Matti Friedman had a series of near and not-so-near misses with Leonard Cohen.
Friedman was born in Canada in 1977, four years after the 1973 Yom Kippur War during which the Canadian poet-songwriter-singer performed a truly remarkable series of ad hoc concerts for Israeli troops on the front lines of the catastrophic conflict.
He didn’t make it to Cohen’s final, very different concert in Israel in 2009, when Cohen — now in his mid-70s and enjoying the greatest adulation of his career — played for tens of thousands of Israelis, defied the vast concrete arena to elevate a stadium audience as never before, and concluded by offering his people a Priestly Blessing. Friedman was at home in Jerusalem, looking after his 18-month-old twins.
And when, in November 2016, Friedman started working on the pitch for what became his new book on Cohen, and emailed his editor at the Canadian publisher he and Cohen shared to see if an interview could be arranged, it turned out that Cohen had passed away, at 82, the previous day.
There’s no knowing what Cohen in person would have added to Friedman’s fascinating and important book, “Who By Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai,” published in English on March 29 (having appeared in Hebrew, fittingly, last Yom Kippur).
He might have explained why he discarded the verse Friedman rediscovered, from the song “Lover Lover Lover” released soon after the war, in which Cohen wrote of going “down to the desert to help my brothers fight.” He might have clarified what possessed him not merely to come here and perform in a war but to put his life at genuine risk; Cohen crossed the Suez Canal just after the first Israeli troops had done so in the turning point of the conflict. He might at least have helped Friedman track the itinerary of exactly where and when he played; no such definitive record exists, unsurprisingly given both the chaos that reigned here and the fact that Cohen was not a megastar at the time.
Leonard Cohen the man was very much here, with the Israelis. But Leonard Cohen the artist understood that he had to be bigger than one side and bigger than the Yom Kippur War. He didn’t want his art to be considered journalism
But as Friedman came to realize as he researched the book — frustrated by the absence of basic core information, but ultimately empowered when he was granted unprecedented access to the musician’s notebooks from the period — Cohen might not actually have helped him much at all. In the decades after his extraordinary war tour, Cohen didn’t talk about it. Wouldn’t talk about it.
“Leonard Cohen the man was very much here, with the Israelis,” Friedman, a friend of mine and a former colleague here at The Times of Israel, told me in an interview. “But Leonard Cohen the artist understood that he had to be bigger than one side and bigger than the Yom Kippur War. He didn’t want his art to be considered journalism.”
Hence, said Friedman, the amending and ultimate deletion of that Zionist verse in “Lover Lover Lover.” And hence, perhaps too, the refusal to discuss his 1973 musical desert heroics.
Fortunately for those many people for whom Cohen’s uniquely wise, anguished and spiritual oeuvre continues to resonate deeply, Friedman’s book fills the vacuum.
It has much to say, moreover, for those many who want to better understand the shattering moment for Israel that was the Yom Kippur War — October 6-25, 1973 — after which the country would never be the same confident, indomitable, secular pioneering miracle.
Notes Friedman in our interview, his Sinai appearances were not only “a key moment for Cohen — who’s at a professional crossroads and thinks he’s retiring… but a crossroads for the country as well.”
“Israel never goes back to being what it was before [the Yom Kippur War]. The Labor Zionist leadership is discredited in many ways. The old kind of Zionism is discredited. The old music is discredited,” Friedman says. “After the war, we’re going to have a completely different kind of culture, and a different kind of country. And part of that is a new kind of music that’s much less about the collective and the kibbutz and agriculture, the kind of stuff we’re used to pre-1973. It’s actually going to look a lot more like Leonard Cohen: It’s going to be more individualistic. It’s going to be much more reflective… [with its leading artists more] open to God, and to Judaism.”
The Times of Israel: Why did you decide that there was a book to be written about this? Have you loved Leonard Cohen all your life? Did you know the story of his Yom Kippur War trip to Israel? Was it somewhere in the back of your mind?
Matti Friedman: I’m Canadian, of course. And if you’re a Canadian Jew, Leonard Cohen looms very large in your imagination. Canada hasn’t produced all that many figures of global significance. So, of course, Leonard Cohen was playing in the background when I was a kid.
