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Leonard Cohen’s Yom Kippur War performance comes alive on Israeli stage

Some 50 years after Cohen serenaded IDF soldiers in the Sinai desert, Beit Avi Chai explores his mythical trip to the frontlines, a unique moment in Israel history.

Photo by Yakovi Doron
Photo by Yakovi Doron

An internationally famous musician finds himself in a war zone. He sleeps in an army sleeping bag, eats military rations and performs in front of soldiers returning from the horrors of the battlefield. What motivated him to rush to the frontline? And how did this encounter turn into music?

Leonard Cohen’s visit to Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War has become the stuff of legend, with journalist Matti Friedman recently chronicling the event in his book Who By Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai. The book’s title pays homage to Cohen’s song of the same name, a reimagining of the traditional Unetanneh Tokef prayer chanted on Yom Kippur

The trip clearly had a significant impact on Cohen, both creatively and personally, and his visit has come to symbolize the perpetually-evolving relationship between diaspora Jews and Israel, as well as the connection between secular and non-believing Jews to the concept of Jewish peoplehood.

Inspired by Friedman’s book, Beit Avi Chai, the Jerusalem-based creative Jewish cultural center is bringing Cohen’s visit to the stage, some 50 years after the modern-day bard serenaded Israel’s soldiers in the Sinai desert. The live production of Who By Fire includes musical performances, first-person testimonies, and Cohen’s personal diary entries written in Tel Aviv and Sinai for a rich, in-depth recreation of that surreal visit.

How 1973 changed Yom Kippur forever

Photo by Ran Arda

Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in the Jewish calendar, is a day of atonement that sees day-long fasting and prayers for repentance. Traditionally a time of somber personal reflection, the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people over the millennia are major focuses of the day.

But in 1973, a surprise attack from the Syrian and Egyptian fronts saw the quiet of the day brutally shattered, and the Israeli perception of the day forever altered. Although Israel won the war, it suffered heavy casualties and the carnage of the clash became an additional focus of the traditional Yom Kippur reflection on Jewish suffering.

“The Yom Kippur War was a breaking point for Israeli society,” explains Amichai Chasson, Artistic Director at Beit Avi Chai. “Since the war, the day has been ‘charged’ with an additional layer of historical meaning. A new, difficult reckoning and memory of war has joined the public consciousness and everything that the day symbolizes for the Jewish people.”

As Israeli society grappled with unprecedented casualties while the war continued to rage, a Jewish singer-songwriter from Canada suddenly materialized, ready to sing to the soldiers during one of the darkest moments in Israeli history.

A diaspora Jew comes home: a personal and musical journey

Photo by Ran Arda.

When Leonard Cohen visited Israel during the Yom Kippur War, he was already a well-known musician, having played for an audience of 500,000 at the Isle of Wight festival just a few years earlier.

His reasons for traveling to Israel during the war, explored in depth by Who By Fire, stemmed from a personal and artistic roadblock, as well as more nebulous motivations that are almost mystical in nature.

Chasson believes that the public can learn a lot from the war-time meeting which took place “between the shells,” but that the format of traditional stage play isn’t flexible enough to convey the complexity of Cohen’s experience.

Because Who By Fire is a multidisciplinary event, featuring everything from audio clips to poetry reading and first-hand narratives, the audience is immersed in “layers of texts” that reflect the complicated reality of both Cohen’s visit and wider themes of Jewish belonging and connection.

“Beit Avi Chai is telling the story of Cohen’s experience during the Yom Kippur War, and showing how it fits into the saga of the Jewish-Israeli story today,” Chasson says.

“This point of view reveals the story of the relationship between Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora, showing the connection between the Yom Kippur texts and the modern poetry of Cohen, and the influence of historical events on Jewish creativity.”

Dr. David Rozenson, Executive Director at Beit Avi Chai, explains that texts written by Cohen during his Yom Kippur War trip shaped the course of his musical career, along with the music industry as a whole.

“From the diary entries that Matti Friedman discovered, it seems that Cohen experienced an epiphany during his visit to Israel. His time here served as an unexpected period of inspiration, and led to the birth of new music that the world knows today,” says Rozenson. “At this event, we’re using his words, along with videography, interpretation and contemporary expressions to show the audience how it all happened. And as this is a time before Yom Kippur, we hope that the evening provides a sense of reflection and inspiration to our own lives today.”

Community-focused music and culture

“This is a story that is fascinating on many levels, and to me personally as well,” says Avishai Huri, the artistic director of Who By Fire.

“A Jew from overseas interrupts his own personal, romantic existence to get here during a war. It’s also a national story, of Israeli soldiers who go through horrific things, then meet up with this world-famous musician.”

Huri explains that the multidisciplinary production is aimed at people “age 16 to 120,” and that there is plenty of background so that people who aren’t familiar with Cohen or his music won’t feel out of the loop.

Beit Avi Chai, the Jewish cultural center behind the production, hosts and creates original artistic performances focused on Jewish and Israeli culture and ideas.

The performance of Who By Fire on Monday, September 12th is in Hebrew.

The performance on Tuesday, September 13th is in English.

Beit Avi Chai is located at 44 King George Street in Jerusalem.

Click here to purchase tickets

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