No, Arik Einstein Wasn’t Israel’s 'National Singer’

Contemporary Israel has no national singer and the facility by which Einstein was unthinkingly crowned is pathetic.

Rogel Alpher
Rogel Alpher
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Rogel Alpher
Rogel Alpher

Arik Einstein’s death is a political event. He wasn’t the singer of Jews with roots in the Middle East, ultra-Orthodox Jews, Arabs or immigrants from Russia or Ethiopia. This “quintessential” Israeli singer didn’t represent their Israeli experience. They didn’t see Einstein’s good old Israel as particularly good. They don’t view him as more Israeli than themselves, or as setting any quality standard. They aren’t waxing nostalgic for his values.

Therefore the claim that he was the “national singer” is an arrogant and aggressive claim, which in its more extreme versions is even tainted with racism. It’s part of the culture war over defining a contemporary Israeli identity.

During the first hours after Einstein’s death was announced, many posts on my Facebook feed made the baseless comparison between his death and the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Delusional posts expressed the hope that his funeral would be a show of strength and protest the size of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s funeral. There were also racist posts lamenting that Einstein had died while Eyal Golan, who probably won’t be charged for allegedly having sex with underage girls, was still alive and enjoying himself in London.

If Yitzhak Rabin was the political leader of the secular camp, which is predominantly left-wing and Ashkenazi, Einstein was its singer. And this camp now feels orphaned, weakened and more threatened than ever. This old and defeated elite views with contempt the highly rated singing competitions on Channel 2, whose artistic ethos so contrasts with Einstein’s. These people are still scratching their heads in wonder over the masses that flooded Jerusalem’s streets for Yosef’s funeral.

Contemporary Israel has no national singer. Such a thing is impossible. The ease with which this controversial title was bestowed on Einstein by his fans and the media, without thinking twice, was pathetic. It reflects a detachment from reality.

These people apparently have no idea where they are living. It was clear that hundreds of thousands would not accompany Einstein to his final resting place. And on Wednesday night after the funeral, only a few dozen people gathered in Rabin Square to sing softly with guitars. It isn’t likely that voters from Shas, Yisrael Beiteinu or Habayit Hayehudi were among them.

Einstein was a great singer who wrote very precise lyrics. In one of his biggest hits, “Drive Slowly,” the old car with faulty wipers represents an Israel that isn’t materialistic. Its passengers are listening to the comedy troupe Hagashash Hahiver on the radio because they feel a sense of camaraderie with the farmers and soldiers. They feel they are members of a solid society.

The songs the passengers remember singing en route to Eilat are from the Beatles, not Judeo-Arabic music, because their point of reference is European. And somewhere out there is Gaza, from which a grenade might be thrown, just like that, for no reason, because the Gazans have no narrative.

So they drive slowly. Their sole wish is to get home safely, because they’re good and just and small in the grand scheme of things (“And Zvi says, they’ve discovered a planet with signs of life.”) This was Einstein’s Israel. And most contemporary Israelis simply don’t find themselves in it.

It seems Einstein himself saw the defeat of his camp already in 1974 when “Drive Slowly” was recorded; it was after the Yom Kippur War, which marked the beginning of the decline of the old elite. The song refers to Hapoel, the good guys. And Hapoel lost again. In the world of “Drive Slowly,” the good guys lose. It’s a predictable loss. And that’s okay, it’s not a tragedy.

Soon the rains will come. They always come in the end. And “Drive Slowly” will be played on the radio even more than it used to be. And we’ll have to understand – however painful it may be, because it’s such a beautiful song – why many of those stuck in traffic will change stations.

Arik Einstein's funeral at Tel Aviv's Trumpeldor Cemetery.Credit: Motti Milrod

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