I’m always on the lookout for little stories, or stories that seem to be little, that are on the periphery of people’s attention, that say something big about the country or say something big about the human experience. I learned that as a young reporter at The Jerusalem Report, a magazine which was a great place to learn journalism for many reasons. One reason was that we couldn’t directly report the news because the magazine came out only every two weeks. You couldn’t cover a news story — you had to find an esoteric angle that said something big that would still be timely in two weeks when the magazine hit the newsstands. And that actually turned out to be a very good way of thinking about stories. To this day, as a reporter, if I’m ever with a horde of reporters, I know I’m in the wrong place. That story is not going to have a shelf life. You need to be somewhere else, looking for a different kind of story.
This one started in 2009, when Cohen came to Israel for what ultimately turned out to be his last concert here. It was part of that great revival tour when he came out of a Buddhist monastery where he’d been holed up, and discovered that his savings had been stolen by his manager. He goes back on the road and discovers that he’s ascended to the pantheon of great artists and he plays packed stadiums around the world.
When he came here in 2009, there was an article in Yedioth Aharonoth that mentioned a tour he’d done in the Yom Kippur War. It was just such a weird story — what was Leonard Cohen doing in Sinai in the Yom Kippur War? I started clipping stories. I had the idea that there had to be something worthwhile to say about this, though it wasn’t immediately clear what that was.
At first, part of it might have been just that it’s a Canadian-Israeli story, that speaks to my Canadian-Israeli self, and there are very few of those stories that really matter.
Here you have a Canadian who’s dropped in, almost like he’s landed from the moon, in the middle of an Israeli catastrophe, and something very interesting happens — both to him and to the people who see him. That seemed to me to be a rich vein that could be mined.
He’s not just a Canadian who comes to Israel. He’s an incredibly spiritual Jewish person, from a rabbinical family. Why do you think he came?
Cohen does grow up in a very learned Jewish family. He grows up in a congregation called Shaar Hashomayim, which is to this day one of the most important Jewish institutions in Canada. It’s a synagogue in Montreal, founded by Cohen’s ancestors, among others. Cohen’s father and grandfather are the presidents of the synagogue. And of course, they’re also kohanim, they’re priests. That gives you a certain status in the community. Cohen’s grandfather on the other side — his mother’s father — was a learned rabbi who was known in Hebrew as Sar Hadikduk, the Prince of the Grammarians; he was an expert in Hebrew grammar. He was from Kovno, and he lived in Cohen’s house for part of the time when Cohen was a kid. So Cohen comes from a very serious Jewish family, and he grows up in this synagogue, and in this family, and he has a lot of Jewish content in his head. That’s clear to anyone who knows Cohen’s lyrics.
But he leaves Montreal and he leaves the community and he’s out in the world by the time this war breaks out. He’s been through the Village [in New York], and he’s lived in London, and at the time he’s living on a Greek island called Hydra.
Why he comes to Israel is a good question, and I try to answer it in the book, although Cohen is too cagey to ever really tell us. In fact, one of the interesting things about this story is that Cohen almost never talks about this experience afterward. I was lucky enough to find a manuscript that he wrote about it and never published — it’s in a box in Hamilton, Ontario — and I was also lucky enough to get permission from the Cohen estate to publish parts of it for the first time.
So parts of my book are Cohen telling us what this all looks like from his own perspective, in his own voice. Yet still he never comes out and gives a journalist what he wants, which is the why, when and how.
There are a few things going on in his life at this time. One is that he’s desperately unhappy — that’s clear from his own writing. He’s hit a dead end in his music. He’s announced that he’s retiring. This is published in the music press in Europe and in America earlier that year, in 1973. He gives an interview saying he’s had it, he said what he has to say and he can’t do it anymore.
He is living with a woman he refers to as his wife, although they’re not officially married. But this is a long and serious relationship. They’ve just had a kid; his first son, Adam, was born about a year before the war. And he’s 39. That’s a prime moment for a crisis.
He says this: he kind of feels like he’s in jail and he can’t get out. He’s on this island. An island is a place you can run away to, but an island is also a place where you’re stranded.
