Before I begin, a disclaimer: I've only lived in Tel Aviv for a year. And I hadn't heard of Israeli singer Arik Einstein, who many are calling the greatest Israeli singer of all time, before he died last Tuesday. (Blasphemy, I know.) Of course I'd heard his retro surfer Hebrew on the radio, in taxi cabs, at the wine-and-cheesier parties I attended in the Old North — but I'd never put a name to the voice. So my observations on his death are not those of a longtime fan or a member of The Family; they're those of an outsider engulfed in the strange, warm grief cloud that recently moved in on my city. A foreigner breathing its little drops with the rest of you.
Einstein, 74, a pretty Israeli pop singer who grew to be a beautifully reclusive old man, died of a ruptured aneurysm after decades offstage, but he might as well have been assassinated in front of a crowd. The majority of grief-stricken think pieces on Einstein's death have compared this fresh feeling of loss to that of losing peacenik Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, to the bullet of a crazed Orthodox assassin. It's as if Einstein, too, has been robbed from Israel, murdered in the public square — and with him, all his open-minded and -hearted ideals. Eighteen years apart, Rabin and Einstein's deaths were announced in the same courtyard of the same Tel Aviv hospital, and their memories exalted by tens of thousands of mourners at Tel Aviv's same central meeting point, now known as Rabin Square.
(As a colder, more pessimistic parallel, it seems to me that Einstein and Rabin have both come to symbolize these liberal ideals despite the fact that neither was quite as wholeheartedly committed to peace as his simplified legacy suggests. Rabin was a long way from a real peace accord with Palestine. Einstein wrote songs about populating the Negev, which would require pushing out thousands of Bedouin — an enduring Zionist prerogative that was mass-protested across the country yesterday. But they both wore undeniably pure hearts and good intentions, the kind that can inspire hope in the hardest Israeli cynic. And is there a greater pain than loss of hope?)
I've never experienced a mourning so communal-yet-personal. The days since Einstein's passing have been tragic, but not in the big, shouty Internet way that I remember America mourning legends like Michael Jackson or Adam Yauch. This great popular death has spread through Tel Aviv with a soft and all-encompassing nostalgia, like it means no one can see their childhood home again (even if they haven't been back in years anyhow). The loss hurts, but the remembering is cozy.
Or maybe I'm just describing the sound of Einstein's voice, with which I am now intimate by default. This voice — deep, dreamy, milky, calm — has been leaking out of Tel Aviv apartment windows, cracked to the air of this warm November; mixed into DJ sets at Tel Aviv's hundreds of bars and nightclubs as nostalgia therapy for the drunken; pumping from speakers at cafes across the city, as couples and babies soak it in, desperately loving their country and racking their brains for its greatness.
By accident, I walked passed Einstein's very unremarkable Tel Aviv apartment building the night after he died. A few hipster girls in braids and button-up boots kneeled in front of a puddle of candles on the sidewalk, their faces shadowed in glow. Eagerly they seemed to absorb the inimitable sense of witnessing something so grand and historic in their own young lifetimes, snapping photos with their phones on vibrate, so as not to pierce the sweet analog air with 21st century sounds. A young man with his hands crammed in his jeans paced back and forth in front of the shrine, full with feelings. Another petite and nice-smelling 20something carried around a plate of Chanukah donuts, the ones with the red jelly filling, which we all politely refused while trying not to puke from the smell (everyone in Tel Aviv had downed a dozen by that hour). Around the corner, at Tao Bar, men in stubble and dress shirts hugged each other's shoulders and sang Einstein songs into a microphone, karaoke style.
I haven't been over to Jerusalem since Einstein passed, but I picture their mourning as somehow more national, more scholarly. Jerusalem lost one of the greats. Tel Aviv — where Einstein was born, lived and died — lost the beat to its bleeding heart, the hum through its beachy soul. "Einstein was everywhere: on the street, in the café, at home and of course on the radio and television," wrote Ben Shalev of left-wing Israeli daily Haaretz, in his piece "We missed Arik before he died." He wrote that Einstein's voice "seared into my soul in a way that couldn’t be more profound, and has been accompanying me since I can remember."
However, the best eulogy I've read, sadly under-trafficked, comes from Haaretz' farthest-left columnist, Gideon Levy. Below, as much of his piece as I can stuff into my own:
When the child was no longer a child, I had the honor of interviewing Einstein for Haaretz. I now write “honor,” since for many long weeks after the interview I went around as if drunk with love. I fell in love with Arik, really. I didn’t stop talking about him and thinking about the experience of meeting him.
That was in the fall of 1984. In Kolbo Shalom a riot broke out when Ofra Haza came to sign records, Israel was already sunk deep in the blood and mud in Lebanon — and Einstein put out a record, “Pesek Zman” (“Time Out”), his 23rd. He was already 45, I was 31, a minor reporter — and I fell captive to his charm. For three hours we sat in the house of a friend of his, not in his home of course. He evaded many of the questions, but nonetheless I fell in love. I am now reading the interview from the depths of the archive, and am falling in love with him once again.
I wanted him to return to performing, I wanted him to tell about his being estranged from Uri Zohar — “How I lost a friend.” I wanted him to talk about Shmulik Kraus, and mostly I wanted him to turn into a protest singer — and he remained firm: “What someone like Elimelech Ron from the streets does contributes more, in my opinion, than Joan Baez who sings against the war. The fact that I am more famous does not make me more right. God in heaven, because a person is famous because of his songs, that gives him the right? If I felt personally that I was accomplishing things, it would be easier for me to protest and shout. But I have a fear of making mistakes.”
Everything about this is so Tel Aviv. A city that has reluctantly become the face of modern Israel — and all the great ideologies and injustices that come with it — but that wishes above all to be simple and human. Most of Einstein's songs weren't political, but when they were, they were rooted in the hearts of men. "You are allowed to cry," he sang in his homecoming ballad to kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011. "It's not simple at all, to forgive fate." Wrote another Haaretz great, Ari Shavit, of the singer: "Precisely because he wasn’t political or polished or eloquent, he expressed well the murmurs of the Israeli soul."
Some have also chosen to interpret Einstein as the last living statue of a dying breed: the mainstream, middle-class Israeli liberal. But sociologist Tom Pessah, writing for the far-left +972 Magazine, found some racism buried within the mourning of this particular character — a distinctly Ashkenazi, well-to-do intellectual. From Pessah's dark R.I.P.:
Israel’s business and political leadership remains Ashkenazi. When Ashkenazim like Einstein support liberal Zionist peace efforts, they remain identified with this elite, regardless of their personal politics and behavior. As long as we have no alternative politics, based in genuine cross-cutting solidarity between Ashkenazim, Mizrahim, Palestinians and the many other groups that make up this country, nothing will change. General pleas for peace won’t change a thing. And culture, seemingly a-political, could actually play a huge role in that transformation. Especially when we’re talking about a singer as talented as Einstein.
In life and in death, it appears to me, Arik Einstein easily became everything for every Israeli. He is said to have brought rock 'n' roll to Israel in the 1960s — making him their Beach Boy, their Raffi, their Henry Nilsson, their folk hero, their proof of a "nation like all other nations." He sang children's songs, and love songs, and often songs about the sea, presumably Tel Aviv's hottub Mediterranean. "And a wet sun strikes my pale skin," Einstein sang of a Tel Aviv youth when he reached 60. His was the people's wet sun, and the entire Tel Aviv race can't watch the light dribble through the street trees any longer without hearing the words to one of his most famous covers: "The friends I have are fine/ But in the light you shine/ I only see the shadows of the others." Living here in this moment, I kind of can't, either.