Arik Einstein: The iconization of a non-icon

Israeli singer and actor Arik Einstein died last night at 74. More than any other in the previous two decades, the moment of his death resembled that of Rabin’s – the face of the TV anchorman, the reactions of my friends (this time on social media), the people gathering in front of Tel Aviv City Hall. I was listening to a pop show on the radio when the music stopped; Einstein’s version of “Hachnisini” by Israeli national poet Haim Nachman Bialik was played, and we all knew.

In the hours that followed, some crowned Einstein the “Israeli Sinatra.” This is perhaps true of his national status (he performed “the best Israeli song of all time“) and the volume and influence of his work, but part of Einstein’s magic laid in the places where he wasn’t present – he avoided the celebrity crowd and TV talk shows, he stopped acting and performing decades ago, his interviews to the print media were confused – his answers brief and not always to the point.

He lived in Tel Aviv, went to the local football team’s match every weekend. His phone was listed in the national directory. There was something melancholic and very intimate in his most popular songs. Einstein wasn’t the singer of every Israeli, as today’s newspapers claim. I suppose ultra-Orthodox Jews or Palestinian citizens hardly knew of him. But for a certain group, one which often likes to think of itself as the core of Israeli national identity, Einstein held a special status. I belong to this group. Like others, I have my favorite Einstein Album – (Songs by Avraham Halfi, which my dad introduced me to), my favorite Einstein movie (Big Eyes). We sang an Einstein lullaby for our son when he was a baby, and “Einstein for Kids” is just about the only reason we play still keep the CD player around.

In these very moments, Einstein is becoming what he tried to avoid all his life – a national icon. Will his songs still feel the same? I would like to believe so.