In 1971, when I was a student on the Junior Year Abroad program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and my love of the Hebrew language was really coming into its own, I fell head over heels in love with Arik Einstein’s music, and that feeling only got richer and deeper through the years.
And so the news of the sudden death of the senior and arguably most brilliant of Israel’s singer-songwriters has overwhelmed me with sadness, and a powerful sense of personal loss, although of course the loss is really Israel’s as a whole. (Einstein died of a reported aortic aneurysm on Nov. 26; he was 74.) It felt as if an old and dear friend had died, someone who had been with me through good times and bad for most of my adult life.
Those of us who came of age in this country in the 1960s and ’70s — basically the baby-boomer generation — often speak of singers and bands that were, essentially, the soundtrack of our lives. Peter, Paul and Mary, the Beatles, of course, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and so many other wonderfully talented musicians wrote and sang the songs that we lived by, in the way that Sinatra did a generation before. We danced to them, dated to them, fell in and out of love with them playing in the background. Their music, wonderful in its own right just as music, also gave powerful expression to what was going on in our country and the world during a particularly difficult time.
Arik Einstein’s music was, as Prime Minister Netanyahu said last week when hearing the sad news, pas kol shel ham’dina, the soundtrack of the State of Israel itself. From his earliest days in classic Israeli cinema (who can forget his role as the charming young kibbutznik who falls in love with Sallah Shabbati’s daughter!), through his often hysterically funny comedy shorts on Israeli television, Einstein was a fixture of Israeli entertainment for almost as long as the state itself has existed. But it was, indeed, his voice — that sweet, rich, natural baritone that only seemed to get more sonorous with age — and the topics that he sang about, and the way he sang them, that touched us all in ways that are difficult to adequately express in words.
Although the American artist that Einstein most reminded me of in many ways was James Taylor, whose music (and voice) grew and matured through the years as he did, Einstein, like Judy Collins, mostly sang lyrics written by others. Most notably, in a collection of classic Israeli oldies — songs that he liked to call “shirim antikot,” ancient songs, but which really were what we might fairly call the “classic Israeli songbook” — he paid homage to the songs that older Israelis, and he, grew up loving. Einstein loved that songbook, and understood what it represented to the Israeli psyche.
But it wasn’t just the old songs that he loved and treated so reverentially. He also took the works of contemporary Israeli musical giants such as Shalom Chanoch, Yoni Rechter, Miki Gavrielov and others and rendered the definitive covers of their works, even as he nurtured their talents and encouraged them to grow as artists. In every song, like Sinatra, you could clearly detect the “I’ve been around the block and I’ve known pain and longing” with which he caressed lyrics. No one in Israeli music sang a lyric like him. When he sang Aviv Geffen’s “Ani Holech Livkot L’cha” (“I am Going to Cry for You”) after the Rabin assassination, you could hear his pain in every word.
But he didn’t just sing other people’s songs; he also composed his own material, and when he did write, the results were often spectacular. I would wager his classic song about aging and empty-nesting, “Ouf Gozal” (“Fly Away, Young Bird”), has brought more aging parents to tears than any other single song to come out of Israel. I wouldn’t even begin to try and count how many Jewish schools have used it as the music for montages of graduates, as their parents sat there sobbing. “Ani v’Attah,” (“Me and You”) on which he collaborated with Miki Gavrielov, is over 40 years old, but there’s not an Israeli who doesn’t know it, and countless Jews around the world have adopted it as an anthem of youth and its promise. “Atur Mitzchech” (“Your Forehead is Decorated”), a poem by Avraham Chalfi that Yoni Rechter set to music with his help, still takes my breath away every time I hear it.
Arik Einstein’s life was not without its bumps in the road. He had his personal challenges, family issues, and most notably, a serious car accident some years ago that made him terribly reluctant to make public appearances. He repeatedly declined offers of prizes and awards that would have brought him the highest levels of honor that the State of Israel could bestow on a prominent public figure, because — and how rare is this — he was just too humble and bashful to draw that much attention to himself.
What can I say to express how I feel? I guess the words that President Clinton spoke on the night that Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated speak to this moment as well. Shalom Chaver, goodbye friend. Arik, you are missed, and your absence is a presence with us.
This remembrance first appeared in Rabbi Skolnik’s Jewish Week blog, A Rabbi’s World.