He explicitly says: I’ve never hidden the fact that I’m a Jew, and if the Jewish people are ever in danger, I’m going to be there. And he feels the need to be there. He hears on the radio that a war has broken out, and he gets on a ferry to Athens, then gets on an airplane to Israel, without a clear idea of what he’s going to do
I think in many ways, our national crisis offers him a way out of his personal crisis. That’s part of what’s going on.
The third part is this deep connection that he feels to the Jewish world and to Israel. He explicitly says: I’ve never hidden the fact that I’m a Jew, and if the Jewish people are ever in danger, I’m going to be there. And he feels the need to be there. He hears on the radio that a war has broken out, and he gets on a ferry to Athens, then gets on an airplane to Israel, without a clear idea of what he’s going to do.
He doesn’t seem to have planned to play for troops. It’s not exactly clear what he wants to do, although he tells people he wants to volunteer on a kibbutz. He just feels a strong Jewish pull.
He’d been to Israel before. He played concerts just before. Had he been to Israel apart from that previous trip?
The immediate predecessor to this visit is one a year before, in 1972, at the very end of a world tour, which he felt didn’t go well. All kinds of things went wrong, the speakers didn’t work, and he didn’t have the vibe that he wanted. Those two concerts in Israel were strange, each in its own way.
The one in Tel Aviv ended with a brawl between security guards and the audience, and with Cohen calling off the concert in the middle.
There was a documentary filmmaker there, so we actually have this on a documentary film you can see, called “Bird on a Wire.” It’s a disastrous concert.
And then the last concert is in Jerusalem. And in Jerusalem, it’s Cohen who almost really botches it. He sings a few songs and he just can’t focus. In the documentary, you see him dropping acid right before the show, which might have something to do with it, but he just can’t hold it together.
He starts going off on this interesting and kind of rambling monologue where he tells the audience that it says in the Kabbalah that for anything to happen, the male and the female parts of you need to be facing each other. And his Adam and Eve are just not doing that tonight; it’s just not working. His Adam and Eve aren’t facing each other, and God, as a result, can’t sit on his throne.
He comes back on stage and just stares at them, grinning. He just can’t believe it. He starts singing again, and it’s an amazing show. By the end he’s crying, the band is crying, the audience is crying. It’s an incredible moment
So he’s going to give everyone their money back, he says. And he walks off the stage. The audience — instead of leaving or getting really angry, which is what you’d expect people to do — they start singing “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem” (We’ve brought peace unto you), and they just sing it again and again and again. He’s in his dressing room, trying to calm down, and you can hear the audience singing “Hevenu Shalom,” because they think he knows that song — because that’s a song that any Jew would know if you went to day school, if you went to Hebrew school. He must know it.
And of course he does. And he comes back on stage and just stares at them, grinning. He just can’t believe it. He starts singing again, and it’s an amazing show. By the end he’s crying, the band is crying, the audience is crying. It’s an incredible moment.
So this place is not an ordinary place for him. It’s not just a place where you play a gig. This is a different kind of place — he called it his “myth home.” I don’t know exactly what he means by that, and I don’t know if he knew what he meant by that, but it’s a place that’s out of the ordinary. When something big and bad happened here, he knew he had to come.
And then he winds up playing this tour, this series of short performances. It would seem that wasn’t the plan: He didn’t bring a guitar with him, and he kind of found himself, because of other artists, being schlepped along. It’s an amazing thing. The point you make in the book is that he did not play safe venues. He went deep into the heart of the battle. He put his life emphatically at risk. How would you describe the danger?
I think when American readers think of a war tour they think of Bob Hope playing big bases, far from the fighting, or that scene in “Apocalypse Now” with the Playboy Bunnies, where you have a big base and a kind of stadium set up, and performers come in. That’s not at all what this was.
Cohen starts off playing Air Force bases on the first day. But very quickly, he’s in Sinai, which is where the actual war is happening against the Egyptians. And not only is he at the tip of the front in Sinai, he actually crosses the Suez Canal — just after the army crosses the Suez Canal, in the turning point of the Yom Kippur War.
