I wrote this article and a post a little over a year ago, a short time after the death of Israel folk singer Arik Einstein and American folk singer Pete Seeger. In retrospect I understand how much learning about their lives and works affected me as an artist. They died a few months from each others, both leaving a remarkable influence and legacy to their cultures. I’ve dedicated the second Magic Bagel book in memory of Seeger, who lived in Beacon, NY as well and we used to see hime in festivals around town, singing with five year olds. I highly recommend “The Power of Song”, a documentary about Seeger’s life. And as for Einstein, there’s not much about him in English, and that’s part of why I wrote this post. I hope you’ll enjoy reading.
Einstein, Morocco, upstate New York
During my army service I had a certain lip balm that had a very specific taste. Even many years later, when I come across a similar semi-strawberry flavor I right away feel like I’m a soldier again, with everything that this feeling arouses in me. I have a similar, or rather an opposite reaction, to the voice of Arik Einstein. When I hear his voice I feel comforted, I feel at home.
Einstein is credited as the first one to create Rock music in Hebrew but he wasn’t a great philosopher, poet or activist. I love him not like an idol but more like a friend, a mentor. His voice often accompanies me with me with an advice, a feeling or a story that are usually very meaningful, simple and often wise.
“sitting in San Francisco on the water (…)
It’s so beautiful in San Francisco on the water
It’s too bad you’re not here with me to see,
you’d say you’ll never come back..
Suddenly I want home (…)
Give me a piece of the Tabor mountain,
A piece of the sea of Galilee
I love to fall in love with the small land of Israel
Hot and wonderful”
Lyrics : Einstein, Music : Shalom Chanoch
Homesickness. Israel, the sea of Galilee where Jesus walked on the water and mount Tabor, I still remember how in love I was when we hiked there together (she wasn’t that much into me). We had tea on the way down, met some Bedouins who hiked there as well. It was many years ago.
Like Einstein, I also love to fall in love with places. I even managed to fall in love with a small town in upstate New York. I love the mountain here and I love the river and I really love the people here. If I live elsewhere I’ll miss all of those, I might even write some songs about them.
The exiled Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish said that homeland is like a suitcase. I guess for some it is a suitcase, for some it’s the melodies and for some, like me, there is no clear definition of what homeland is. For Einstein, who was born in 1939, homeland was what he called good old Israel, pre-skyscrapers Tel-Aviv, idealism, and some innocent sense that he had as a child and maybe Israel had too. Besides being an incredible performer, that might be what made him so popular among so many Israelis who yearned to similar things.
Israelis don’t talk a lot about where they came from. Zionism, the Jewish national movement that was born at the end of the 19th century and eventually established Israel in 1948, intended to bring Jews from different cultures from all over the world and unite them in Israel under the new national umbrella that was inspired by the ancient Jewish state at Biblical times. The Zionist greatest myth, the “Sabra”, is the Israeli Ashkenazi native Hebrew speaking male who was born in Israel and is actively building the country from vacuum while structuring the perfect society that will occupy it. The new Jew that would finally have a homeland of his own and would be the mirror image of the Jew from the diaspora.
During the attempt to bring this dream to life languages disappeared, people didn’t find their place and some communities are still looking for their common identity. The Sabra wasn’t supposed to look back much, like a famous saying of Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister – “From Tanakh to Palmakh” – From the Bible to the Jewish combat units. As if nothing happened in between. As much as I know how destructive this myth was for so many people, when I hear Einstein’s voice I believe it, like a child listening to a story. A good story, where we are the good guys and we go through lots of trouble until the happy end.
In the land of my ancestors
Send me hints of Elul (…)
Shofars will blow open
And Jewish faces from the diaspora
In sad grayness
Will fly in front of the chair of
The master of the world
Requests, begging, sparks
Deep in their eyes”
Lyrics : Abraham Chalfi, Music : Yoni Rekhter
Einstein was a sabra, musically he might have been the first one, or probably the last one. More of a lover than a fighter but still a sabra, maybe even an ultimate one. This song, in which he sing a poem by Avraham Chalphi, is the only one I know of from Einstein’s hundreds of songs in which he sings about Jews who don’t live in Israel. The poem describes them almost as ghosts, flying with mysteriously sparks in their eyes, not really sure what they have to say to the average Israeli.
