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He told occasional interviewers that he was “not built” for public life, that he was unsettled by crowds and embarrassed by adulation. In a 2008 radio interview discussing his upcoming 70th birthday, he said he “couldn’t” attend a scheduled fundraiser in his own honor, half-jokingly describing what sounded like agoraphobia and even offering to “bring a doctor’s note.” There were disappointments as well. Some acquaintances said Israel was no longer the country he’d celebrated and sung about, with its rough pioneering past and the light-hearted optimism of his own early years. It was faster moving, less idealistic, less liberal and secular.
Some of the change was quite personal. In the late 1970s his best friend and longtime performing partner, Uri Zohar, gave up show business and became an Orthodox rabbi. Not long afterward his ex-wife also became religious, along with his two daughters by that first marriage. The daughters went on to marry two of Zohar’s sons. In his later years Einstein would comment wryly, and with obvious mixed feelings, that he was bewildered to find himself with 40 grandchildren. It was a role he’d never anticipated.
He may have hinted at his incipient melancholy back in 1973, in a song on his first “Good Old Eretz Yisrael” album. It’s the one song on the album that isn’t a tale from Israel’s olden times. Written for him by his friend Yehonatan Gefen, it’s titled “Yachol Lihiyot Shezeh Nigmar”—“Maybe it’s all over”: “They say it was happy here before I was born, and everything was wonderful until I arrived. A Hebrew watchman on a white horse in the dark night. By the shores of Lake Kinneret Trumpeldor was a hero. Little Tel Aviv, red sands, one Bialik … Once, they say, there was a lovely dream here. But when I came to see, I didn’t find a thing. Maybe it’s all over.”
In death Arik Einstein leaves behind a body of work that will continue to provide the soundtrack of Israeli life, as Prime Minister Netanyahu put it. But he also leaves behind a silent rebuke, and an unanswered question about Israel’s past and future. As he sang in one of his most heart-rending recordings, “Ve’ulai” (“And Perhaps”) by the poetess Rachel: “Were you real, or did I dream a dream?”
(A selection of Arik Einstein music videos is posted on my blog, http://blogs.forward.com/jj-goldberg/)
Contact J.J. Goldberg at email@example.com