Iconic Israeli singer Arik Einstein (Photo/Yaakov Saar-National Photo Collection of Israel)
Iconic Israeli singer Arik Einstein (Photo/Yaakov Saar-National Photo Collection of Israel)

Why Israeli rock legend Arik Einstein wrote a strange song about San Francisco

From the opening lines of Arik Einstein’s 1979 song “San Francisco al HaMayim” (“San Francisco on the Water”), it’s clear that something is off.

The singer finds himself in the north of the city, sitting and looking at the Golden Gate Bridge. “It’s beautiful here in San Francisco on the water,” Einstein, a founding father of Israeli rock ’n’ roll, croons in Hebrew. “So, so how come I feel far away?”

This sense of melancholy pervades the whole song. In the first verse, the singer is watching geese swimming between boats in the bay and thinking about someone, perhaps a lover. “It’s a shame you’re not here with me to see how beautiful it is in San Francisco on the water,” Einstein sings in his unshowy baritone.

Then comes the second, totally incongruous verse about … basketball.

The singer marvels at the athletic prowess of Julius “Dr. J” Irving (“ripping nets”) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (“touching the sky”), neither of whom played for the Bay Area’s home team, the Golden State Warriors. What’s going on here?

In the third and final verse, the singer reflects on his life back in Israel. He “suddenly” wants to fly home and laugh with his friends Moishe and Hezkel at a Tel Aviv café. “Give me a piece of Tabor,” Einstein sings, referring to Mount Tabor in the Galilee. “Give me a piece of the Sea of Galilee. I love falling in love with the small country of Israel, hot and wonderful.”

It turns out that “San Francisco al HaMayim” isn’t about San Francisco, not really. It’s about longing for Israel, longing for home. And basketball.

I first heard this strange song years ago in a college Hebrew class — Einstein’s songs are popular teaching tools, given their relatively simple lyrics — and I’ve always wondered about its backstory. Did Einstein write it without actually having visited San Francisco? (The line “the golden bridge is beautiful like in a movie” and the references to Irving and Abdul-Jabbar suggest as much.) Was he just being poetic, using “San Francisco” as a stand-in for California, or America as a whole? Did he hear Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” which was inspired by Redding’s brief stay in Sausalito in 1967, and try to copy it?

Einstein, who died in 2013 at age 74, had a prickly relationship with the press and didn’t give many interviews. He stopped performing altogether in the 1980s, citing stress. But his frequent collaborator, Shalom Hanoch, who wrote the bluesy music for “San Francisco al HaMayim” and many other Einstein songs, is still alive. And in 2020, he spoke to the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth about the origins of many of Einstein’s biggest hits, including “San Francisco al HaMayim.”

So here’s the story — or at least part of it — according to Hanoch.

The song started with the line about Abdul-Jabbar, which Einstein, who played basketball in his youth, had jotted in a lyrics notebook. “There were sentences [in his notebook] that only he would say,” Hanoch said.

Arik Einstein playing basketball, Jan. 1, 1970. (Photo/Israel Defense Forces)
Arik Einstein playing basketball, Jan. 1, 1970. (Photo/Israel Defense Forces)

In the early 1970s, Einstein and Hanoch were in Los Angeles on tour and on the spur of the moment, Einstein decided they should drive some 350 miles north to catch an NBA game (presumably at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena, the Warriors’ arena at the time).

“I drove,” Hanoch told Yedioth, “but we ran out of gas and there was a gas crisis in the U.S. We got stuck at a diner with no television at all, in a city called Gilroy where they grow garlic. So everything was full of this odor. The next morning, we filled up and continued. After hitting unbearable traffic, we arrived at the Golden Gate [Bridge]. We got out, and for Arik this was also his first time there. And I say to him, ‘Hey, isn’t the bridge supposed to be gold?’ He was devastated by my question because really I was terribly naive and thought that maybe it was made of gold or had a golden color. But no.”

Upon reading Hanoch’s version of events, I immediately understood why “San Francisco al HaMayim” is such a wistful song. Einstein missed the basketball game and had to spend the night in Gilroy. Anyone would want to go home after such an experience!

Francesco Spagnolo, who teaches a class at UC Berkeley on Israeli music, said the song reflects a yearning among Israeli artists to look for inspiration beyond Israel’s borders. Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000), for example, wrote about “bare buttocked girls” on Bolinas Beach in his poem “North of San Francisco.”

“The most common [American] reference for Israeli musicians is New York, but San Francisco and California represent the last shore, an end point,” Spagnolo told me. “It has an allure for Israeli culture.”

Spagnolo also believes Einstein was trying to channel Redding on “Dock of the Bay.”

“It seems really unlikely that somebody would not know that song, especially a musician like him,” he said. (In his article “The Missing Beat Generation: Coming of Age and Nostalgism in Arik Einstein’s Music,” scholar Arie M. Dubnov writes that Einstein was heavily influenced by American and British rock musicians, including the Beach Boys and Beatles.)

During his career, Einstein released 36 solo albums and hundreds of songs. “San Francisco al HaMayim” is not his best one. My favorite is “Sa Le’at” (“Drive Slow”), in which Einstein sings about driving an old car in a storm and letting his thoughts “run in all directions.”

But it’s significant that “the voice of Israel,” as some called him, once rolled through the City by the Bay and memorialized his visit, however unsatisfying it may have been, in song.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.