Israeli diplomat tells of part in Cohen’s ‘Who by Fire’
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Israeli diplomat tells of part in Cohen’s ‘Who by Fire’

Deputy head of the Foreign Ministry says he sent the musician the liturgical poem the song is based on after they met in London in 1971

US singer Leonard Cohen during a concert in Ramat Gan September 24, 2009. (Marko / Flash90)
US singer Leonard Cohen during a concert in Ramat Gan September 24, 2009. (Marko / Flash90)

A senior Israeli diplomat said that he made a “modest contribution” to the composition of Leonard Cohen’s acclaimed song, “Who by Fire,” based on a famous Hebrew liturgical poem.

Jeremy Issacharoff, a deputy director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said on Saturday that as a young student in London in the 1970s, he met with Cohen and provided him with a copy of the text of the liturgical poem that served as the inspiration for one of his most well-known songs.

Issacharoff related the story on the Facebook page of Army Radio, in response to a post following Cohen’s death last week at the age of 82.

Issacharoff said he met Cohen after he and a friend, inspired by a benefit concert for Bangladesh in New York, decided to organize a similar event in the UK to show solidarity for Israel.

“In those years I lived in London,” Issacharoff wrote, “my friend and I had a great idea — to organize a concert that would show solidarity with Israel. We thought we could organize the concert in Wembley Stadium and with a lot of audacity we started to meet with different rock stars.”

The keynote address was delivered by Ambassador Jeremy Issacharoff, Deputy Director General of the Foreign Affairs Ministry at the First Jerusalem Leaders Summit on March 20, 2016. (Screen capture: YouTube)
The keynote address being delivered by Ambassador Jeremy Issacharoff, Deputy Director General of the Foreign Affairs Ministry at the First Jerusalem Leaders Summit on March 20, 2016. (Screen capture: YouTube)

Issacharoff explained that he pitched the idea to many famous musicians, including Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr and Stephen Stills, who were all open to hearing the idea.

“We were most excited to meet with Leonard Cohen, at his friend’s apartment in Mayfair, London,” he wrote. “We got there and met with Cohen who was generous, modest and who patiently listened to us. After we asked him to perform, he told us that he regretfully had just finished a concert tour in Europe and that the members of his band had all gone home. Otherwise, he would have been very interested in taking part in a concert to show solidarity with Israel.”

At the end of the meeting, Cohen, who based many of his lyrics on biblical tales or religious liturgy, asked the two about the poem “Unetaneh Tokef,” a moving prayer read on the High Holy Days in the Ashkenazic liturgy, recounting God’s judgment of man.

“In the end, there was no concert, but Leonard asked us if we remembered the prayer said on Rosh Hashanah about what would happen in the coming year — who would live and who would die. He asked us to send him the prayer and we obviously did. Time passed and then he released the song ‘Who by Fire.”

“At least we had a modest contribution to one of his songs,” Issacharoff said.

Issacharoff said he met with Cohen again a year later in London.

“He was accompanied by a Buddhist monk who didn’t say much, but just sat with us and listened. At that point, it was clear that Cohen was pulled to the spirituality of the East,” he said.

Cohen spent several years studying with Zen Buddhist Joshu Sasaki, eventually becoming a Buddhist monk himself.

“I never met with Cohen again but his songs accompanied me every day for 40 years.” Issacharoff added that “it was amazing to feel from that first encounter how connected he was to Judaism.”

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