Israelis mourn their Frank Sinatra, whose ballads united a divided country

Arik Einstein's songs became the soundtrack for an adolescent country through its ups and downs. One of his top hits speaks of children leaving the nest – but perhaps also a country growing up.

Ariel Schalit/AP
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu places a rose on the coffin of Arik Einstein, a pioneering Israeli singer and songwriter, during his memorial service at Rabin's square in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday.

The passing of Israeli singing legend Arik Einstein has sparked an outpouring of appreciation for a man whose songs became the soundtrack for a nation, uniting Israelis of all stripes through the ups and downs of an adolescent country beset by social divisions, religious strife, and war.

"He was our Frank Sinatra, our Elvis Presley, our Bruce Springsteen all rolled into one," wrote Chemi Shalev in the daily newspaper Haaretz, calling Mr. Einstein the embodiment of the new, liberal, secular Israel. "He was unencumbered by history, unburdened by Jewish suffering, undaunted by the bombastic ideology of his elders and peers.... he sang of the mundane, day-to-day things that a normal Israeli would wish for, if he could only be normal."

While Einstein's songs are always on the radio, they have been playing nonstop since his passing Nov. 26 as everyone from secular leftists to ultra-Orthodox Jews commemorate the words that shaped an era of Israeliness that some say has now ended. Some 10,000 people came to bid him farewell in Tel Aviv, and at a time when the Iran nuclear deal was dominating headlines, Einstein's passing commanded the first 10 pages of one of Israel's most prominent daily newspapers, Yediot Aharonot.

At the memorial ceremony in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Mr. Einstein symbolized “the land of Israel that is beautiful, true and pure.”

“His songs accompanied us at all the stations of our lives — in our loves and disappointments, our ups and downs,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

When former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in this square by a Jewish ultra-nationalist two years after signing the 1993 Oslo peace accords, it was Einstein's rendition of “Cry for You” that became the unofficial funeral hymn.

But the jury is out on the anthem for Einstein's passing. Some have mourned it as the end of a kind of golden era for Israel. "It was as if a link in a chain to the Good Old Days had suddenly snapped, and we were left dangling," wrote Liat Collins for the Jerusalem Post.

Others say, however, that it would be a mistake to pigeonhole the modest Einstein as simply a symbol of good old Israeliness, when really he was a revolutionary figure in many ways, the quintessence of Israeli masculine cool who championed Zionism but also challenged it.

“They say that once there was a wonderful dream here, but when I came to look, I didn’t find a thing,” he sang in his hit, “Maybe it’s all over.”

He also challenged social mores, bringing a new voice in the 1960s, at a time when the government banned the Beatles fearing it would corrupt the country’s youth. 

Israelis, aware of the freewheeling movements sweeping the rest of the world, were ready, says radio personality and music journalist Liron Teeni.

“With only one TV station, a few radio stations, we all gathered around the ‘campfire’ to see Arik … who came in bigger than anything, with songs that focused on the language, on the Israeli character,” Mr. Teeni says. 

In the 1970s, Mr. Einstein forged a new sound for a generation disillusioned by the wars and conservatism of their “pioneering” parents. With new waves of Sephardi immigrants – Jews from Arab countries – often marginalized by the dominant Ashkenazi Jews from Europe, ethnic and social tensions boiled. While Einstein's roots were Ashkenazi, his music was highly critical of such social injustice.

He also sang of simpler things – family, relationships, and an indefinable love for the land and its people. One of his most popular hits, "Ouf Gozal" (Fly away, young chick) speaks of children leaving the nest – but perhaps also a young country growing up.

In the 1980s, as the country moved toward capitalism, and the right-wing and religious establishment would come to gain an unprecedented political influence, Einstein withdrew from the public eye but continued producing albums and was still the most widely played singer in Israel as of 2010, at age 71.

"... we sang along with him: 'You and I will change the world,'" wrote Ms. Collins for the Jerusalem Post. "And if he did not change the entire world, he certainly helped shape Israel and make it a better place."

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