It’s extremely dangerous. The territory hasn’t been secured, and there’s an account that I give in the book of another performer who plays to the same soldiers at the same time as Cohen — Yafa Yarkoni, the grand dame of Israeli music. She is playing for the same soldiers when they get dive-bombed by an Egyptian fighter jet, and she has to be shoved into an armored personnel carrier. Ariel Sharon shoves her in and then jumps on top of her.
So, yes, he definitely did not play it safe, and he definitely put himself very deep in the war. Which makes it all the more surprising, I think, that he almost never talks about it afterward, because it was clearly a potent experience, not just for the people who saw him, but for him as well.
And he played very short, right? Three or four songs at a time.
How many times did he play?
No one was keeping track.
One of the first things I did, when I was researching the book, was to go to the IDF archive and ask for a list. I know the Education Corps was running cultural activities and bringing artists to Sinai, so I thought maybe someone kept track of the concerts. But actually, no one was in charge. It was utter chaos. We almost lost the war and 2,600 soldiers died in three weeks. I mean, the country was in complete chaos and the army was in disarray. So no one was keeping track of the artists, which was probably one reason that he could cross the Suez Canal in the middle of the war.
They would use the headlights of the jeep as spotlights, and they would stand on crates of ammunition and Cohen would play ‘Suzanne’; that’s really what it was
No one was organizing the tour. The artists were just going around in jeeps and showing up. In a description from Oshik Levy, one of the musicians who traveled with Cohen, they would be driving in the desert and there would be a few artillery pieces deployed in the middle of nowhere, and they’d just pull up in their jeep and they’d say, you want to hear a few songs? And the soldiers would say, okay. They hadn’t slept in weeks, and they were afraid of dying, but why not?
They would use the headlights of the jeep as spotlights, and they would stand on crates of ammunition and Cohen would play “Suzanne“; that’s really what it was. It was very rough. And of course, much more exciting and meaningful that way, because it was so disorganized.
Some people saw Cohen with an audience of two or three other soldiers with him, sitting on a helmet as he played. Sometimes it was 20 or 30 soldiers. And we have pictures of concerts that look like about 50 soldiers just standing in the desert.
There were also concerts at bigger bases which were more organized. One of them is at an Air Force base called Hatzor, where he actually writes one of his most famous songs, “Lover Lover Lover.” He writes it for an audience of Israeli pilots and air force crews that are in the middle of a truly desperate fight.
And it contains a verse that you rediscovered, that was incredibly supportive of Israel — a verse that he then excises from the final recording?
I wouldn’t say supportive exactly. But it’s deeply connected to the Israelis. He’s very open about his identification with the people he’s playing for. We can read the verse:
I went down to the desert to help my brothers fight
I knew that they weren’t wrong
I knew that they weren’t right…”
So he’s not waving the blue and white flag.
But bones must stand up straight and walk
And blood must move around
And men go making ugly lines
across the holy ground.
He played the song throughout the war, and what stood out to the soldiers was often that verse, and particularly that first line: “I went down to the desert to help my brothers fight.”
As Israelis we’re always wondering, are you with us? Are you on our side?
And here’s this great artist coming from abroad. What are you doing here? Are you one of us? And at that point in the war, I think the answer was absolutely yes.
Leonard Cohen asked the musicians who traveled with him to call him Eliezer, which is his Hebrew name.
So they called him Eliezer Cohen. In Israel, Eliezer Cohen is like “John Smith.” It’s every second person in the country. And he calls them “my brothers.”
The soldiers remember it. Actually, the first reference I ever heard to this verse — I had no idea there was another verse to “Lover, Lover, Lover” — was from one of the soldiers who saw him in Sinai. He said he couldn’t remember the words, but that Cohen sang a verse that identified with the soldiers. But when the song came out a few months later and he heard it on the radio, the verse was gone. He never forgave Leonard Cohen.
You see in the notebook that he erases the words “help my brothers” and he replaces them with “watch the children.” So it becomes: “I went down to the desert to watch the children fight.” He’s taking a step back, and this is immediately afterwards, because it’s in the same notebook. And then he decides to erase the verse entirely
I filed that away in my head, a weird memory. I thought he might be imagining it. Then I got access to the Cohen notebooks, these little notebooks that he had in his pocket, in which he wrote down all kinds of things, including the first draft of “Lover Lover Lover.” And the verse was there.
