Within a span of a few months two central, though very different, figures and symbols of Israeli culture passed away, Arik Einstein and R. Ovadiah Yosef. They were both indelibly Israeli.
It’s almost impossible to imagine Arik Einstein outside of Tel Aviv, HaPoel, the beach, the sun and of course, without Hebrew song and lyrics. R. Ovadiah was of course, known outside of Israel and even authoritative in Sefardic communities in Europe and Latin America, but only in Israel was he a living presence (every taxi driver in Jerusalem, including Arabs, knew where Baito shel HaRav – R. Ovadiah’s house – was). During his long and remarkable career he addressed primarily Israeli religious, social and political issues and Shas of course was a totally Blue and White creation. Not for nothing did David Lehmann and Batia Seibzehner call their book on Shas – Remaking Israeli Judaism. Here a wall separates Israeli Jews from well-meaning, pro-Israel Zionist Jews from abroad. Jews from abroad may know about Arik Einstein and R. Ovadiah Yosef but only Israelis react viscerally to them.
They both represent a particular stage in the evolution of Israeli society -one which I would call “the day after.” All the eulogies and responses to Arik Einstein’s death emphasized his intimate connection to “Israeliness.” Ben Shalev in Haaretz credited him with inventing it. Religion scholar and blogger Tomer Persico wrote in his Facebook page that Arik Einstein was the “essence of Israeliness.”
What was especially appealing about Arik Einstein’s Israeliness was that it was post-heroic. It was an Israeliness of daily life – of love and sadness, of bereavement upon losing a friend, of tea and slippers. It was not the Israeliness of Naomi Shemer – of “Jerusalem of Gold,” or “of Honey and of the Sting” or “Tomorrow.” Uri Zohar and Arik Einstein brought the French New Wave cinema to Israel in the late 60’s and early 70’s with movies about infidelity and casual sex. He was wistfully aware of the heroic period of the creation of the State and the pioneering ethos, but that was not the Israeli experience he sang about. As was pointed out by just about all commentators, he was central in moving Israeli music to that most Western-consumerist of musical genres – Rock and Roll.
In his own way R. Ovadiah was also representative of the “day after.” As I have argued at length elsewhere, according to R. Ovadiah, the State of Israel was not to be judged by whether one endorses (as do Zionists secular or religious) or condemns (as per the Ashkenazic Haredim) Jewish nationalism. The state of Israel had neither utopian/messianic nor diabolical meaning. Rather, the state and its institutions were a sort of given and were to be judged, case by case by the traditional canons of the Halacha.
The day to day Israeliness of actuality thus stretches between Arik Einstein and R. Ovadiah Yosef. Though they seem so far apart they were actually bridged by one central figure – Uri Zohar. Uri Zohar, Arik Einstein’s erstwhile collaborator in film and performance “returned” to Haredi Judaism in the late 1970’s and eventually affiliated with Aryeh Deri and Shas. Eventually, Arik Einstein’s two daughters also “returned” and married Zohar’s two sons. Uri Zohar’s return is in reality a continuous challenge as to whether Arik Einstein’s post-heroic Israeliness can really provide meaning and fulfillment. Can meaning and fulfillment really be had by focusing upon the small pains and pleasures of love and autumn days, friendship and home?
If Arik Einstein and R. Ovadiah Yosef are both dead, it must mean that we are in the day after the day after. One wonders what does it mean to be in the day after the day after?