The death of Arik Einstein z”l highlights the jagged seam line where Israeli and Diaspora Jews meet. Or don’t meet. JJ Goldberg comments on this in the Forward and Liel Leibowitz rips the seam wide open in Tablet Magazine. Initially I laughed through my tears at Leibowitz’s in-your-face comments: I have nothing to say to you about Arik Einstein. I’m sorry to sound like a prick, but you wouldn’t get it…But then he went in an altogether different direction to where my own heart was headed.
So I will try to say something to you about Arik Einstein, as many were just recently commenting about what the loss of Lou Reed means to them personally. I never listened much to Lou Reed, but Arik Einstein’s music changed my life.
An Israeli friend from my Hashomer Hatzair group gave me Einstein’s 1971 album, Badeshe Etzel Avigdor (vinyl) in 1974 That album introduced many to the anthem of my generation – Ani Ve Ata. . Members of Hashomer Hatzair were singing it years before it became the go-to song for American Jewish tikkun olam projects. But other tracks on that album touched me more deeply in unexpected ways. The song about his own experiences in Hashomer Hatzair, HASHRIKA SHEL HATNUA placed people like my friends and me at the center of a rock star’s view of the world.
I was one of those marginalized, radical, intellectual but “bad” kids born too late to be part of the Jewish Catalogue crowd of DIY Jews but too early to belong to the Gen X reimagining of alternative Jewish community. In the mid-1970s, our idea of a good time was watching Arik Einstein’s comedy Lool in tandem with Monty Python. How better to understand the absurdity in being Ber Borochov quoting socialist Zionist Jewish kids in mid-1970s north America?
Fast forward to November, 1995. Right after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Einstein released “Zeh Pitom Nafal ָAleha” זה פתאום נפל עליה -. a public outpouring of sorrow and compassion for Rabin’s widow Leah. I imagine there are those who wish there had been such a song for Jackie when JFK was assassinated.
Arik Einstein seemed to create the soundtrack to which many of us living away from Israel healed from the restach (assassination) from miles away. An Israeli friend sent me Shalom Chaver, the 2 CD live recording of the Rabin memorial concert and, had it been on vinyl, I would have worn down the grooves. All of Israel’s great musical artists offered moving tributes to the slain Prime Minister at that long, poignant gathering. But, as the first disc opens with Einstein’s rendition of Aviv Geffen’s iconic lament, Livkot Lekha–(I am going to cry for you) and closes with his classic Uf gozal-(the little bird flies away) , his iconic baritone voice was like a comforting embrace, enclosing the rest of the music.
Of course, Einstein induced laughter at least as often as tears. My friend Rabbi Leila Berner captured this in an e-mail, writing that “sometimes I cried so much when I listened to his songs…and sometimes I laughed so hard when he realized that (as Reinhold Niebuhr once said), “laughter is a no man’s land between faith and despair.” Arik gave us laughter when we couldn’t find our faith and when despair was an all too frequent visitor.”
Fast forward to Limmud Conference in the UK, 2008:
I invite a new Israeli friend to join me at a late night sing-along, but he was afraid it would be mostly English tunes he didn’t know. He want on tell me that it was the eve of Arik Einstein’s 70th birthday and he was afraid nobody in the room would understand. He was going to call it a night. I began to sing one of Arik’s silly songs, אני אוהב לישון-Ani ohav lishon (I love to sleep). My friend decided to come along. And many people there did get where he was coming from. Arik Einstein’s songs turned a random group of people, who ranged in age from around 16 to over 60 and who came from places as far flung as Stockholm and Cape Town, into a community celebrating the birthday of a cultural hero.
The beauty of it was that the songs surely meant something different to each singer. For me, it was much more than simple nostalgia. It spoke directly to the piece of me that feels alienated almost everywhere these days, as I feel that most of the Diaspora Jewish world seems to have split into two groups, neither to which I belong: the one for non- and anti Zionists, the other for center to right-wing Zionists. That night, Arik’s music brought me home for a short while.