It really shows you the storm of emotion he felt at the time, and then the way he stepped back after the war. Because you see in the notebook that he erases the words “help my brothers” and he replaces them with “watch the children.” So it becomes: “I went down to the desert to watch the children fight.”
He’s taking a step back, and this is immediately afterwards, because it’s in the same notebook. And then he decides to erase the verse entirely. To this day, “Lover Lover Lover” is played without that verse, and most people don’t know that it was written at an Israeli Air Force base.
You write that he ends his tour very rapidly. He decides, that’s it, I’m out of here. And then there’s his change in terms of the empathy for his “brothers,” which is subsequently replaced radically.
You can see it as a continuation of his trajectory — from this moment of very emotional identification with these people who are his “brothers,” and his request to call him Eliezer, to distancing himself. In 1976, he’s giving a concert in France and plays “Lover Lover Lover.” He acknowledges to the audience that he wrote the song in the Yom Kippur War, but he says that he wrote it for Egyptian soldiers, and Israeli soldiers, in that order.
I think Leonard Cohen the man was very much here, with the Israelis, but Leonard Cohen the artist understood that he had to be bigger than one side and bigger than the Yom Kippur War. He didn’t want his art to be considered journalism. I think that’s one reason he didn’t talk about it that much or make it clear when this song was written. He’s writing universal contemplations of the human condition, not journalistic dispatches from the Sinai front in 1973. He doesn’t want to be pinned down.
Of course, we’d like to pin him down because we want him to be one of us. But Cohen is too slippery or maybe too smart to be limited in that way.
You can really see that game in play in the story of the Yom Kippur War.
Are you disappointed by that change — as an Israeli, as a Jew? Here was this iconic, very spiritual, very serious artist. What a serious artist he was — how serious about his art, and agonizing about the human condition and what we’re here for and how to interact with the otherworldly forces. And yet he’s reduced to a political pragmatist, seeking not to alienate a potential audience, and therefore abandoning an empathy that he had expressed and that had come from within him and was an artistic expression of what he was feeling. Is it a sort of betrayal of where his art had led him?
That’s an uncharitable way of seeing it. I’m not saying it’s not true, but a more charitable way is to understand what Cohen was trying to do, which was to speak to humanity, not just to one group of people.
The ideal kind of Judaism, for Cohen, was prophecy — a kind of unfettered communication with the divine, an openness to receiving divine transmissions
He had ideas which you can see in other things he wrote and said: The ideal kind of Judaism, for Cohen, was prophecy — a kind of unfettered communication with the divine, an openness to receiving divine transmissions. He didn’t like the rules and the petty politics of Jewish communities and he resented communal demands. And he didn’t like, I think, the idea that Judaism was somehow represented by a state or by an army. In Israel we understand that we can’t live without a state or without an army. Those are tools that allow us to have lives in which we might be able to talk to God or lead whatever kind of lives we want.
But I think he didn’t see it that way. In some ways, I think he resented the idea that this state represented Judaism. In the early 1980s, he even writes a poem on this topic which is very angry. I don’t know if it’s directly connected to the Lebanon war of 1982 but it’s written around that time, in his book of poetry “Book of Mercy,” Cohen’s take on the Book of Psalms. It’s an angry poem addressed to Israel, or more broadly to humanity as embodied by Israel. He’s disappointed. He wants Jews to be something bigger, or he wants Israel to be something else, something more elevated than it is or can be.
But we can’t forget that Cohen never denies his Judaism, and he never changes his name. The first line of “Lover Lover Lover” is “Father, change my name.” He never changes his name. He doesn’t change his Jewish name to Bob Dylan or Kirk Douglas.
He calls himself Leonard Cohen, even when that was, I’m sure, professionally very inconvenient. He never hides who he is. And he’s always very open about where he’s from. He’s a Jew from Montreal. That’s right out in front.
