Big and Small Heroes in Israel: Arik Einstein & Rav Ovadia Yosef

Arik Einstein (not related to the famous German physicist Albert) and Ovadia Yosef were honored with large funerals. Einstein fans also held a memorial concert in Tel Aviv’s Yehoshua park (also referred to as park Ha’yarkon). Both recent local heroes are very much honored and respected but not in a classical or historical sense that David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin or even Theodor Herzl were honored. Yet Israelis are still creating new heroes with real admiration. In an age where most other societies seem to be looking for direction from leaders, Israelis simply keep on admiring. But is this leadership and admiration real? Do leaders today still inspire and guide in a way leaders in the past? Ones who lead to freedom, justice, change and most of all national self confidence? Well, it turns out, even in Israel, after achieving great deal of self identity and freedom, with people who were unable to feel and practice in freedom for centuries, there are still desires for more equality. There are desires to develop culture and independent thinking, especially now since Israelis have founded a state and government and embryonic culture.

Arik Einshtein’s first album, “Sings for You” came out in 1966

Arik Einshtein, started out in what became a traditional musical career in Israel’s army (IDF) Nahal band. At the time, the army’s bands were considered the training ground for singers, musicians, lyricists and composers. Music, and especially locally created original music, was the high culture of the people. Besides performances by army bands, people spent evenings in kibbutzim and other organized community events. From the early days of the Zionist movement in Israel, public folk singing, dancing and playing in public was the entertainment of choice. Here is where Arik Einstein made his mark. From the early days, his style of singing and song selection typified the energy of a new state. The spirit of pioneering Zionists both in the collective spirit of the kibbutz as well as the secular non-affiliated average Israeli. Love songs and work songs, songs about people simply going on about their lives and songs with meaning or ideals bringing new ideas to the country. He also typified the desire to not only create a new culture but also a spirit of new-Israel and idealism. Here was an opportunity to build something better, with higher morals, with optimism and positive spirit. The proverbial “city on the hill”. Literally taken when building Israeli cities from Tel Aviv to Beer Sheva and Petach Tikva. Even more literally in building a Jewish Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bnei Brak with strong religious cultural values. This is where the music typified by Einstein fit into the history. So no wonder, after fifty years of making music, one out of a few memorable singers becomes a hero. Is this something like the American icons, from Elvis to Sinatra? Well, not really. The foreign news obituaries did use the term the “Israeli Frank Sinatra”. Probably to compare Einstein’s identification with a few popular “standard” songs. But it may be a bit early to come up with a short list of what would be called “Israeli standards”. Then again, I don’t think Arik Einstein would be put off by being called the Israeli Frank Sinatra.
The other hero mentioned was the Sephardi chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef. While controversial during his tenure as a spiritual-political leader, he was respected by many followers and even a few who did not agree with his views. He is credited with bringing pride and respect to the Israeli Sephardi community (Jewish community from Arab countries). While there were allegations of racial discrimination of Sephardim by the Ashkenazi minority, Rav Yosef ignored minority leaders who called for the Sephardim to oppose and protest minority discrimination from the Ashkenazi community and state institutions. His approach was “to simply do and say” whatever was appropriate regardless of religious and cultural background. This meant becoming the best and most useful religious leader, even when he was called away from Israel (then Palestine, 1947) as an assistant to the chief rabbi of Egypt. While his tenure there was considered controversial, he came back with renewed resolve. Essentially Rav Ovadia ignored the image and bias relegating Sephardim to second rate status. As a religious scholar his writing was not apologetic or narrowly related to his community. This was new to the Israeli community. The traditional religious eastern European rabbi community developed standards of teaching over four hundred years. Jewish Spharadim scholars with recognized rabbinical writing brilliance were thought to have lost their brilliance and therefore their ability to lead in religious matters. Not so said Rav Ovadia Yosef. Actually he brought up the more observant (although less orthodox) overall state of the Jewish communities from Arab countries. He also pointed out the more united and uniformly lead communities in the Sepharadi world. When a Rabbi would tell the community “we are going to the land of Israel”, they all got up and went. Even taking dangerous treks to the middle of the desert and waiting for a plane from Israel to land there and take them somewhere. This kind of commitment to Zionism goes beyond the efforts seen from Europe. Rav Yosef’s life and accomplishments are fascinating people up to today. They also reflect on the relationship between different Jewish communities in the diaspora coming to Israel in the early days of the state.