from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Arik Einstein: Poster Child, Culture God

December 3, 2013

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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My cousin, Ari Lieberman, is a keen observer of arts and culture in Israel.  With the passing of Arik Einstein last week, I thought readers would be interested in Ari’s take on the life and work of this musical icon.

Here’s an Einstein you may not have heard of: Arik Einstein, who died last week in Tel Aviv, aged seventy-four. And yet in Israel he was practically a god. For several days following the sad news last Tuesday, there was nothing on the radio except Arik Einstein songs, punctuated by tearful announcements: Israel’s greatest singer was no more. On Wednesday, prior to the funeral, his body lay in state in Kikar Rabin, Tel Aviv’s main square, where thousands crowded to pay their last respects. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself descended with his entourage of thick-necked bodyguards to eulogize the music legend, calling Einstein the singer of “eretz Israel hayafa, ha’amitit, hamezukeket” (the beautiful, the true, the Pure Land of Israel). And President Shimon Peres issued a statement, saying that Arik Einstein’s songs were “the soundtrack of an entire nation. His voice caressed the people and embraced the land. He was loved by older and newer generations alike....His melodies will fill the land. Even with his passing, his songs will continue to play a tune of life and hope.”

We might picture the singer rolling in his casket, and dismiss Netanyahu’s words as a right-wing appropriation of this cultural icon, a cynical ploy to boost his approval rating. After all, Einstein consistently stayed away from politics, though it was clear he stood on the liberal side of the spectrum; his fanatical devotion to the soccer team Hapoel Tel Aviv (also known as ha’adumim, The Reds; hapoel means “the worker”) is virtual proof that he would never have voted for Netanyahu’s party or approve of this appropriation. And yet Einstein’s music does capture a particular Israeli nostalgia—to the good old days when Zionism was new and before the term eretz Israel became corrupted by politics. Einstein recorded five albums in the series Good Old Eretz Israel, many of which  are covers of old standards from pioneering days and many others that figure among Einstein’s most popular and enduring numbers. This popularity is due, in part, to the fact that these songs tapped into an Israeli mainstream that cut across ideological left-right divisions, so that Einstein could be equally enjoyed (and appropriated) by the settler crowd and by the Peace Now crowd.

At the same time, much of Einstein’s oeuvre is, curiously enough, a reaction against the good old style and the values it represented. Early in his career, from the mid sixties to the mid seventies, Einstein was at the forefront of Israel’s nascent rock and pop scene. He collaborated with Shalom Hanoch, another music legend, to create Shablul, which, according to rock guru Yoav Kutner, is “a masterpiece and a crucial point of reference in the making of Israeli rock.” And what’s more, even the Good Old Eretz Israel albums contained such numbers as “It Could Be That It’s Over” which takes an ironic and critical look at the Zionist clichés about those same good old days.

Arik Einstein was also a movie star, who played a leading role in what is arguably the only great Israeli movie, Uri Zohar’s Metzitzim (Peeping Toms), which is the story of two aging Tel Aviv beach boys and their struggle against adulthood. Incredibly funny, yet tinged with sadness, the film flopped when it came out in 1972 but found its audience a decade or so later, with a vengeance. By the mid eighties, Metzitzim had attained cult status. The film glorifies hanging out; it celebrates the beach bum in defiance of middle-class work ethic and socialist hagshama (fulfillment, achievement). As such it provides an alternative to the official Zionist program and ethos.

Still, when President Peres spoke  of  Einstein’s songs forming “the soundtrack of an entire nation” it was not mere rhetoric. Even his countercultural songs from the sixties and seventies have become classics, and it is the young Arik Einstein, a handsome, towering figure, that survives in the national imagination. This is the icon, and the songs played on the radio are invariably the old songs (of a young man). A seventy-four-year-old man died last Tuesday, but Einstein the legend, the icon, is more alive now than ever—without the constant reminder of an aging, frail, human progenitor.

The question is: What does this icon represent? Whom does it represent? Is Einstein “the embodiment of an older, more genteel Israel that some say does not exist anymore,” as The New York Times obituary put it? Well, yes, but that’s not saying much. In a recent op-ed, Rogel Alpher of the daily Ha’aretz protests the canonization of Einstein in the media as Israel’s “national singer.” Einstein, Alpher claims, represents only the Ashkenazi hegemony and mainstream; he does not represent the mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern origin) nor the Arabs nor the ultra-orthodox nor the immigrants from Russia and Ethiopia. This is true. Contemporary Israel may be too multicultural to have a single national singer. But find me another musician, of whatever background, who comes close to Einstein’s iconic status or who has left such a monumental stamp on Israeli culture.

Netanyahu depicted Arik Einstein as the official poster child of his own brand of Zionism, of “the real Eretz Israel.” And he is indeed a poster child, but one of greater value: Arik Einstein is a testament to the creative vibrancy of this ancient-young nation and its culture. You can reduce this icon to an ideological statement (right, left, Zionism, post-Zionism, what have you), but you’ll be missing the point. It’s the music that counts. Music gives meaning to our lives, and Arik Einstein comes as close as it gets to a secular Israeli divinity. In his op-ed, Alpher blasted the association many have made between Einstein’s funeral and that of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of the ultra-orthodox Shas party. I do not think this is an idle comparison—certainly not a “delusional” one, as Alpher calls it. Einstein was a spiritual leader, and his music is a spiritual system, one that does not require for its justification an appeal to a supernatural being or a literalist adherence to ancient dogma; it is a spiritual system in defiance of religious and nationalist fanaticism. Even Rabbi Uri Zohar, who turned ultra-orthodox a few years after making Metzitzim, seemed to affirm this proposition in his tearful eulogy over his friend’s grave: “When the Messiah comes, I won’t look at him; I’ll look at you.”

Ari Lieberman teaches comparative literature at The University of Georgia. His novel  The Champions of Innocence (Yediot Books) will be published in February 2014.

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