How can you explain to non-Israelis who Arik Einstein was? How can you even come to terms with the fact that Arik Einstein "was" in the past tense? How can you possibly translate him to an equivalent in Americana?
Was he something like Bruce Springsteen? No, he wasn't. Bruce is "The Boss." Einstein was the exact opposite. Humble and horribly timid, he led a reclusive life in his apartment for more than 20 years. Retiring from public performances in 1981, he grew ever more distant, slowly disappearing, like a lost satellite sailing into the far and empty reaches of space. Yet paradoxically, he remained an unshakable anchor, a towering lighthouse of Israeli music, indeed, all things Israeli. He symbolized yesteryear's Israel — not the one that sanctifies land, but the one celebrating exuberant life, creativity, reticent humor and regular folks.
Is he our Frank Sinatra? Not really. Sinatra was smooth, Einstein was gritty. Was he a John Lennon? No, not really. Lennon was egocentric, self-absorbed, complicated and sophisticated. Einstein stood in diametric opposition. Not taking himself too seriously, he dispensed with protocol and attitude. He shunned pathos just as much as he shunned politics like the plague.
So maybe he is the Israeli Bob Dylan? Not quite. Dylan has never really personified the entire American nation. Einstein did. From his early performances in 1958 to his last day, Einstein was synonymous with all things Israeli, even though the Israel of the last two decades is not what it used to be. Demographics, newly religious Jews, the ongoing occupation, the transformation from a small and besieged country — the classic underdog — into a complacent and self-assured regional empire, all these left behind little of the once-upon-a-time face of Israel. Only Einstein remained: a majestic, distant, out-of-reach and almost mysterious monument.
Even though he grew distant and did not record compelling music in recent years, he nonetheless is and remains the one and only. He is the one whose standing will never ever be shaken as long as he is with us.
Well, he is no longer with us. He wasn't The Boss, Ol' Blue Eyes, Lennon or Dylan. Einstein was something completely different, a sui generis example. He was a star who easily and effortlessly towered above the rest of the landscape, although it's something he never actively sought. He was endowed with quiet, caressing charisma, rare humor and natural humility. He had a deep, perfectly-pitched baritone voice. He was tall, extremely handsome and a superb athlete.
Born and raised in "Little Tel Aviv," he spent his entire life within a perimeter of less than one square mile from downtown. It is in that small space that he hung around. As time went by, he ventured out less and less, leading a secluded, hermit-like existence in his apartment. He steadfastly refused to go on stage, hardly giving any interviews until his voice went silent.
In his youth, he was Israel's high-jump champion. Then he turned to play basketball and shot put. Until his last day he was an avid sports fan, a true fanatic; one who remembers every minute detail, every competition and every championship. He was a walking archive of insignificant trivia relating to anything in sports: track and field, swimming, tennis and, obviously, soccer.
Einstein was one of the greatest fans of Hapoel Tel Aviv soccer club. An old, beat-up Israeli icon, a symbol of the once ruling Labor Party, the red Tel Aviv. This was a club whose fans suffered much grief over the years, but which, on the other hand, made it all the more likable. Einstein had full symbiosis with the genetics of Hapoel, its loser image and the cruel fortune of its fans.
Some of his songs became the club's anthems, such as "Hapoel Lost Again, and Poor Are the Fans That Eat Their Heart Out," or "Here They Come, the Red Devils" and of course the "Red Shirt." After all, it was early in his childhood that he had been warned that the "red shirt is not such a big deal," yet he still wore it proudly, joyfully and with resignation.
Einstein was a multifaceted man. He was a member of the military's Nahal troupe, which is an iconic brand in the annals of Israeli music in its own right. He was part of some of the most successful ensembles in the 1960s and '70s. He was a pioneer of Israeli rock, carrying that music on his shoulders back to the Holy Land. He ignited the flame, carried the torch and passed it on to others.
He was the idol of teenage girls, mainly because of his stature, good looks and dimmed gaze, which was actually due to his acute myopia. This is the kind of person Einstein was. It all happened by mere chance, and "he didn't even know he was like that," as one of his songs goes.
A children's idol, he recorded some of the most moving songs and albums for children. And, of course, he was the "high priest" of Israel's oldies. He recorded several immortal albums titled "Israel's good oldies," in which he returned to the old, early-statehood tunes — the melodious Russian-influenced music, the moving lyrics of great poets (including his own).
He was a rebel. He could have been a raging revolutionary ("Song That I Dreamt of Prague," which he sang in 1968 in the face of Russian tanks crushing the Czech capital). He was a hedonist and a rascal in the "Lul [chicken house] band," together with Uri Zohar, Tzvi Shissel and a score of others who produced some of Israel's classical and most important movies, television shows and music in the 1960s and '70s.
He was everything. He has hundreds of songs registered to his name, dozens of albums, each one of which has become an indispensable part of Israel's cultural and musical heritage — "Israeliana."
When all is said and done, he had a little bit of everything in him — a modicum of this and a smidgen of that. The sum total was a rare beauty, heart-throbbing with its sensitivity. He did all those things without an iota of self-awareness, as if he was walking leisurely, trying not to stand in our way, not to be of any trouble to us. That's the way he also departed from us: aortic aneurysm, rush hospitalization and swift demise within one hour. He didn't suffer too much; he did not wither away languishing. He was, and no longer is.
The grief that gripped Israel upon the news of his passing is reminiscent of the grief and shock that rippled across the county after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. The venue was also similar. It's the same hospital in Tel Aviv and the same sad announcement. With Rabin it was his bureau chief, Eitan Haber, with Einstein it was the hospital's director, Gabi Barbash.
In both instances, we were all, spontaneously, shrouded in grief. Einstein is dead and something has died in each and every one of us.
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