My friend, the musician Stuart Rosenberg, remembers Einstein’s music like this: In 1971 I was 15 years old, away from home for six-month exchange program, living in an Israeli boarding school while studying Hebrew and working in the fields. That was the summer of Arik Einstein’s hit song Ani V’Atah…. Lying awake at night… with the aroma of night blooming jasmine in the air and the sound of Arik Einstein playing beneath my pillow, I was as far as I could be from my own bed, yet listening to those words I knew I was home. I eventually returned to the states, but forever after that summer that song and those words have been at my core, and, like the aroma of night blooming jasmine, it only takes a few notes to transport me back to those moments when I truly became who I am.
Another friend told me that she watched the memorial ceremony in Rabin Square. In my mind I immediately heard Arik Einstein singing about the night Rabin was assassinated, so I listend to Shalom Haver – .Then I played Einstein’s cover of the Geffen song, from the Shalom Haver album:
When we are sad, we go to the sea. / That’s why it’s salty. And it’s sad —That we can return borrowed equipment But it’s not possible to give back this longing…
Shalom, haver. Let’s take it slow. Se le’at. – סע לאט.
So a small group of Palestinians, Israelis, and Germans –all in their 30s–are having drinks in Malmö, Sweden with a bunch of Jews, Muslims, Christians and other people of all ages who don’t identify with any religion.
That is not a joke. It happened a few days ago. I was there.
The group was the ensemble cast of Third Generation: “work in progress,” a brilliant performance piece conceived by Israeli playwright and director Yael Ronen (who was also there) and developed as a joint project of Berlin’s Schaubuhne and the Habimah National Theatre of Israel.
At the start of the show, Niels Bormann appears alone in front of the curtain; dressed in grey sweatpants, a red t-shirt emblazoned with 3G in large black letters, and a kefiya. He introduces the play with one apology after another: He is sorry that the costumes are not more sophisticated, but the show was developed in the Middle East, not Europe. He is sorry for making that politically incorrect statement. He is especially sorry for the role that Germany played in the murder of so many diverse groups of people. He polls the audience;
“Are there any Jews here?” Many hands go up. He apologizes. Read more »
I believe that journalist Patrick Kelly’s heart was in the right place when he donned a kippah to experience life as a visible Jew here in Malmö, then wrote about it for the on-line magazine that features “Swedish News in English,” The Local.
Kelly wished to understand the experiences of, and to offer support to, our mutual friend Shmuel Goldberg and other kippah-wearing Jews here (especially Rabbi Shneur Kessleman) who have been threatened repeatedly. Unfortunately, however, Kelly’s nuanced article has been cut and spliced by several careless American Jewish writers who, in their rush to paint my adopted hometown—and perhaps the entire country of Sweden, and sometimes all of Scandinavia or even northern Europe as a whole—as dangerously anti-Semitic, do an injustice to Goldberg’s experiences, and to Kelly’s desire to honor rather than exploit them.
A few nights after Kelly’s piece appeared in The Local, I had a long talk with Shmuel. He does not enjoy being stared at, pointed to, or threatened when he walks around Malmö wearing a kippah. At the same time, he thinks that a) the number of people who behave like this is small, compared to the number of immigrants and other minorities in Malmö who also receive unpleasant treatment; that b) more useful than moaning about anti-Semitism in Malmö would be if the community held a “Jewish pride” type cultural festival and that c) if something good can come out of these negative experiences, it might be this:
Sweden is a very secular society; Shmuel and I both know several non-Jews who wear their religion on their head, or around their neck, and are also mistreated or teased. He has spoken with devout Christians and Muslims who do not feel safe declaiming their faith in public. According to Shmuel, the freedom to express one’s religion should, along with the freedom to be out as gay, or the freedom to celebrate one’s ethnicity, be part and parcel of the open society that Sweden aspires to be.
Fortunately, several initiatives that address the many nuanced issues of celebrating diversity in this place that was, until recently, quite homogeneous, are currently under way here. Just last week, Copenhagen’s Middle East Peace Orchestra performed together with the Malmö Symphony Orchestra. Musicians and audience members included Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Bahais, and people who do not identify with any religious group. Songs were song and stories told in Yiddish, Hebrew, and Arabic as well as Danish and Swedish. Watch this space for more information on such initiatives and events in the months to come.