It may be the ultimate testament to Arik Einstein, the Israeli pop singer who died November 26 at age 74, that there won’t be an ultimate testament. He was too deeply enmeshed in the fabric of too many Israelis’ ordinary lives for any one tribute to capture him.
He was Israel’s most beloved entertainer and one of its most influential. His career spanned more than a half-century and generated 44 solo albums in a range of genres from folk to pop ballads, classic rock and old-time nostalgia. He recorded what’s considered the first album of true Israeli rock ’n’ roll, in 1969, wrenching Israel away from its accordion-backed cornball musical culture almost single-handedly — and then led a revival of the old campfire songs starting in 1973 with a series of albums called “Good Old Eretz Yisrael.” His musical collaborations helped launch the careers of some of Israel’s most influential pop composers, several of whom remained his close, lifelong friends.
And yet, when Israelis began to sum up Einstein’s career in the hours after his sudden death from a ruptured aortic aneurysm, there was little in the way of thoughtful review or analysis. The commentary consisted mostly of personal statements of loss, as though every Israeli had lost a close friend. Writers known for their eloquence and insight seemed strangely without words.
“Arik Einstein was, first and last, a father,” Haaretz columnist Uri Misgav wrote. “The father of Hebrew song, of Hebrew pop and Hebrew rock. One of the founding fathers of contemporary Hebrew culture. Hence, as much as he would hate the cliché, he was the father of us all. No wonder that the immediate reactions to the awful news, from every direction, transmitted a single feeling: orphanhood.”
And in New York, the Israeli-born author and arts critic Liel Leibovitz began a lyrical essay in the online journal Tablet with these harsh words: “I have nothing to say to you about Arik Einstein. I’m sorry to sound like a pr**k, but you wouldn’t get it.”
The thing that was hardest for an outsider to get about Einstein was his essential Israeliness. Those of us who didn’t grow up in Israel but came to it as adults, or watched it from afar, could see but not really feel what he meant to young Israelis in the state’s early years. Only by immersing yourself in Israel’s daily life for years could you feel his presence.
Born to a theater family in Tel Aviv in 1939, active in his teens in the socialist-Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair, he did his military service in Lahakat Ha-Nahal, the entertainment troupe of the kibbutz-based Pioneering and Fighting Youth Corps. The Nahal troupe was just then emerging as the incubator of a generation of top Israeli pop stars, and young Einstein was the biggest.
Entering the Tel Aviv arts scene in the early 1960s, he worked as a comic actor as well as a singer, forming and dissolving a series of acclaimed but short-lived bands and appearing with friends in a handful of memorable, Beatlesque films and television shows. He released his first solo album in 1966. By 1970 he was Israel’s superstar, and remained so.
Tall and lanky, golden-throated, handsome in an everyman sort of way, the Arik Einstein persona that evolved in those early years was the face of a new, carefree generation emerging from the austere, disciplined Israel of the founders. There had been fun-loving hedonists in Tel Aviv before, bohemians like Dahn Ben-Amotz and Uri Avnery, rebels against the strait-laced mainstream. Einstein and his comrades, by contrast, became the new mainstream.