Martin Elliot Jaffe recalls Leonard Cohen In The Sinai.
“I was afraid at first that my quiet and melancholy songs weren’t the kind that would encourage soldiers at the front—but I learned that these wonderful kids don’t need glorious battle anthems—now between battles they don’t need glorious battle anthems. Now between battles, they’re open to my songs maybe more than ever before. I came to raise their spirits and they raised mine” — Leonard Cohen to a reporter from the Israeli paper Yediot Ahronot, somewhere in Sinai, October 1973.
Back in April, at the Mandel Jewish Day School in Beachwood, Ohio, Israeli journalist and author Matti Friedman mesmerized an audience with stories from his latest book, Who by Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai, the unknown story of Leonard Cohen’s concerts for Israeli troops during the difficult and existentially challenging time of the Yom Kippur War.
Who by Fire, Friedman’s recent book — the title refers both to the prayer Unetannah Tokef, chanted on Yom Kippur and Cohen’s song of the same name — is currently being adapted into a television mini-series written by Yehonatan Indursky (Shtisel) to air in 2024.
Raised in a Canadian Jewish home in Toronto, Friedman had an appreciation for the musical and poetic influence of Leonard Cohen but it was not until making Aliyah in 1995, becoming a journalist and serving with the Israeli military in Lebanon in 1982 (an experience he described in his award-winning book, Pumpkin Flowers, in 2016).
“50,000 people come out for a Leonard Cohen Concert in Ramat Gan,” recalled Friedman,” the passion—I did not appreciate the extent to which Cohen remains a music God in Israel, like in Canada—but people remember that during one of the darkest moments in Israeli history, Cohen showed up.”
Friedman began to research and uncover details of Cohen’s concerts mostly from Israeli personal networks, “Moshe would recall I heard about a concert, call Shula, then I’d be told call Reuben, he was there—the network of individual memory and contacts,“ said Friedman.
On the more analytical research level, Friedman shared a Canadian publisher with Leonard Cohen for his book Pumpkin Flowers. He asked a rep at their shared publisher if he could get him in touch with Leonard Cohen—he got a yes answer, went to bed woke up to an e-mail from the publisher asking if he had seen the news –it was November 7, 2016, and Leonard Cohen had died.
With his hope of interviewing Cohen dashed, Freidman was as he told the audience, ”pretty bummed out-I didn’t do much with the book after that until fate intervened and made it up to me in the form of Chris Long, Librarian/Archivist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.”
While researching Cohen, Friedman had found a reference in a footnote to an archive of Cohen materials that supposedly held a 45-page handwritten notebook kept by Cohen in Israel including short story segments, song lyrics and impressions from the tour.
Long dug through the archives, scanned and sent the material to Friedman. “Fate decided to intervene in the form of Chris Long—if I couldn’t interview Cohen in person, this was a good alternative—if I had to choose between interviewing an elderly Leonard Cohen about events from 40 years previous or having this actual manuscript with raw impressions, short stories, lyrics—I’m not angry the manuscript is a good alternative.”
While Friedman’s book is not a Cohen biography some summary may add context to the story.
Cohen was born in 1934 in Montreal to an affluent family in the garment and textile business. His grandfather, a Polish immigrant, Lyon, was the founder of the Canadian Jewish Council. His mother’s father was a noted scholar Rabbi Solomon Klonitzki-Kline from Kovno. Leonard’s father Nathan served as one of the few Jewish Canadian officers in WW1 and his lingering injuries led to his death when Leonard was eight. Leonard was bar mitzvah as Eliezer ha-Cohen at Shaar Hashomayim, a synagogue where the cornerstone was laid by his family in 1921.
Cohen was an accomplished scholar, graduated from McGill University in Montreal and his first career of distinction was as a poet and novelist. The Leonard Cohen who first meets fame as the sensitive singer-songwriter of Susanne, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye, Bird on A Wire, does not emerge until 1969-1971 with three albums. The Leonard Cohen that older readers may recognize from his tours from 2008-2013 as an elegant elder statesman in a grey suit and fedora with a huge band is not the figure of the early Cohen years—in fact, Cohen’s most extensive 2012-2013 tour as he approached 80 came about as he learned that a trusted manager had stolen millions of dollars from him.
Friedman identifies Cohen as distinctly and proudly Jewish, even when Cohen spends years and is questioned about his years studying in a Buddhist monastery Mt’ Baldy in California. As he quotes Cohen, “A lot of people express great disappointment that I’ve abandoned my culture, that I have abandoned Judaism—I was never looking for a new religion—I have a very good religion, which is called Judaism.”
Freidman expresses the view that “Cohen thought the only culture worth anything came from loyalty to a language, a group, a place, and that a world without those differences would be unbearable.” As Cohen said, “Only nationalism produces art—the Canadians are like the Jews—they’re constantly examining their identity.”
TO THE SINAI
As the war begins Friedman immerses the audience into the gloomy, depressive depths of Leonard Cohen’s psyche. Cohen is 39, living in isolation on the Greek island of Hydra, with a one-year-old son and the child’s mother Susanne (not of the famous song and not his wife). As Cohen wrote in the unpublished manuscript, “ I live here with this woman and child and the situation makes me kind of nervous.”
According to Friedman, “The crisis in Israel he sees as a way out of his depressive crisis—in interviews he says he is giving up music and there is a line in the unpublished manuscript, ‘I’m going to stop an Egyptian bullet’.”
THE CONCERTS BEGIN
As Leonard Cohen arrives in Tel Aviv, the story becomes inspirational, mythical and murky. He walks into Café Pinati and while sitting there he is seen by Oshik Levi a well-known Israeli musician and his companion the Israeli singer Ilana Rovina –Oshik turns to her and says, “The guy sitting over there by himself looks like Leonard Cohen.”
As Friedman says, ”Cohen was inducted there into the improvised musical corps that has followed the Israeli army into battle since the Independence War of 1948. When the fighting starts, the country’s singers show up to play—it’s considered part of being a successful musician, a kind of tax you pay for not fighting yourself.”
The army seems to have no official record of how many concerts, where they were played—it is documented that the first two were at an airfield called Hatzor, an hour or two east of Tel Aviv. Cohen, according to Friedman, requests that he be introduced as Eliezer, ”I think it shows how powerful his tribal loyalty was.” Cohen introduces his well know song Susanne as being, ”a song to be heard at home in a warm room with a drink and a woman you love.”
Cohen is accompanied in several of the concerts on guitars by Oshik Levi and 23-year-old Israeli singer Matt Caspi, now an Israeli legend. They head off into the desert in an ancient Ford Falcon, sharing army rations, sleeping on cots, and offering improvised concerts wherever a crowd of soldiers is gathered. Friedman shows a photo of Cohen standing next to General Ariel Sharon, future Israeli Prime Minister just after crossing the Suez Canal.
At the second concert at Harzor, Cohen introduced a song that has since become one of his most famous, Lover, Lover, Lover. The soldiers responded to the powerful lyrics that as Friedman says, ”the song became a kind of talisman”:
And May the Spirit of this song
May it rise up pure and Free
May it be a Shield For you
A Shield Against The Enemy
As Friedman writes, “One of the duties of a priest, a Cohen, in Judaism is to stand in front of the congregation and call down diving protection.”
THE LASTING LEGACY
Friedman quotes two soldiers one now in his 80s on the impact of Leonard Cohen in the Sinai, field commander Patzi and Amatzia Chen, “What touched me very deeply was this Jew hunched over a guitar, sitting quietly playing for us—a Jew who came to raise the spirit of the fighters—since then he has a corner of my heart.”