Arik Einstein, 1939-2013: Obituary

Arik Einstein, a musician who transcended cultures to inspire and console a nation

The singer with the aching baritone, who died Tuesday at 74, sang for children and for optimists, for the elderly and the pained… for all of Israel

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Arik Einstein. (Photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Arik Einstein. (Photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)

When an icon as beloved and talented as Arik Einstein dies suddenly, the reactions are strong, emotional and raw.

Einstein, 74, suffered a severe aortic aneurysm at his home late Tuesday night and was declared dead at Sourasky Medical Center, referred to as Ichilov hospital, in Tel Aviv, soon afterwards. He was laid to rest on Wednesday afternoon at Tel Aviv’s Trumpeldor Cemetery.

Considered the father of Israeli rock, the musician who moved the country from its early folk standards to a moderately harder-hitting rock ethos, he symbolized the spirit of the state of Israel. He was not just a musician but a musical icon who accompanied, and inspired, the country and its people through its ongoing history and, along the way, managed to resonate with every type of Israeli.

“Arik is the soundtrack of my life,” said Geva Alon, a rock/folk singer and songwriter. “He was a musical father to me and to so many others. What a huge loss.”

Einstein’s music was and is the soundtrack of road trips, army bases and American Jewish summer camps. His are the songs heard in the car, at the beach, during Independence Day events, after terrorist attacks; his were the songs heard throughout the dark days following the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

For many, he represented the musical counterpart to Israel’s steady development — the Sabra ability to bring something new to the mix, but in a manner that invited the rest of society to participate. An easygoing, modest personality, he was also, in many ways, an early entrepreneur.

An undated photo of Arik Einstein (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash 90)
An undated photo of Arik Einstein (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash 90)

“He was everything. He was a singer who was always the first to do something,” said Uzi Essner, an entertainer who regularly performs Einstein’s songs with his brother, Chaim Essner. “He brought rockers from Ramle to the stage and turned them into Hebrew-speaking, legitimate musicians. He turned them into the mainstream and now that’s what we sing.”

Einstein was known for his open-mindedness and his massive knowledge of music and how to produce what he heard, consistently putting his ego to the side, said Essner.

“What is Israeli? Arik Einstein,” he said. “When I’m doing a night of Israeli music, and I want to draw a huge audience, I use his music. They’re songs that wouldn’t have gotten sung if it weren’t for Arik Einstein.”

The son of actor Yaakov Einstein, Arik was a sports star in his youth — the national youth high-jump champion, and a fine basketball player. He got his musical start in the IDF Nahal Brigade entertainment corps; he had joined the corps because of problems with his eyesight. Like other Israeli musicians, he kept a foot in the acting world, first joining the Batzal Yarok entertainment troupe, together with the now-legendary Haim Topol and Gila Almagor, and then the Yarkon Bridge Trio with equally renowned Yehoram Gaon and Benny Amdursky.

He also made films with Uri Zohar, who directed the two in movies depicting life in what was then bohemian Tel Aviv, set in the northern parts of the city, near the beach, an area that was then home to many artists and musicians. Einstein was the one, say many, who made Tel Aviv hip and cool.

Part of his success was due to being in the right place at the right time, commented Avi Bar-Eitan, a lecturer in the Hebrew University’s music department at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. Einstein was in the entertainment business from a young age, meeting others like him and they all became icons, said Bar-Eitan.

“He became a musical pioneer, going and getting the right people, sniffing the Israeli spirit and bringing in what was good from the outside as well,” said Bar-Eitan. “He knew how to be part of Israeli rock, but also how to migrate to Greek music, to Israeli classical and jazz. He didn’t become part of the musical conflict; he was able to remain at the heart of the consensus without migrating to the sidelines.”

Einstein collaborated with Shmulik Kraus and Josie Katz in The High Windows, and wrote songs and performed with Shalom Hanoch, Yehonatan Gefen and The Churchills. Collaborations with an array of fellow musicians were part of his hallmark.

But throughout, he produced solo albums that remained true to his sound — a folksy kind of rock sung in a firm but gentle baritone, in which each word and concept was carefully enunciated. And those lyrics often illuminate how every Israeli feels about any given situation, whatever the year or decade.

He sang about traveling abroad in “San Francisco,” but wanting to return home “to the swamp.” He sang from the point of view of soldiers on guard duty, and about the pleasures of a cup of tea drunk on one’s apartment balcony. He sang for children and for optimists; he sang for the elderly and the pained.

“The fact is, he was able to cross all audiences,” added Bar-Eitan. “Even today’s audiences that like Eyal Golan and Sarit Hadad love him too. His music became the canon of Israeli music, and he became the icon.”

For teachers and educators, camp counselors and youth group leaders, Einstein’s were the songs for around the campfire.

“I would teach “Ani VeAta” (“Me and You”) because of its symbolism, about leaving a mark for beginnings and inspirations, and then “Uf Gozal” (“Fly Away, Young Chick”) because it reflected on so many situations in life,” said Moshe Gold, who directs short-term programs at Ramah Israel and has taught American high school students spending a semester in Israel. “The thing is, Israeli kids love the same songs. He would pronounce each word so perfectly; it’s like a speech. They became songs that transcend cultures.”

In a piece written in honor of his 70th birthday four years ago, Israelity blog writer Rachel Neiman pointed out that Einstein “made nostalgia cool” with remakes of songs from Israel’s pre-state days, such as “Eretz Yisrael HaYeshana ve’Hatova” (The Good Old Land of Israel) but included a “frustrated lyric” by Yehonatan Gefen: “They say it was beautiful here before I was born / And everything was wonderful before I arrived… We came to the Land of Israel / To build and to be rebuilt / Could it be that it’s all over?”

For all the nostalgia and sentiment, many of his fans also noted on Wednesday, however, it would be wrong to call him Israel’s Frank Sinatra. Pointing out more than a few Sinatra-comparative statements made on Facebook, meant to explain Einstein’s influence over generations of Israelis, commentator Harry Rubenstein was withering.

“It’s the worst analogy ever,” wrote Rubenstein on Facebook. “There is no American equivalent to Arik Einstein. Einstein is the father of Israeli rock. Period. All Israeli rock roads lead to Arik Einstein. He was the harbinger of Israeli pop rock through his work with The Churchills, Shalom Hanoch, Shmuelik Kraus and Josie Katz.”

Boaz Cohen, a well-known disc jockey at 88 FM and Kol Yisrael, listed his planned roster of three hours of Arik Einstein songs for Wednesday morning on his Facebook page, and then wrote that he had one request, and perhaps he said it best:

“Please, please, don’t make a tribute to Arik Einstein, on the 30th year of his death, with bad and mediocre singers… who can sing and catch a ride on Einstein’s death… He was a man who symbolized more than the land of Israel.. .and only wanted to be in his house, the same house where he was born and raised all his life, with his basketball and soccer… with tea and lemon and old books and records.”

“He had 74 years on earth,” wrote Cohen. “Now you can honor the legacy left to us. Listen to his songs. Watch his movies. It’s the best way to honor him and as honestly as possible.”

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