And at the end of his life, or close to the end of life, he comes back here [to Israel] and has, by all accounts, an amazing reconnection with the Israeli public — which always considered him to be a brother. Israelis think of Leonard Cohen as an Israeli artist; there isn’t really another foreign artist with that status. He’s definitely an insider for Israelis. Bob Dylan, who of course, Israelis love, doesn’t have it, even though Bob Dylan is as Jewish as Leonard Cohen.
…and wrote an incredibly Zionist song [Neighborhood Bully].
Right. Which Cohen would never have done.
Well, if Cohen had written it, he would have censored it afterwards.
There’s probably no artist who’s covered in Hebrew as often as Cohen. New translations of Cohen’s songs come out all the time. Part of that is who Cohen was, and part of it is this memory that, at one of the worst moments in our history, he came. He didn’t have to come, but he came.
He came. He risked his life, and whatever happened afterwards and whatever got him here, the fact is he put his life in danger to play impromptu little gigs for Israeli soldiers.
That’s right. And Israelis never forgot.
You say it’s one of those little stories on the periphery, which it is. But if you’re a Leonard Cohen fan, never mind an obsessive, it’s colossal. This incredibly spiritual serious writer who agonized over the lyrics of his songs. I remember reading about a conversation between him and Dylan about how long it took him to write “Hallelujah” as compared to Dylan’s “I and I”… This incredibly serious artist comes to the homeland of his faith, which is so central to his family and his heritage and his name. And he does this unique thing: Is there anything like this, of an incredibly famous artist putting his or her life on the line across the front lines of a war? I don’t know that there is. And yet his biographer, for example, had material on this that she didn’t use that she made available to you. Why was it left aside until your book? Why hasn’t it been analyzed and investigated by the Cohen obsessives?
The war tour has always been considered a strange footnote. I think people didn’t really know how to explain it. Even people who love Cohen, and who read the excellent biography by Sylvie Simmons, might imagine that it was one concert at a big base, a kind of a Bob Hope type concert, and that he came and left.
How long was he here?
He was here for a couple of weeks. We don’t have exact dates. He left his manuscript, but the manuscript is not a journal. From my interviews with soldiers, you can infer when things happened. We have one concrete date for a concert because a soldier that I found had written a postcard on the day of the Leonard Cohen show at Sharm el-Sheikh in Sinai. But he’s here for most of the war and he leaves, it seems, immediately afterwards. The other musicians remember him saying that as soon as the politicians are in the picture, wrapping up the war, he’s out.
I’ve always thought that it’s in the little stories that a person’s life, or a country’s life, really becomes apparent. So this isn’t a biography of Cohen or a sweeping look at Cohen’s work, but the story of one moment. An extreme moment at which Cohen removes himself from his usual context and inserts himself into a completely different context — that’s the moment that’s going to be the most revealing of who he was and how he thought.
Your book is obviously about Leonard Cohen in Israel, but it is also about Israel itself and the Yom Kippur War, and the war as this shattering breaking point for Israel, this turning point for Israel, with all the certainties shattered; the belief in the secular Zionist pioneer notion that we don’t do God here, we don’t need to do God here, we are capable and independent and we can vanquish our enemies, and the new Judaism is Judaism as a nation as opposed to a faith — all shattered. That’s very clear in the book.
One of the interesting things is that it’s not just a key moment for Cohen — who’s at a professional crossroads and thinks he’s retiring, and then ultimately, after the war, releases one of the best albums of his career (1974’s “New Skin for the Old Ceremony”) — but it’s a crossroads for the country as well.
The Yom Kippur war is a moment of deep crisis after which the country is never the same. Israel never goes back to being what it was before. The Labor Zionist leadership is discredited in many ways. The old kind of Zionism is discredited. The old music is discredited.
Our mutual friend Yossi Klein Halevi once told me that the Yom Kippur War killed the accordion. One of the fatalities in the war was that old kind of upbeat military troupe music, which was heavy on the accordion. After the war we’re going to have a completely different kind of culture, and a different kind of country.
And part of that is a new kind of music that’s much less about the collective and the kibbutz and agriculture, the kind of stuff we’re used to pre-1973. It’s actually going to look a lot more like Leonard Cohen.
