JERUSALEM (AP) — The sudden death of legendary Israeli singer-songwriter Arik Einstein brought the country to a virtual standstill Wednesday, with radio and TV stations airing nonstop retrospectives and throngs flocking to his grave to pay tribute to the father of Israeli rock.
For many, Einstein epitomized the soul of the country, representing a happier vision of Israel than the country that today is beset by divisions between rich and poor, Arab and Jew, religious and secular.
Einstein, who died of an aortic aneurysm Tuesday at 74, was also hailed as the antithesis of modern celebrities in Israel and elsewhere — an unpretentious man who lived for decades in the same small apartment in Tel Aviv, resisting big-money offers of every kind.
Although he was hardly known outside Israel, he was almost universally admired inside the country — a rare thing in a land with deep cultural divisions and antipathies, even among Jews.
"Every country has one. The French had Yves Montand. The Americans had Frank Sinatra. And we had Arik Einstein," said pop star Shlomo Artzi.
Aviv Geffen, another singer who worked with Einstein years ago, said he was much more than an entertainment figure.
"He was a symbol — one that we needed," said Geffen, who like many younger Israeli artists collaborated with Einstein. "He leaves us with people who are not as good."
Almost nothing else was on television Wednesday but wall-to-wall coverage of Einstein's funeral and interviews with Israelis flocking to his gravesite.
What would have normally been a celebratory day of candle lighting for the start of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah turned into a day of lighting memorial candles. A ledge outside Einstein's apartment building dripped with white wax from candles lit by fans.
In striking contrast to the outpouring of political and religious fervor at last month's Jerusalem funeral of spiritual sage Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, it was secular Jews by the thousands who filled Tel Aviv's main square where Einstein's coffin lay, an honor few receive in Israel. Many gathered there late into the night, singing his songs.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu eulogized him as a performer whose songs "accompanied us throughout all the stations of our life, in loves and disappointments, in ups and downs."
And President Shimon Peres praised him for "a sound that has hope, longing, discomfort, love — lack of exaggeration."
He was also famous for a series of TV comedy skits that poked fun at such topics as Jewish immigration, Bible study and Israel's love of soccer. His talent for accents was comedic gold in a country peopled by immigrants from all over the world.
Einstein began captivating audiences as a young soldier in the army's singing group. After a successful run as an actor and comedian, he joined with two artists in 1966 to create Israel's first pop ensemble, The High Windows, and soon after released what is considered Israel's first rock 'n' roll record.
He worked with a succession of partners who themselves became staples of the music scene, and who often wrote the music to his songs. Einstein himself often wrote lyrics, but many of his tunes are highbrow Hebrew poems put to music.
His stylistic range was broad, extending from Russian-influenced soft ballads and folk songs to electric guitar-driven rock.
Among his most popular ballads are "Me and You," an optimistic song about changing the world, and "Fly, Little Nestling," interpreted as a parent's tearful tribute to a child leaving home. Both songs are favorites at American Jewish summer camps.
His voice was a soft, unadorned baritone, and his oldies resonate even with Israeli youngsters.
In his 70s, Einstein was ranked as the most widely played singer on Israeli radio, but he stopped performing live at age 42 because of a stage fright that seemed to endear him to the public even more.