Arik Einstein, Israel’s Greatest Singer, Dies at 74
The pop sensation defined and preserved Israeli culture—until he no longer could
I have nothing to say to you about Arik Einstein. I’m sorry to sound like a prick, but you wouldn’t get it. If Einstein already means something to you, then, like me, you’ve spent every minute since learning about his sudden death feeling like some feral animal was trapped in your stomach and viciously clawing its way out. But if you’ve never heard of Einstein, or are only vaguely familiar with his songs, my words will come off as nothing more than a pile of platitudes: Israel’s greatest singer. The voice of his generation. As revered as Elvis, as groundbreaking as the Beatles, as thoroughly a part of his nation’s musical fabric as Sinatra is of America’s. All of it’s true, and all of it’s rot. Nothing can describe what Einstein had meant to us, Israelis born anytime between the War of Independence and the first war in Lebanon. Einstein knew it, too, which is why, decades ago, at the height of his popularity, he locked the door to his small apartment and refused to come out.
Advertisers offered millions. Concert promoters offered more. But Einstein had no interest. It may be that he was simply tired, having sung his staples for more than four decades. It may be that he felt prancing on stages was a young man’s game. And he was certainly the shy type, a homebody; when he sang, in one of his biggest hits, that nothing gave him greater pleasure than staying home with his tea and the newspaper and his old books, he was being sincere. But there was another reason for Einstein’s decades of reclusiveness: The nation whose music he had defined more than any other man no longer existed.
He referred to it as the good, old land of Israel, a phrase he coined himself and that quickly became shorthand for a mythical time-out-of-time, an idyll packed thick with blue-eyed and tanned young men and women for whom love and song and God and country were the same thing. Coming from anyone else, the phrase would have sounded corny, a cliché; but Einstein was the harbinger of Hebrew rock ’n’ roll, the man who, with a small group of talented friends, absorbed the sounds of the Sixties and translated them into Israeli. He was the star of iconic films like Metzitzim—the title is Hebrew for peeping toms—a raunchy comedy about sexual escapades on Tel Aviv’s beaches. And if he took the time to fuss with a whole catalog of folk oldies, then every aspiring rocker or actor or poet or bohemian who came after him did, too. Almost single-handedly, then, Arik Einstein preserved Israeli culture.
Until he no longer could. It’s hard to tell exactly when that happened. Maybe when the first mall opened, or when the first McDonald’s popped up. Maybe it was the ascent of commercial TV after decades with just one channel, or the sudden surge in economic inequality. It could’ve been that the politics had gotten more contentious, the language more lewd, the culture more crass. Whatever it was, Arik Einstien no longer felt like a part of it. He emerged from time to time, recording a funny song about soccer here or a touching anthem to the slain Yitzhak Rabin there. But he was no longer a part of the culture he, more than any other popular artist, had shaped. Israel marched on, and Einstein stayed home with his tea and his books.
His death, then, is extraordinarily sad, but it is not, strictly speaking, meaningful. Arik Einstein had already gone silent decades ago. And he will live on, as he had for so long now, not as an artist but as a monument to another time and another place.