It’s going to be more individualistic. It’s going to be much more reflective. It’s going to feature artists like Shalom Hanoch, like Meir Ariel, who’s mentioned in the book.
Ariel is Cohen’s only Israeli equal, in my opinion. And as a parenthetical aside, in a pretty wild coincidence, they’re in the same place in the war. We don’t know if they met each other, but Meir Ariel is a paratrooper at Suez City at the time that Cohen plays a concert in Suez City. And I just love to imagine the meeting, even though it almost certainly never happened.
These are the artists who are going to change Israeli music after the war. Many of them are going to be open to God, and to Judaism.
Meir Ariel, who was a secular kibbutznik, a paratrooper in the 1973 war, very much part of that old Israel and what it thought it was, ends his life writing prayers. His later songs are prayers, just like Cohen’s songs are prayers.
And then just to round off the story, Cohen does come back to Israel, in 2009.
It was the last concert of his first big comeback tour.
So I was at that concert.
Yes. Tell me about that.
It was in Ramat Gan Stadium, where I’ve also seen a dreadful concert, by Dylan. It’s hard to create the atmosphere of a synagogue in a concrete, open soccer stadium. Bad acoustics, tens of thousands of people. Yet it was an extraordinary concert, certainly the most astonishing concert I’ve ever been to, because it was a spiritual event — this modern musician whose lyrics were inspired by the Bible, this man called Cohen. And I’m sure for a lot of people in the audience, the memory of the period that you describe in the book was in the mix as well. I don’t think he gave any expression to that. But it was a homecoming, and it was a sense that you’d never see this uniquely connected artist ever again, not here in Israel. What do you think was going through his head? He ended with the Priestly Blessing.
One of my great regrets is not going to that concert. My twins were a year and a half old at the time and I was too exhausted to think. It was one of the great misses, for me — unfortunately one that I’ll never be able to correct.
But if you read what Cohen wrote during the war, you find something very interesting which I had no idea about before. Not only was he preoccupied with questions of Judaism and his affiliation to the Jewish people, but he was also preoccupied with the fact that he’s a Cohen. He was very aware that he came from a family of priests, of kohanim, that had a specific role, which is to bless the community. Birkat Hakohanim, the Priestly Blessing, a remnant from the Temple service which is carried on in synagogues today, is recited by people who are the descendants of the Temple priests, and their name is often Cohen.
Leonard Cohen was from one of those families. And that was actually important to him. I was very surprised by that. During the war, he’s wrestling with the fact that he knows he’s supposed to fill a role, and he’s not doing it.
There’s actually a character in the book who’s on him about it, someone he meets here, a newly religious American, a hippie rabbi type. He keeps telling Cohen — you have to come back and do your job. You have to stop with this singing, the bohemian life, stop messing around. You have to come back and be a priest. And this meant something to Cohen. He brings it up a few times in the manuscript, this manuscript that he never published.
He raised his hands in the way that the priests are supposed to do, and he blesses the congregation, this 50,000-strong crowd in the Ramat Gan Stadium. And he says Birkat HaCohanim in Hebrew. That’s a moment when anyone lucky enough to be there was truly blessed. And I think that says something deep about the whole arc of this story and the arc of Leonard Cohen’s life
Of course, he doesn’t want to be a priest, and he goes off back into the life he was leading.
But he comes back in 2009 and he gives this incredible concert, by all accounts. And at the end of the concert, there’s this amazing moment that I heard about immediately after it happened, because people just couldn’t believe it. He raised his hands in the way that the priests are supposed to do, and he blesses the congregation, this 50,000-strong crowd in the Ramat Gan Stadium. And he says Birkat Hakohanim in Hebrew. That’s a moment when anyone lucky enough to be there was truly blessed. And I think that says something deep about the whole arc of this story and the arc of Leonard Cohen’s life.
It starts in a synagogue in Montreal, and encompasses the entire world — it’s the Village and Joan Baez, and it’s this Greek island, and it’s Europe, and it’s “Hallelujah,” and when it ends, he’s buried next to his parents at Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal.
