Leonard Cohen in Sinai »

When many Americans think of entertaining military troops during wartime, we remember the USO tours that took place during the Vietnam War and through Operations Desert Storm (Gulf War I), headlined by Bob Hope with an array of American celebrities who have performed for the men and women deployed overseas. These shows were highly produced events, staged with adequate sound systems and appropriate lighting, before an audience of active military men and women, numbering in the thousands.

Compare these shows with the impromptu concerts given by the iconic Canadian poet-singer Leonard Cohen in the Sinai Peninsula during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Cohen’s performances, his state of mind and the harsh realities of the war in Yom Kippur are the subject of Matti Friedman’s recent book, “Who By Fire.” Friedman oscillates between the grueling details of the war, his record on young soldiers, and Cohen’s music and its impact on those soldiers, as well as the impact of war on Cohen and his music, including the importance of Yom Kippur liturgy. The book is a revealing and absorbing account of those few short weeks when Israel’s fate was on the brink, but its revelations will stay with the reader far longer than it takes to read the slim volume.

Friedman gained access to one of Cohen’s unpublished manuscripts hidden with his papers housed at McMaster University in Toronto. The manuscript is part diary, part poetry and part fiction. And, courtesy of the Cohen family, Friedman dug into the pocket notebooks Cohen carried with him throughout his career. The notebooks are more like diaries and allowed Friedman to distinguish between the diary writings and the fictional portions of the manuscript. They also allowed him to find people who were soldiers during the Yom Kippur War and who heard Cohen play in the Sinai.

Cohen’s trip to Israel, which Cohen called his “mythical home,” was a sort of escape from the life he lived on the Greek island of Hydra, with his then-girlfriend and their newborn and music. He was one of many Israelis who had scattered across the world urgently trying to get home to return to their units and take their place in the war. His goal was to work on a kibbutz to replace conscripts, and music was so far from his mind that he didn’t bring a guitar. However, a chance encounter, of which there are several different accounts, at Café Pinati with Israeli singers Ilana Rovina and Oshik Levi led Cohen to join the informal tour which also included a young Matti Caspi.

Friedman details some of the battles and many casualties and the singer’s closeness to both. Most concerts were informal and intimate, with soldiers sometimes going into battle after listening to songs performed by Cohen and the Israeli musical artists. Other times the soldiers had just returned, shocked to have seen their friends fall, some literally from the sky. Cohen was known to many Israelis. Her songs “Suzanne” and “Bird on a Wire” were familiar to them, and many young women owned Cohen’s early albums. When he appeared in concert with the other Israeli artists, the soldiers were surprised and delighted.

There is no doubt that Cohen’s experiences during the Yom Kippur War affected his music.

There is no doubt that Cohen’s experiences during the Yom Kippur War affected his music. The song “Lover, Lover, Lover” comes out of war concerts. Caspi recalls Cohen working on the song, changing the lyrics as the gigs progressed. Friedman identifies a lost verse found in one of the notebooks: “I went down into the desert to help my brothers fight. But the chorus, “Yes and lover, lover, lover… Come back to me,” is indicative of Cohen’s state of mind. He could not escape his history, his tradition and his duty. And there’s no doubt that Cohen’s song “Who By Fire,” his rendition of the Unetaneh Tokef, stems from his experience of the Yom Kippur War. As the prayer was recited in Israel on October 6, 1973, the first indications of attacks in Sinai and the Golan Heights arrived. “Who will live and who will die… who by fire, who by water. The Book of Jonah and the priestly blessing, when those members of the priestly tribe – the Cohanim (to which Leonard Cohen belonged) – bless their community also ties Cohen inextricably to Yom Kippur.

Friedman’s compelling account of a pivotal war that left an indelible mark on a nation, the Jewish people and a musician draws readers in and doesn’t let go until the last page is over.

Melissa Patack Berenbaum is a lawyer living in Los Angeles.

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