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.
I was ready to go to the army. I was preparing my bag when I suddenly got a phone call from the supervisor of my program who told me that there was some misunderstanding and I actually had two more months until my draft. It was a few months after my dad died, a few months before I lost my virginity. I think I smoked my first joint during those two months, at a festival with a few strangers. It made me laugh a lot. My second joint was inhaled during the second Intifada, about a month before the end of my army service. (I’ll never wear a soldier’s uniform again). A friend came by while I was patrolling the northern Jerusalem Hill that was our army base, between a settlement and an Arab village. It made me fantasize. I told him, let’s pretend I’m Arik Einstein and you are my musical partner, Shalom Chanoch. I arranged my hair accordingly and sang into the night. I don’t remember if he sang with me. In a southern industrial hill of Jerusalem, a little later, in some weird art school, I still had no sense of control over my life. Only when I returned to Brooklyn, a seedling of mine already in Ana’s belly, I got some
I didn’t want to supervise Palestinians so they told me to do some office work instead of manning checkpoints. The office was a trailer with an old couch, a broken chair and a table. The soldiers who did checkpoints told me ID numbers of men they had arrested over the distorted phone and I was supposed to call someone who would decide what to do with them. I might have misheard some numbers.
This unique report card was issued for me 6 years ago and is one of the most inspiring artworks I know of. It was in an art event I was one of its organizers, a semi-spontaneous art festival at the “Shuk Makhne Yehuda” – the West Jerusalem market. For the first time, Many artists and a large audience came to celebrate in the Shuk during hours that it is usually a pretty scary place.
At about 2am, two guys showed up with a big plastic container and invited people to their “Teachers’ office” (empty vegetable stand) and had them sit on produce boxes while they issued them a new end of the year report card. I wasn’t quite sure what I’m getting into, but being drunk and excited for the success of the event, I just did. First, they asked me if there was any school year that was somewhat hard for me. I remember thinking for a few minutes since I had many years I’d like to “fix”, many moments during my schooling years that were full of shame, sadness, lack of self-esteem and true friendships. I’ve decided to share with them my first grade experience (I wrote about this unusual semi-sexual experience here).
Soon after sharing this pretty traumatic episode with them I was issued a new report card, in which I was described as a wonderful kid, that no one should disturb him from developing and discovering the world, a lovely and creative child who is perfect just the way he is. Besides getting straight A’s in all of the classes (both semesters) I was sent into the next grade – freedom, and I wasn’t allowed to attend the class of boredom and fixedness. I was described as a child who fulfills his huge potential and that can deal with life challenges in the best way possible. I got sent early to second grade out of love (and not out of my first grade teacher’s issues around fucking) and with faith that I’d keep growing wonderfully.
I couldn’t stop thanking them. It might have been the most meaningful artwork I’ve ever participated in and I can’t overestimate how much it affected me as an artist and as a person. Yes, art can be deep and serious and sad and many other things, but it can also, using very simple tools, make people happy and explore the boundaries between “art”, “loving-kindness”, “therapy” and “humanity”. I’m not even sure if these two guys considered what they did as art. I don’t remember their names but I would never look at my first grade experience the same way. I don’t know if I still have my report card from first grade, but this report card will stay in my heart forever. I heard a theory that our memory is kind of tricky – if we tell ourselves a story many times, we remember it. If I’d tell myself this alternative story about me as a child, my mind might consider it a reality. So why not, sometimes at least, tell ourselves alternative stories?
Inspired by this work, I’m developing an experimental service – if you believe that you (or someone you know) did something special and never got acknowledged for it, or had a bad experience you’d like to revisit with an alternative version, Alfassi Books can issue a special alternative certificate/diploma/report card for you. If you’re interested in such service, please email me with an explanation of the good deed or bad experience and we can schedule a video call to discuss that and figure out what needed to be issued. I promise to be respectful, supportive and hopefully funny. As with the letters project, all certificates can be confidential or I can make an artistic use with them, like adding them to a booklet or to this website, depending on that participant’s choice. I’m very much excited by this artistic opportunity.
(English after Hebrew)
אינני שומר מצוות
אך יש במצוות הגניזה
משהו נוגע ללב, מרגש
ביחוד לחובבי ספרים, כמוני
מול התחנה המרכזית החדשה
היה מבנה נטוש, מאוד נטוש היה המבנה
היו מגיעים אליו כלמיני
בעבר היה המקום
אולי בגלל זה היו מוטלים בו
אלפי ספרי קודש
על הרצפה, משכב לחסרי בית
יורם אמיר, ידידי הצלם, הכיר לי את המקום
הייתי בא, תולש ספרי קהלת מן התנ”כים
ומבצע בהם מעשים אמנותיים
an observant Jew
but the Gniza mitzvah
in which we are commanded
to bury holy text
when we’re done using it
is very exciting to me
in an abandoned building
in front of the central bus station
in West Jerusalem
thousands of books
Bibles, Talmud, Mishna
laid on the floor
as beds to homeless people
The building used to be
a Beit-Midrash once
My friend Yoram showed it to me
and I would come
tear the book of Ecclesiastes
out of old Bible books
and make all sorts of art with them
instead of Gniza
Ecclesiastes text glued on an 18th century Jewish Musar (morals) book Mesilat Yesharim (path of the righteous) by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lutzato –
says the Teacher.
2 Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.
3 What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?
4 Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.
A friend from out of town came to visit our synagogue and said she wish there was a synagogue that is God-free. I told her that our synagogue is sort of God light, or diet God, but it was still too much God for her diet.
I don’t know whether God exists or not, but I honestly don’t understand why human beings spend so much time thinking and arguing about that. I mean we’re going to find out when we die anyway so why bother about it now? ‘What is God’ is a more of an interesting question to me than whether it exists or not, since it has so many different answers than just yes or no.
I do believe that acts of loving kindness count more than type of faith though.
What I love about our synagogue, BHA, is that there are about as many different views of Judaism and of God as the number of members, if not more (two Jews, three opinions, so it says).
Recently I made a few attempts to write funny things. To my surprise, it seemed to work. I’m not a funny person, or at least when I tell a joke about 43% of the times it’s too long and I forget the end. Most kids do find me funny though, especially the illiterate ones.
I’m a religious person, in a sense that I find humor to be holy. I find humor as one of the most magical things about life. Like birth, death, love and music its meaning and secret can’t really be understood. It is one of the only things that can unite people from different cultures in a positive simple way. It gives hope to life that is too often full of suffering. I believe people like Chaplin, Stewart and Baron Cohen, or at least their characters are one interpretation of faith according to this religion.
So the fact that a rant about baby stuff we want to get rid of or a facebook comment made someone laugh makes me very happy. Much happier than if I’d make someone cry with my words. Ideally, If I may wish for a writing skill, I’d like to be able to get both reactions at the same time with one piece of writing. And that’s probably a little too serious thing about humor what I just wrote.