To borrow a phrase from Don McLean, here in Israel, yesterday was the day the music died.
Just as Buddy Holly, who McLean was singing about, was an American icon, Arik Einstein, who passed away aged 74, was an Israeli icon. He was the man who moved on the ideologically earnest music of the Zionist pioneers to create the modern genre of Hebrew music.
Einstein merged the folksy Hebrew style with mainstream rock and roll, and in so doing created Israel’s soundtrack to the 1960s — and to every decade since.
From the moment that news of his hospitalization broke yesterday afternoon until now, his has been the only music playing on the main radio stations here. DJs and news commentators are struggling to find words to communicate the magnitude of his passing. They are comparing him to every great singer, including Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra.
But the comparisons are in vain. Yes, he had an echo of all these stars, but he was very much his own man, and a quintessentially Israeli star. In fact, as the quintessentially Israeli musical star, there’s nobody who preceded him to compare him to.
His are the songs that characterized the slightly idealistic and very emotional style of music that became the Israeli mainstream. His “You and I Will Change the World” is the song that countless couples in Israel have dreamed to and got engaged to. His “Fly Away Chick” is the song that hundreds of thousands of kindergarten children have graduated to.
The list goes on. His songs are the soundtrack to Independence Day barbecues, youth group campfires, and long summer evenings in Tel Aviv cafes. They provided solace to the young Israelis who sat in the streets with candles in 1995 after Yitzhak Rabin was shot.
Generations of foreign Jews on summer trips and Birthright programs have heard his music, courtesy of their Israeli guides, on coaches and end-of-holiday parties. Many of them may not even know the name Einstein, but have the music etched on their minds as their own “sound of Israel.”
Israel’s musical scene today is lively. But there isn’t another star of Einstein’s stature.