein was and remains deeply important in Israel.

In “Arik,” American-Israeli poet Karen Alkalay-Gut, who is also involved in the Israeli rock scene, puts her finger on part of the reason.

A few glosses: “Crown of the East” is a modest Tel Aviv neighborhood restaurant Einstein and his friends frequented (“our” parallel to Seinfeld’s corner coffee shop in New York); “Eli” is the late Eli Mohar, a songwriter and journalist; and “soccer” refers to Einstein’s devotion to Hapoel Tel Aviv.

The key word is “solid,” used twice. First Einstein speaks it, pulling up his shirt in a gesture only a confident Israeli male in the company of his buddies (or Lyndon Johnson in the company of reporters) would make.

As the last word in the poem, referring to Einstein’s ubiquity and legacy, “solid” is also used in its Israeli sense (solidi in Hebrew), best understood in terms of its opposites: not bling but zip-up flannel house slippers, not fickle or fluctuating. More bonds than stocks in a portfolio. Solid means always there, dependable and of tried and true value.

*Did the public fervor indeed “distract us from important issues?” For a spoof (in Hebrew and bits of other languages) of the arrival of waves of new immigrants and the antipathies among ethnic groups in Israel, watch Einstein and Uri Zohar in a skit from their television show “Lul”:  

Arik Einstein.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
“Crown of the East” — a neighborhood hangout in Tel Aviv comparable to Seinfeld's corner coffee shop.Credit: Ezra Gut
Karen Alkalay-GutCredit: Tel Aviv University

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