“We Jews have a secret weapon in our struggle with the Arabs,” Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir famously quipped to then-Sen. Joe Biden in 1973. “We have no place to go.” Meir was speaking shortly before the Yom Kippur War, when Arab states led by Egypt launched an attack, catching Israel off guard and leading to heavy losses. The war, however, was a homecoming of sorts for one famous Jew: the Canadian-born singer Leonard Cohen.
As Matti Friedman recounts in his beautifully written new book, Who by Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai, Cohen was 39 and feeling lost when Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur. The singer-songwriter was in a rut, living on the island of Hydra “where he had a refuge in a little white house up the hill from the ferry dock.” After all, “an island is a place to escape to, but also a place where you’re stranded.” The press had speculated on Cohen’s impending retirement, and the artist himself had felt the need to “just shut up,” as he put it.
Cohen “might have come to this country and this war looking for some desperate way out of his dead end, a way to transcend everything and sing again,” Friedman speculates. “If that’s what he was looking for, he seems to have found it.”
Cohen connected deeply, if perhaps unexpectedly, with his audience. He embraced the austerity of his surroundings and eschewed the trappings of fame, preferring to sleep on military cots and eat the same food that soldiers were consuming. This, of course, endeared him to them.
The young men and women “knew death was waiting for them when the concert ended,” and Cohen “played for them knowing his music might be the last thing they heard.” There was no exchange of money, no selling of tickets, records, or merchandise.
Indeed, many of the soldiers didn’t know English, and Cohen himself didn’t speak Hebrew. But as the accounts of several soldiers make clear: He struck a chord. Nearly half a century later, many of the Israelis whom Friedman interviews vividly recall their brief encounter with the wayward artist, singing in the Sinai amid the death and destruction of war.
Cohen didn’t sing patriotic anthems. His songs weren’t bombastic. But his themes of love and loss resonated with the soldiers who, amid fierce combat, gathered around to listen before returning to the fight. “When the soldiers join Cohen for the chorus of ‘So Long, Marianne,’” Friedman writes, “their voices are the only sound in the desert.” The experience, it seems, was haunting.
And readers will leave haunted, too. Friedman is a supremely talented writer with memorable prose. Cohen’s concert tour, he writes, was “maybe one of the greatest, certainly one of the strangest.” Friedman successfully captures the dreamlike quality of an artist who had only recently played alongside the top acts of the '60s, finding himself performing without pomp for battle-weary troops, his amplifiers juiced by the batteries of Israeli jeeps.
In Judaism, Yom Kippur is a day of atonement and repentance. Whether Cohen found the forgiveness that he was perhaps looking for is hard to say. But if the artist was searching for existential meaning, he may have found it in a country that was fighting for its very existence.
It is perhaps possible to categorize some of the myriad wars that Israel has had to fight in the last seven decades: the 1948 War of Independence as a baptism of fire, with the Jewish state surviving despite seemingly insurmountable odds. Ditto for the 1967 war, in which Israel defeated a coalition of Arab opponents in six days. In both instances, Israel emerged bloodied but victorious. But for many Israelis, 1973 has an entirely different meaning.
The Yom Kippur War left Israel “more chastened than triumphant,” one of its great chroniclers, Abraham Rabinovich, has noted. Israel was caught by surprise, ending the period of national exuberance and self-confidence that had followed the country’s stunning battlefield success in 1967. Israel, Friedman observes, “had allowed itself to sink into arrogance and complacency” — sins for which it paid a heavy price.
Caught flat-footed, Israel struggled to gain the initiative. Only at a tremendous cost, with more than 2,600 casualties and scores more severely injured, did Israel eventually win. By the end of the month, Israel had secured “a victory that still felt like a defeat.” In the war’s wake, “the prestige of Israel’s generals and political leaders, the icons of the founding generation, was shattered,” Friedman notes. The country was left “less confident, less united, and more introspective; after the war this was, in many ways, a different country.”
For Israelis, the Yom Kippur War of 1973 changed everything. The Day of Atonement that year seemed as if it “never ended, as if it lasted for the next three weeks, or longer,” Friedman observes.
The Jewish state was still in a state of shock when Cohen arrived. The singer had seemingly left Hydra on a whim. Cohen, Friedman writes, might have come to Israel “looking for some desperate way out of his dead end, a way to transcend everything and sing again.”
In subsequent years, Cohen was reticent to discuss his trip to wartime Israel. It is possible, indeed quite probable, that Cohen himself didn’t quite know why he decided to go. Only decades later, when he was in his 70s, did Cohen tell his biographer Sylvie Simmons that he went as a “kind of test, and hoping for some kind of contradiction about your own deepest conviction.”
The lack of a clear explanation behind Cohen’s trip doesn’t take away from the story. If anything, it infuses it with greater mysticism. That Cohen, a nonpracticing Jew and a celebrity, chose to return to Israel at its time of crisis speaks to something deeper. Israel, the artist remarked, was his “myth home.” Cohen himself might not have known why exactly he felt the calling to return, but as Friedman points out, “it’s clear this wasn’t just another gig.”
Friedman also captures the surreal aspects of war. He displays an eye for memorable details that infuse the story with greater meaning. He relates, for example, that the night before Egypt launched its attack, Israeli aircrews stationed at Sharm el-Sheikh had watched Tora! Tora! Tora! — a movie about the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor.
The tour and the artist have a gifted chronicler who successfully conveys the lasting meaning of both the war and Cohen’s performances in the Israeli desert. Prior to leaving for Israel, Cohen had lamented, “I have songs in the air, but I don’t know how to put them down.” That would cease to be a problem. Many of his greatest hits were written after his 1973 trip. Afterward, Cohen “managed to resurrect himself” and regain his “creative thread.”
Sean Durns is a senior research analyst for CAMERA, the 65,000-member, Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis.