Paul Mirbach

This Yom Haatzmaut, I celebrate my first Israeli musical icon

What does a man like me do on Yom Haatzmaut, when he loves Israel, his home so deeply it hurts, but feels he cannot celebrate this year, because the country is being torn asunder by an internal conflict precipitated by a government that wants to wipe out the value of everything he has done and contributed for more than four decades in a blitz of antidemocratic legislation?

He celebrates his love for good Israeli music.

Arik Einstein (Courtesy of Times of Israel. Photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Did you know that Arik Einstein taught me to speak Hebrew? Well not exactly, but sort of. He wasn’t my teacher, but I learned to speak Hebrew through his songs.

I came on Aliya in 1982. We were a group of new Olim from South African Habonim, who made Aliya together. Our aim was to settle and build our kibbutz, Kibbutz Tuval, that had been established just one year previously. To learn Hebrew, we went to an Ulpan (a Hebrew learning program) on Kibbutz Matzuba.

We were divided into classes according to our level of Hebrew, and even though I didn’t study Hebrew at school, I found myself in the advanced class. Anyway, we were sitting in our classroom, waiting for the lesson to start, when in walked Ze’ev, our Hebrew teacher, carrying a tape recorder. Without saying a word, he placed it on the desk and pressed “play”, and Einstein’s rich voice emanated from the small speaker. I thought’ “that’s cool”. Then, after the song had finished, he gave us a page of the lyrics and played the song again. And then together, we translated the song. The exhilaration I felt, being able for the first time to appreciate not just the music of a song in Hebrew, but to understand the meaning of the lyrics, was so incredible. That feeling that starts in your gut, when you are able to connect to a song on an emotional level in a way was what I felt when I listened to Carole King for the first time. That feeling is magical. But, this was more; It was like a secret door had opened, and the mysteries of an old, familiar language, but still foreign in a way, were revealed to me. It aroused a thirst within me, to want to conquer the language, so that I could absorb and immerse myself in Israeli rock culture.

We switched his tape recorder with a boom box, and almost every lesson, Zeev would play another Einstein song and we would translate it.

And that was how I learned Hebrew.

One day, Ze’ev played San Fransisco al Hamayim (San Francisco on the Coast). It was the depth of the sentiments in the lyrics that hooked me. It’s a song about an Israeli living in America, going on about how great life is in San Francisco and how exciting it is to be able to see your basketball heroes live on the court, while also feeling homesick, and pining to be back in Israel. A typical “yored’s” push-pull relationship with Israel, I would imagine, but expressed so poignantly. I fell in love with the song. I found the irony of me, an idealistic new Oleh listening to a song about an Israeli who had left Israel for a better, easier life, but who still missed it alluring. Through this song, I began to appreciate the enigma of this Israeli paradox, of people at the same time being able to love Israel but who couldn’t live here. I realized then that that insight is integral to life in Israel.

Einstein’s music has continued to accompany me and my Israeli experience ever since. I discovered other Israeli artists, like Kaveret and Gidi Gov, Yehudit Ravitz and Shalom Hanoch. But Einstein was my first.

“Fly away young bird”, (עוף גוזל) is one song of his that never fails to cause a lump in my throat and tears to well up in my eyes. The song came out in 1987, and it describes so beautifully and emotively the conflicting emotions that a parent feels when his children grow up, and he realizes that he has to let them go, but he can’t stop wanting to keep his children safe, protected.

Eight years later, the song took on a deeper emotional dimension, when Rabin was assassinated and the song became his farewell tribute. Watching Gidi Gov and Shlomo Artzi singing the song at a memorial to him, literally made me cry. I wiped the tears away, but they always came back.

Sometimes, a song manages to express perfectly the emotions that course through your body. It becomes a song that holds an almost visceral meaning for you. When my sons left home and went into the army, the song – this song became that to me. And even today, when I watch this clip, I get all emotional.

It was on one Sunday morning, when I dropped my son off at the bus station to go back to his unit, as I watched him walk to the bus with his broad back getting further and further away, that I thought of this song and it inspired me to write him this poem.

I watch your back, your purposeful stride
Your broad strong shoulders, I’m filled with pride.
I wait in silence, till you’re out of sight,
I miss you so much, it’s a stinging bite,
And as I can’t wait to see you again,
I’ll count the days, between now and then.
Your mind is fixed on the weeks you face,
Go in peace my son, and come home safe.

I’ve been in the army, I’ve trained and I’ve fought,
And while you endure it you have no time for thought.
So I know how hard you work, and train,
But as a parent, it’s harder; it’s hard to explain.
Be on your guard, and if you must, fight,
With you away, I sleep lighter at night.
I sometimes imagine you on patrol or on base,
That’s not important, just come home safe.

And while I hug you too long, which I always do,
And you think, “Enough of that, Dad, I really must go.”
But, you see, I have no other way,
To express my love, and fears I daren’t say.
These goodbyes thus, will always be,
Hurried, and brief, unsatisfactory.
I can only imagine the dangers you face,
Do what you must, but come home safe.

And he did.

About the Author
Paul Mirbach (PEM), made Aliya from South Africa to kibbutz Tuval in 1982 with a garin of Habonim members. Together they built a new kibbutz, transforming rocks and mud into a green oasis in the Gallilee. Paul still lives on Tuval. He calls it his little corner of Paradise.
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