His last great song, “You Want It Darker,” has a Hebrew word in it, which is rare. And that Hebrew word, which is “hineni” — “here I am” — isn’t sung by Cohen. It’s sung by someone else, which is a rare appearance of another male voice in a Cohen song. And the singer is the hazan (the cantor) of Shaar Hashomayim, the shul where he grew up.
And a few months after that song came out, Cohen died. On his gravestone in Montreal it says, Leonard Cohen, and in Hebrew, Eliezer. So his life ends where it started.
Via a foray or three to the Jewish state.
Since the book came out in Hebrew, timed to coincide with Yom Kippur last year, did anyone contact you with additional information about the 1973 tour?
Everyone who saw him remembers it. And a lot of people feel like they had a kind of unique interaction with him. Someone my age wrote to me to say that their father had been in the Yom Kippur War and had never talked about it, and then he read my book and started talking about it for the first time. That meant a lot to me. For Israelis, the war is very much alive. Cohen looms very large here, much more so than he does for many people in the United States. He’s really part of the Israeli mind, and that war is part of the Israeli mind. And the intersection of Cohen and the war is very potent for people here. I’ve received some interesting emails.
But since the book came out here, you haven’t had somebody give you more concrete, definitive material?
What I really would love is the list of concerts. You know, on the 16th he played at this place and on the 17th at this place. But it’s obvious that there is no such list.
And no film?
There is not a frame of video footage. The country was so preoccupied. And Cohen wasn’t as famous as he is now. No one filmed it. There’s a very brief Israel Radio interview [in which Cohen can be heard saying, “I’m just an entertainer… I just came as soon as I could.”] An Army Radio technician recorded one concert; I found him but no one can figure out what became of the tape.
I had to run after fragments of people’s memories. Here and there it was mentioned in the papers, but amid the events it was just a sideshow. Only over time has it really assumed the dimensions of one of the most important details of the war. Every year someone writes an article about it. It’s almost as if there are the famous battles, like the Valley of the Tears, and the Chinese Farm, and there’s Leonard Cohen — and those are the stories of the Yom Kippur War. He’s part of the way that Israelis remember the war.
And of course he writes the song “Who By Fire,” which is inspired by the Yom Kippur liturgy, and ultimately migrates from the world of pop music out and back into synagogues, where today people sing it on Yom Kippur.
And that was a product of his war experience as well?
Cohen is too elusive to tell us explicitly. But a draft appears in his notebook right after the war. The song comes out in the next album (“New Skin for the Old Ceremony”), a few months after the ceasefire.
He took his craft incredibly seriously.
And it connected to his soul. He agonized.
That’s right. It didn’t come easily. He didn’t just write something and sing it. He sweated over everything and he thought it was meaningful, and it was.
Did I tell you the story about how I almost met him?
It’s not in the book.
No, I didn’t want to insert myself in the book too much.
In 2016, there was a great article in the New Yorker, by David Remnick, where he interviewed Cohen. It was clear from the article that Cohen was very ill, which I hadn’t quite appreciated. My friend Mitch Ginsburg [an Israeli translator and former Times of Israel reporter] called me and said, it’s clear from this article that Leonard Cohen’s days are numbered. It doesn’t say that in the article, but that’s how Mitch read it. I’d been carrying around the idea for this book for years. And Mitch said, You should do something about it, now.
My Canadian publisher is Leonard Cohen’s publisher, McClelland & Stewart. So I sent my editor there an email and said, I have this idea for a book about Leonard Cohen and the Yom Kippur War. What do you think?
He said, Let’s try to get you to Cohen. Send me a pitch for the book. We’ll get it to his people.
I was thinking: I’m going to meet Leonard Cohen. In a few weeks, I could be sitting in Leonard Cohen’s living room. I wrote a pitch. I pasted the picture of him with Arik Sharon. I sent it off. The next morning I woke up and I had an email back from the editor, and the subject line was: Holy Shit. And there was a link to the obit.
You wrote the letter to your editor the day before he died.
In retrospect, he had actually died the day before.
So you wrote the day before it became known that he had died.
That’s how I missed Leonard Cohen.
Then fate blessed me with his unpublished writing from the time of the war… which I try to convince myself is better than talking to him all those years later.