Leonard Cohen’s entertainment tour of the Sinai during the Yom Kippur War.
Signal-Penguin Random House, 2022
“Cohen arrived on the second day of the war, a total outsider. He didn’t speak Hebrew and knew little of the country, and had no use for religion. No one knew he was coming.”
Reviewed by Ralph Wintrob
TORONTO, May 3/22 – Toronto-born and raised Matti Friedman is a journalist with style and insight. His previous books have covered a variety of topics highlighting events in modern Israeli history.
His latest, Who By Fire, seems on the surface to be pretty far out: Leonard Cohen’s entertainment tour of the Sinai during the Yom Kippur War.
But as he penetratingly points out, it was a brutal campaign. Israel was totally unprepared, still basking in the glow of the ’67 victory. As Friedman describes it, it was sheer will and daring, not careful planning, but at great human and material cost, that Israel came out victorious. It was the young soldiers and their sense of camaraderie and passion that turned the tide, plus some hardboiled battalion commanders’ ingenuity.
So where does Leonard (Eliezer) Cohen fit into all this? Well, purely by chance. He was living on the Greek island of Hydra, with his wife and newborn child, discontented, his muse fled, his journal entries virtually incoherent, high on drugs. I just wanted to shut up, he confessed to a friend. But then he heard on the radio that Israel had been attacked on two fronts. And he felt he had to be there, joining thousands of your young Israelis besieging El Al airport counters to get back to Israel and their regiments, so as not to let their comrades down.
Cohen arrived on the second day of the war, a total outsider. He didn’t speak Hebrew and knew little of the country, and had no use for religion. No one knew he was coming. He just hit a café on Dizengoff popular with artists and was offered a ride to the Sinai with a couple of entertainers he’d never met before. Against a backdrop of tanks or trucks, lit up by headlights, for two weeks he performed wherever he was taken, sleeping under the stars just like the soldiers, performing a couple of new songs he wrote for the occasion, and his old standards, that had made him famous in North America. (Interestingly, he’d performed in Tel Aviv the year before. But the concert was a disaster. He was spaced out and high, and walked out on the audience before the end, Friedman tells us.)
“I was afraid that my quiet and melancholy songs would not be welcome. But I learned that they were open to them. I came to raise their spirits. But they raised mine.”
This time, Friedman’s research reveals, Cohen connected, for two straight weeks, under fire, wherever he was taken.
So what happened? As Friedman points out, there were plenty of entertainers winging it around the Sinai on their own. And not too much interest in them from the troops. The war was brutal. Casualties everywhere. But Cohen had a quality that touched a deeply personal chord.
As Cohen put it long after, “I was afraid that my quiet and melancholy songs would not be welcome. But I learned that they were open to them. I came to raise their spirits. But they raised mine.”
Friedman explains that the war changed the way Israelis felt about things. The old collective ethos, All for One and One for All, gave way to personal reflection on the meaning of life. And that was Cohen’s territory. As one soldier who was there described it 50 years on, “his songs were like prayers”.
As a coda, and what a tremor ran through me as I read the final paragraph in this short but vivid book, Cohen returned to Israel for a massive concert shortly before he fell ill and died. After the final encore, the sold-out crowd was still. And Cohen raised his hands, parted his fingers, gave the 15-word ancient Hebrew blessing that was his inheritance, and left the stage, the crowd stunned. Hallelujah!
Friedman’s book isn’t long. But he paints a vivid picture. And includes some wonderful photos taken at the time, one of them showing General Ariel Sharon next to Cohen, at an impromptu concert on the other side of the Suez Canal. Friedman captures the anguished spirit of the war, and Cohen’s incidental role in it, so powerfully, that I felt I had just come through a sublime experience.
Photo Credits: mrbill78636; Signal Books, Penguin Random House
Ralph Wintrob is a former journalist, teacher-librarian
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