Along with the heart-felt tributes to Arik Einstein, there has been a fascinating undercurrent of emotional hoarding on the part of some Israelis. Assuming that no one outside of Israel has ever heard of Arik Einstein or any of his songs, they then make a further assumption that it is their job to explain what he and his music meant. Yet after this double-assumption, everything closes down. Writes Israeli-born Liel Leibovitz: “I have nothing to say to you about Arik Einstein. I’m sorry to sound like a prick, but you wouldn’t get it.” It’s an extreme comment, but sums up a prevailing sentiment. Those non-Israelis, they won’t get it.
There is something rather beautiful and also sad about this kind of response. The character and the music of Arik Einstein made its impact in the way the best of art should: Through our hearts. His music touched millions, each of whom received it as if created for them alone. This is the paradoxical magic of art. As a result, when feeling his loss, it is a personal emotional loss that – when we are sad – we sometimes fight to “own.” “You wouldn’t get it,” is a perfect way to maintain the purity and unique authenticity of my pain.
It is true that the translation of a cultural experience feels futile, and sometimes we embrace this futility as a badge of honor. Yiddishists will always proclaim proudly that translating Yiddish “is like kissing through a handkerchief.” Yet this approach is not only curmudgeonly, but it increases loneliness in the world. For aren’t we all of us, in some sense, a language unto ourselves? And don’t we all of us sometimes feel the difficulty of translating our soul for another to touch?
It’s in this spirit, some might say the spirit of Arik Einstein, that I’d like to argue against this emotional isolationism. First, because the authenticity of our experience of an artist cannot be arranged into a neat hierarchy.
“Look,” argues the Israeli, “some American Jew might be able to whistle Ani ve’Ata, but they didn’t grow up with his music, and they can’t place key moments in their life according to which of his songs was on the radio.” This is clearly true, but does this allow us to dismiss the validity of their connection? As I heard the choked eulogy of R. Uri Zohar at the Einstein’s funeral, a man with whom Einstein had shared years of creativity and a score of grandchildren, it was clear that I could not “know” Arik Einstein like Uri Zohar. But that did not undermine my own connection to Einstein’s music. If anything it deepened it.
Which points to a second frustration with an either-or attitude to cultural connectedness: It is not static.
The emotional timbre of a song can change according to where we are, who we are with, and who we have become. I have always known that I loved Einstein’s Sa Le’at – Drive Slowly. But it wasn’t until last night, when my wife lamented, “Who is left to tell us Israelis to slow down?” that I “got” the song’s more metaphorical meaning. Now when I hear the song I hear that layer more than the others. My connection has grown, deepened, changed.
Thirdly, I’m also going to venture a guess that I’m not alone in saying these past few days, “Oh boy, I forgot that was one of his as well…” We do world Jewry a disservice in assuming that they are familiar only with one or two of Einstein’s oeuvres – it may be that they – like us – are not always aware how many of the songs that they associate with Israel, were by Einstein. (Just as many of us are surprised at how many “ancient” tunes were written by R. Shlomo Carlebach.)
There is a dynamism and a pluralism to our experience of the arts that we should allow to blossom more instead of freezing others out. It is true that much can get lost in translation, but also much can be found.