Life & Culture

Leonard Cohen’s ‘raw tour’ for the members of his tribe

During the Yom Kippur war, Israel’s soldiers were given concerts by the Canadian singer


In 2009, when Leonard Cohen came to Israel to give a concert, it felt as if something weird was going on, recalls Canadian-Israeli journalist and author Matti Friedman.

“I couldn’t quite understand why everyone was so excited to see him. It was clearly beyond the fact that he was Jewish, as there are other Jewish artists, Bob Dylan for example, that Israelis like but don’t have this powerful love for.”

At the time, Friedman, 46, came across an article which mentioned that the singer-songwriter and poet had performed a series of concerts for Israeli troops on the front line during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

“The details were unclear,” Friedman explains via Zoom from his Jerusalem home. “But it was obvious that something deep had happened, and that Israelis remembered it.” Born in Toronto, Friedman had grown up with Leonard Cohen “growling” in the background, and, intrigued by this unusual story about the artist, decided to explore it further.

The result is Friedman’s fourth book, Who By Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai, a short but deeply poignant, riveting account of this little-known, brief period in Cohen’s life.

Drawing on interviews with former soldiers and excerpts from an unpublished manuscript written by Cohen immediately after the war, Friedman explains the profound significance of “the meeting of young soldiers at a moment of extreme peril with one of the great voices of the age”, and the intertwined, lasting impact of the tour — on both the singer and the State of Israel.

But the Leonard Cohen who came to Israel then is not the elegant gentleman we remember from the end of his life.

In October 1973, he was living on the Greek island of Hydra with his long-term partner Suzanne and their son, experiencing something that looked a lot like a mid-life crisis, believes Friedman.

Earlier that year, Cohen had announced his retirement, feeling he no longer had anything to say.

“He was a depressed, angry 39-year-old, very wrapped up in his own darkness.” Israel’s national crisis gave him an opportunity, a means to escape from his personal crisis, but also, Cohen’s overt and deep affinity for the Jewish people and towards Israel meant he wanted to help.

“He’s a bit of a sceptic about Israel and definitely not a fervent flag-waving Zionist, but when the war broke out, he feels the need to be there.”

Cohen arrived without much of a plan of what he was going to do, other than mentioning that he might volunteer on a kibbutz, notes Friedman. He did not even bring his guitar. But a chance meeting with some Israeli musicians in a Tel Aviv café altered any intentions he may have had, as they asked him to join them at the front.

“An interesting detail is that Cohen requested they call him Eliezer, his Hebrew name,” Friedman adds. “I think it really shows how powerful his tribal loyalty was.”

Although Cohen began by playing at Air Force bases, he was soon in Sinai, putting himself in danger, even crossing the Suez Canal a day after the Israeli army, a turning point in the conflict.

His performances were, in the main, small — just a few songs, sometimes to 20 to 30 soldiers, some of whom knew of Cohen and his music and others who did not.

“The amazing thing about this tour was how raw it was,” says Friedman. “You can see it in the few pictures that survived from the concerts.

"Cohen is in the desert, wearing something that looks like fatigues. In many cases, not only are there no seats, there’s no amp, no microphone.

"He’s just holding a guitar, standing on the sand and the soldiers are either standing or sitting [around him]. There was no film crew, he’s not trying to capitalise it on any way.

"Anyone who’s picturing a kind of Bob Hope-style tour —those famous tours for American troops in Korea or Vietnam where you have a stadium or some kind of amphitheatre — this was not like that at all.”

Officially, however, the tour never happened. Friedman found no record of it in the Israeli military archives; no named officer in charge, no list of the concerts nor the dates on which they had taken place.

“There was absolutely nothing, apart from [those] photographs. Israel was preoccupied with not losing this war, which it almost did. The fact that Leonard Cohen was in the country was a very marginal detail, and it seems like he was moving around the front, basically with no supervision.

"It was a kind of subterranean history that had never really been documented.”

Friedman had hoped to interview Cohen himself for the book.

In November 2016, he had contacted the singer via his Canadian publisher, which also happened to be Cohen’s, with an explanation of what he wanted to write and an interview request but woke the following morning after he had sent that email to Cohen’s obituary. “I was denied the opportunity of interviewing Cohen, but I think there’s reparation for that terrible circle of luck,” he says.

Not long afterward, he found Cohen’s 45-page manuscript in McMaster University library in Hamilton, Ontario, which relays the drama and “stormy emotions” of his two-week war tour.

Not only that, Friedman had access to Cohen’s notebooks and in one found the first draft of a song, Lover Lover Lover, written at an Israeli airbase during the war and released in 1974.

In the original, Cohen wrote that he “went down to the desert to help my brothers fight” —a line that explicitly identifies with the Israelis, says Friedman — but later Cohen altered “brothers” to “my children”, claiming he wrote it for Egyptian and Israeli soldiers in that order, before abandoning the verse altogether.

“He tries to universalise the experience and make it unclear whose side he’d been on in the war. I think he realised that his tribal affiliations contradicted his duty as the universal poet.”

The war had a tremendous impact on both Cohen and the people who saw him, yet, in the years that followed, Cohen spoke little about it. “He didn’t want his art to be considered journalism.

He didn’t like to be tied down to a specific experience. I think [it’s why] he chooses not to talk about it.”

Although the 19-day conflict resulted in a narrow victory for Israel, the effect of it on the country was profound.

It shattered the illusion of the country’s invincibility and sense of euphoria that had existed after the Six Day War in 1967. Its political leadership was discredited and four years later the Labour Party lost for the first time and Likud came to power.

A different Israel emerged. The country changed direction and part of that change is evident in Israeli music, says Friedman. “It becomes less about the collective and the kibbutz and instead, more individualistic. Many artists are more open to God and to religion —they sound a lot more like Leonard Cohen.”

Who By Fire — its title references both the prayer Unetannah Tokef, chanted on Yom Kippur, and Cohen’s version of it — is being adapted into a mini drama TV series. Written by Yehonatan Indursky (Shtisel), filming is due to begin in 2024.

“It’s an exciting project. I don’t know how to make a TV series but I’m giving whatever advice they ask for.”

The big question is: who will play Leonard Cohen? “They declined my offer, for some reason, so I’m not sure,” Friedman says, laughing. “It could be an absolutely wonderful character to play.”

Matti Friedman is at Jewish Book Week on 26 February at 8pm. ‘Who By Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai’ is published by Spiegel and Grau

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