Israeli cultural icon singer-songwriter Arik Einstein (74) died late Tuesday after being hospitalized in critical condition with an aortic aneurysm. Speaking on Israeli Army Radio soon after the announcement of his death, friends recalled speaking with Einstein on Monday and noted that he had not been ill and had in fact been good spirits; it had just been announced that the typically media-shy singer was to begin writing a weekly column for Israeli daily Ma’ariv.
It’s hard to explain to Americans, even those familiar with his work, who Arik Einstein is (was, how can it be that I’m writing in the past tense?) in Israeli culture. He was McCartney, he was Dylan, he was Springsteen, all rolled into one, with a singular voice that immediately wrapped the listener in its warmth. No Israeli artist has been untouched by Einstein’s work; every Israeli has a favorite Einstein song; it almost impossible to imagine an Israel without him.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Arik Einstein and a handful of artists turned Israeli culture upside down, with music, film, and television that alternately broke with and built on the earnest ideological spirit that had informed Israeli discourse from the early pioneering days. In the ensuing years, he and those friends—including the almost equally influential Shalom Hanoch (the slightly edgier Lennon, perhaps, to Einstein’s McCartney) transitioned from Israel’s enfant terribles to its cultural touchstones.
Einstein had a famously prickly relationship with the press, but on the rare occasion that he was interviewed, reporters emerged from the encounter charmed by his invariably welcoming and self-effacing manner. As radio giant Yoav Kutner said in the immediate aftermath of the singer’s death, Einstein never saw in himself the musical god that others saw; he just liked to sing. He was far more likely to speak admiringly of his musicians’ skill than to want to discuss his own work.
When news broke that Einstein had been hospitalized, the country’s collective eyes turned to Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital, and many fans as well as musical peers flocked to the hospital to hold vigil. Decades of his unmistakable voice took over the radio waves, and news broadcasts dealt with little else. Programming was interrupted when Ichilov’s doctors announced his death, and was then taken over by tear-filled remembrances from friends, fellow musicians, and politicians alike. Within an hour, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement, greeting the news “with deep sorrow.” The statement went on: “We all grew up on his songs…. Arik was a wonderful singer and a wonderful person. Israel parts with great sorrow from a cultural titan who will be sorely missed.”
Again, it’s hard to explain. As I write these words, tears stream down my face, and I can once again hear the tape that my first Israeli boyfriend made for me of B’Hofa’a Meshutefet, Einstein’s seminal live recording with Hanoch. It was in those songs, in that effort to understand the Hebrew and take in the emotion and sheer energy that the two brought to their music, that I first became Israeli. My yisraeliut, my Israeliness, began in and always circles back to my love of Hebrew; my love of Hebrew is everywhere informed by the music that Einstein wrote, sang, or inspired. Einstein’s love songs to the hope that the world could become a better place, that Israel might someday live in peace, served as the soundtrack to my early political awakening. For me, as for so many Israelis across the generations, his voice is the home in which I came of age.
Israel being the tiny place that it is, and Tel Aviv even smaller, many Israelis have a much-loved story of a personal encounter with Einstein—at a corner kiosk, at a hummus joint, just crossing the street—but over 14 years of Tel Aviv life, I never crossed his path, and though I was lucky enough to interview many of Israel’s musical greats for The Jerusalem Post, I was never lucky enough to interview Arik. I loved him from a distance, and I love him still.
I say that every Israeli has a favorite Einstein song, but that’s not true, of course. For so many of us, it would be impossible to pick just one—or just one favorite comedy skit, or just one favorite story. Arik Einstein is the very heart of Israeli culture, and Israel will never again see his like.