When the Poet Went to War

September 1, 2022 in Library Corner

By Robin Jacobson. 

On October 6, 1973, air raid sirens shattered the solemn quiet of Yom Kippur afternoon in Israel.   Egypt and Syria had launched a two-front surprise attack. Within a few days, Israeli casualties were skyrocketing, and the state had lost alarming numbers of planes and tanks. Fearing for Israel’s survival, Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan spoke despairingly of “the destruction of the Third Temple.”

Meanwhile, on the peaceful Greek island of Hydra, poet-novelist-singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen caught news reports of the war and impulsively headed for Israel, unsure what he would do once he got there. He wound up performing non-stop for weary soldiers camped throughout the battle zone. Who by Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai, by award-winning Canadian-Israeli journalist Matti Friedman, retraces Cohen’s dangerous concert tour. Captivating and insightful, Friedman reflects on Cohen’s life, Israel, and the transcendent power of music in wartime.

A Flawed Hero

Born in 1934 into a prominent Montreal Jewish family of kohanim (descended from Temple priests), Leonard Cohen grew up in the historic synagogue, Shaar Hashomayim, that his great-grandfather had helped found. To pursue a career in writing and music, Cohen left Montreal for New York, London, and Greece. His work won acclaim, but he battled depression and drug abuse.

At the time the Yom Kippur War erupted, Cohen was deeply unhappy. At age 39, he believed his performing career was over; he announced plans to retire. His personal life was equally fraught. Even living on an idyllic island with his partner Suzanne and their baby son, he felt trapped. An unpublished Cohen manuscript, unearthed by Friedman, suggests that Cohen’s impetuous decision to rush to Israel’s aid may have been partly fueled by a desire to escape his melancholy life.

Once in Tel Aviv, Cohen wandered into a café looking for an Israeli woman he’d had a romantic affair with the previous year. She wasn’t there, but some musicians recognized him. Dissuading him from his vague notion of volunteering on a kibbutz, they persuaded him to come with them to perform for combat troops. They even rustled up a guitar for him since Cohen had left his in Greece.

Singing in the Sinai

In the Sinai Desert, Cohen and the pickup band trucked from encampment to encampment to perform. Ammunition crates served for a stage and jeep headlights for spotlights.

Sleeping on the ground, eating combat rations, Cohen fully identified with the soldiers. He wrote a new song (Lover Lover Lover) that originally included the line: “I went down to the desert to help my brothers fight.”  Movingly, the song invoked mystic protection for the army audience: “may the spirit of this song . . . be a shield for you . . . against the enemy.”

Today, Friedman says, “Israelis think of Leonard Cohen as an Israeli artist,” partly because “at one of the worst moments in our history, he came.”  Each fall, Israeli newspapers retell the story of his generous, brave Yom Kippur War tour. Cohen’s last concert in Israel, in 2009, played to a packed stadium and famously ended with Cohen raising his hands and offering the Birkat Kohanim (priestly blessing) to the crowd.

After the war, Cohen recommitted to his family and to his career. His post-1973 songs frequently riffed on Jewish themes and texts, including Who by Fire, You Want It Darker, and the iconic Hallelujah. Whatever mix of altruistic and selfish reasons propelled Cohen to Israel in 1973, he seemed to have found revelation and redemption in the Sinai Desert.