For generations, music and melodies have played a pivotal role in shaping the ideals and inclinations of societies. Cognizant of the enormous power wielded by composers and songwriters, the Zionist movement, among others, used music as a potent tool to spread its doctrine and to help attract large numbers of followers. Songs were the glue that brought people together and influenced the masses into supporting their agenda. After the state of Israel was established, music continued to play an essential role in secular Israeli society.
As the years passed, the passion that fueled much of the movement weakened and then petered out, ushering in a post-Zionist era — and the entertainment industry adapted to the changed circumstances. The new songs expressed the mood and thoughts of average secular Israelis who wondered what had happened to the country.
Songwriters and singers were hero-worshipped and idolized. Regardless of their level of moral behavior or ethical conduct, their many fans looked up to them as their role models to be emulated at every opportunity.
The IDF also took full advantage of the power of song. Numerous famous singers began their careers in the army entertainment troupe. An integral part of the Israeli armed forces, their role was to travel from battalion to battalion, bolstering troop morale.
Throughout the decades, the secular music industry sought to fill a major, often ignored void. It tried, albeit in vain, to provide depth and content to thirsty souls.
One fateful day, the first artist left the bohemia.
Ika Israeli, z”l, was a central figure of the Tel Aviv intelligentsia when he became a baal teshuvah in 1971. After the Yom Kippur War, other leading cultural figures began to embrace Yiddishkeit, leaving their followers scratching their heads and bemoaning the fact that what, through their tinted glasses, appeared backward “forces of darkness” had taken these individuals captive from the advanced, enlightened world.
“What could they possibly be looking for?” the average secular Israeli wondered. “What could they have possibly found that is better than the glitz, glory and financial success that comes along with fame?”
When Ika Yisraeli’s brother-in-law, Uri Zohar, Israel’s most prominent entertainment star, became a baal teshuvah, it was the equivalent of a nuclear bomb falling on the secular culture. While in his 30s, Zohar, his wife and children left the world he had come to symbolize — and never looked back. Joining the Zohar family were the two daughters and former wife of Uri’s closest friend and fellow entertainment icon, Arik Einstein.
Uri Zohar, his family, and the Einsteins moved to Yerushalayim where, to this very day, they live simple and very modest chareidi lives.
Zohar became a leading symbol of the baal teshuvah movement, and Einstein remained behind in Tel Aviv, a symbol of secular entertainment. Their friendship continued and was only strengthened when they became mechutanim — twice — when Einstein’s two chareidi daughters married Uri Zohar’s sons.
Though he was totally secular, there was much about Einstein that was very different from many of his peers. He was a humble, decent person, a man who never sought publicity, and he deeply loved his grandchildren, who are chareidi.
Together, Einstein and Zohar celebrated the birth of 18 mutual grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Each of these descendants represented a life that was the diametric opposite of Einstein’s, but he never let this fact get between him and the progeny he adored.
They, in turn, showed him genuine respect and affection, and this mutual relationship came to represent a path of tolerance and understanding.
For close to three decades the Zohar family waited for Arik to join them in Yerushalayim — but he never came.
Last week they were summoned to the Ichilov Medical Center in Tel Aviv, where Einstein had been taken after collapsing at home. He had suffered an aortic aneurysm, which proved to be fatal. The next day they gathered in Trumpeldor Cemetery in Tel Aviv to bid him a final farewell.
In Rabin Square, crowds gathered to sing his songs in the “Israeli” language, but in the cemetery a very different language was spoken as Rabbi Uri Zohar gave an emotional eulogy in the “Jewish” language.
“Look who your grandchildren and great-grandchildren are,” Rabbi Zohar declared, and recited Kaddish for the soul of his mechutan and lifelong friend.
And so, the man whom many considered to be the king of secular Israeli music was laid to rest with the eternal words of Yisgadal v’yiskadash Shmei rabbah.
The real lesson to be learned from the life and death of Arik Einstein isn’t the value of being a cultural icon, nor is it only about how chareidi Jews, long deemed to be backward and old-fashioned, represent the future of our people.
The saga of the two families is a powerful lesson in ahavas Yisrael and mutual respect. In an era of enormous tension and even open conflict between the chareidi and irreligious worlds, Arik Einstein’s acceptance and infinite love for his chareidi children and grandchildren is a much-needed lesson for secular Israel. The chareidi world can learn much from the Zohar family: how exhibiting genuine respect and love to an irreligious father, grandfather or friend need not be a contradiction to living a life fully committed to Torah.