With Einstein, it seems like the Sabra project worked. His figure and beautiful voice seem to be born out of the sand of Tel Aviv, like the city itself that claim to rise up from the sand. Einstein doesn’t seem to be interested too much in Jewish history prior the establishment of Tel Aviv and if he sings of Historical events it’s either of Zionist history or of Biblical characters.
After his death, I learned many new things about Einstein. Many Israelis shared stories about his beautiful friendships, his professionalism, his shyness and extreme humbleness. Living on the other side of the Atlantic ocean, I consumed many of these stories through the internet and felt a kind of mourning I couldn’t explain. I didn’t learn anything, however, about Einstein’s grandparents or parents. They must have immigrated to the land of Israel from somewhere, but Einstein, besides singing this song, never says a word about almost two thousands years of Jewish Diaspora.
Like the United States, Israel too is inspired by lots of idealistic dreams. The reality, however, is often a bitter awakening from those dreams.
One of the few memories I have of my grandfather is his old radio that used to constantly play music in Arabic. This was more than forty years after he immigrated to Israel from Baghdad, leaving his dreams, his career and few other things there as well. He wasn’t a Sabra.
I know very little of him, mostly from stories my mom told me. I don’t remember him speaking much, I do remember new year cards from him, written in what I still think is the most beautiful hand-writing I’ve ever seen. Later on I realized that the horizontal shape of his Hebrew letters is actually very similar to Arabic letters.
I sometimes wonder what would have happened if as a child I would have sat on his lap and he would have told me stories in Iraqi dialect Arabic. Would he have felt more capable of telling me stories in his mother tongue? would he have laughed with me had I understand Arabic? Maybe he’d tell me about the market in Baghdad, maybe we’d even live or visit there and he’d take me on walks, to his synagogue, to his grandfather’s grave.
I lost his cultural inheritance. I don’t speak his language and I know very little of the culture he came from. I just have a vague image of an old sick man that seemed bitter and out of place, always accompanied by a distorted melody out of an old Radio. Like Einstein who sings so beautifully Chalfi’s words, Jewish faces of the diaspora often appear in my visions too.
If there was any battle between Einstein and my grandfather, Einstein won by a knock-out.
“Baba Gurion”, Neta Elkayam. Israeli first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion
is holding a Hebrew-Arabic dictionary and having a glass of Arak
Together with her partner Amit Hai Cohen they created a show in which they sing songs of Moroccan Jewish musicians who were culture heroes in their homeland but Zionism never really noticed them. Some of these musicians, whose songs are still listened to and being taught as essentials of modern Arab music, died in poverty after having a hard life in Israel with very little recognition of their talent.
For Jews, singing in any Arabic dialect in Israel is also a dramatic political statement. For many Israelis the sound of Arabic is threatening, even though Hebrew and Arabic are very similar and about half of them had some level of Arabic in their home, like I had with my grandparents. Neta is gifted with a voice that like Billie Holiday and Oum Kalthoum can take the listeners into another world, regardless if they understand what she’s singing about.
Recently, Neta and Amit performed at a famous music festival in Morocco where they had an incredible success. They also perform regularly in Israel and their work brings out a lot of interest. Culturally it is one of the most interesting things that are happening in Israel right now and inevitably it raises many questions about Jewish and Israeli identity. Their journey might have started with hearing Grandma as children but led them through Tom Waits, the Lower east side, Tel Aviv, Existentialism and many more stations, but eventually they got back and sang songs that grandma would have loved.
While writing these words I’m waiting for my daughter Maayan to be done with her ballet class and to take her to a show of Gina Samardge, her favorite musician who will probably sing her favorite song – “This land is my land, this land is your land”. While I’m waiting, a few other parents discuss whether it’s better to get a real tree or a fake tree for Christmas.
You can see more of my artwork and artistic services at www.alfassibooks.com.
The Magic Bagel is an interactive children’s book I co wrote with my daughter Maayan.
I helped about 20 writers to find typewriters, I’m not in touch with most of them but I know of a lot of great writing that was produced.
Here are some of the colorful handmade sketchbooks I make from old record covers, you can see more at the Alfassi Books website