From Albert to Arik: There Has Been None Like Einstein

by Norman Berdichevsky (December 2013)

Jewish sages honored the memory of the august philosopher “Maimonides,” also known as Moshe ben Maimon, 1134-1205, proclaiming that from the time of “Moshe” (the first Moses, flourished ca. 1450 B.C) there had been no other like him, thereby expressing their admiration in the highest form of an accolade extending across 2,500 years. The same, to a somewhat lesser degree, might well be said of the late Israeli singer Arik Einstein. ”That from the time of the first Einstein (Albert), there had been no other figure so revered as the current Einstein (Arik)” – at least by the Israeli public.

Arik Einstein

While no educated person, let alone a Jew, is ignorant of Albert Einstein (he remains the Jewish figure most celebrated by the world, as determined by the number of postage stamps representing dozens of countries which have so honored him for his achievements in physics), the same cannot be said of Arik Einstein, who, until his death a few days ago, (Nov. 26, 2013) was certainly regarded by the Israeli public as its most beloved singer in the modern era of popular Hebrew song. Yet, he was largely unknown among Jews abroad who are unfamiliar with modern Hebrew language and culture.

His popularity, appeal and charm have been compared to that of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Bruce Springsteen combined. He certainly remained in the public limelight for as long as any of these three American superstars and what is more impressive, he was equally successful in all of the genres of modern popular song including traditional love ballads, patriotic expressions of love of country, its landscape and people, soulful laments, protest songs and even childrens’ songs and rock.

Why is such a personality so prominent in Israel’s cultural life such an unknown quantity in the Diaspora. I asked the same question about Zohar Argov in the May article in NER and the answer is not hard to find. In spite of all the oceans of ink spilt over “Jewish solidarity” and that the Jews are one people, the reality is that there is a growing cultural gap in which language plays a major role. This is the point of departure of my soon to be published book, The Past, Present and Future of Modern Hebrew (McFarland Publishing Company, early 2014). It touches not only on cultural issues but on the growing political divide between Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora, especially in the United States. 

What is especially regrettable for me is recognition of the gap among Jewish youth. In my own university level courses that I teach in Modern Hebrew, I took several instant class polls – a few days ago on whether or not students had ever heard of Arik Einstein and one six months ago on Zohar Argov. The result (excluding non-Jewish students in the class), is that recognition borders on the level of 5%. This would be trivial perhaps, were it not for the fact that 50% incorrectly identified Tel-Aviv, not Jerusalem, as the capital of Israel!

The truth has never been said better than by David Hazony, in his essay “To American Jews – Learn Hebrew: The Gulf Between the Diaspora and Israel is Growing Fast.”

Israelis are suddenly appearing at the forefront of a whole range of previously unthinkable fields — not just medicine or military upgrades but also electronic music and fashion and television programming, avant-garde dance…and world-leading architects and chefs and chemists. Every one of these successes sits atop a pyramid of incredible things, very little of which American Jews ever hear about, much less participate in.

Herein lies our trouble. The more time goes by in which American Jews fail to get on the Israeli-civilization bus, the less qualified they become to say anything at all about who we are and what we should or shouldn’t do. The harsh truth is that any discourse that says “I love Israel, but I can’t stand Israelis,” “I love Israel, but could never live there,” “I love Israel, but can’t stand that horrible rabbinate, that horrible Lieberman, that horrible heat,” or, “I love Israel even though I don’t know Hebrew”.

All these are variations of a single bizarre theme, a theme very different from what Jews used to be, a theme in which ignorance and love are seen as somehow compatible, in which what you’re loving isn’t really Israel at all, but your own saucy dreams. But there is a simple solution to all this, perhaps incomplete and sure to cause many American Jews to bristle — but frankly it is the only way forward if this peoplehood thing is going to work. It’s the 800-pound falafel ball sitting in the room - HEBREW!”1

At a huge gathering in Rabin Square in the center of Tel-Aviv to hold a memorial in his honor, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed the emotion of thousands of Israelis who had gathered to hear his impromptu eulogy. He spoke of how Einstein’s creativity in all its wealth and abundance was a product of modern Hebrew culture which it so faithfully expressed and that would live forever among his countrymen.

Chemi Shalev, HaAretz columnist, wrote (11/28/2013) that Arik was the symbol of the finest values of secular Zionism, apolitical, tolerant, and cosmopolitan without any affectation or ideological straightjacket. His modesty and good nature were everyday values not those of idealized heroes and hearkened back to the much more modest time when the “quintessential sabra” came of age. He sang of cute, enchanting and mundane aspects of life in Israel as well as the ballads expressing a love of nature, the landscapes of the homeland and quiet times alone without pretense or wallowing in past Jewish suffering or heroic calls to action. He often played in cinematic roles that reflected these values in a dozen Israeli movies.

He wrote the lyrics and the melodies of many of his songs and collaborated with others. He was born in Tel Aviv in 1939, three years after his parents had emigrated from Poland. In his youth, he was a junior high jump and shot put champion. After an audition for the Army’s entertainment troupe, he was accepted into the Nahal Brigade troupe and went on to immediate fame as part of the Yarkon Bridge Trio (Shlishiyat Gesher ha-Yarkon). Among his most well-known songs are "Ani Veata" (Me and You), "Sa Le'at" (Drive Slowly), "Mekofef Habananot" ("The Banana Man") "Yoshev Al HaGader" (Sitting on the Fence), "Ima Sheli" (My Mother), and "Uf Gozal" (Fly, Little Nestling). For those of the readers who wish to see and hear a medley of ten of his hits, go to …..


[1] The Forward, April 9, 2012 and reposted on the Jewish Ideas Daily website in their April 13, 2012 issue entitled simply: To American Jews, Learn Hebrew – the Gulf Between the Diaspora and Israel is Growing Fast…. See:


Norman Berdichevsky's latest book is The Left is Seldom Right.


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