Cover of Who By Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai
Cover of Who By Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai

In his new book, Who By Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai, Matti Friedman does his best to explain the enigma that is Cohen in the Yom Kippur War.

It was Oct. 6, 1973. Canadian singer-songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen (1934-2016) was 39, wondering about his role in life. He was not yet a universally renowned performer. In fact, Cohen had announced he was retired and felt he could no longer perform or create. Living on the Greek Island of Hydra with his lover, photographer Suzanne Elrod, and their infant son, Cohen was trying to find himself. It wasn’t going well. 

Mike Smith
Mike Smith
Alene and Graham Landau Archivist Chair

Suddenly, there was news of an attack on Israel led by Egypt and Syria. The Yom Kippur War had begun and Israel was fighting for its existence. Moved by the news, Cohen flew to Israel as soon as he could get a flight. He never really explained why he believed had to go to war. 

Cohen had deep Jewish roots. His family was prominent in Montreal. Although he never promoted his faith, his deep, abiding relationship to his Jewishness is obvious in his music and his life. His actions in the Yom Kippur War also show his affinity for Israel.

Cohen arrived in Tel Aviv, uncertain as to what he should do to help. He sat rather forlorn at a café until coincidence, happenstance or Divine fate intervened. A group of musicians recognized Cohen and persuaded him to join them. They were headed to the front lines of the war to entertain Israeli troops. 

Cohen sang to front-line troops during the most desperate days of the Yom Kippur War. At times, he was in danger, and he saw the death and destruction that war so amply provides. Many of the soldiers did not speak English; Cohen could not speak Hebrew. Many soldiers wondered who this man was and why he was there. Yet, he sang and troops were moved by his music and his presence. Cohen wrote one of his most famous songs, “Lover, Lover, Lover,” while at Israel’s Hatzor Air Force Base. 

Leonard Cohen in 1988
Leonard Cohen in 1988.

At the end of the war, Cohen was rejuvenated and he would go on to become an international star. The experience was pivotal to his life and career, but he rarely mentioned it. In his new book, Who By Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai, Matti Friedman does his best to explain the enigma that is Cohen in the Yom Kippur War.

A Canadian himself, although born four years after the war, Friedman may be uniquely equipped to provide insight into Cohen’s experience. Friedman is a fine writer/journalist and a painstaking researcher. He immigrated to Israel as a teenager and served in the Israel Defense Forces during the South Lebanon conflicts of the 1990s. Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story of a Forgotten War (2016) is Friedman’s widely acclaimed memoir of this experience. 

Multi-Sourced

For Who By Fire, Friedman uses three unique resources: his interviews with Israelis, including war veterans; Cohen’s own notebooks from the era (although cryptic at best, Cohen kept notebooks throughout his life); and a 45-page incomplete, unpublished manuscript that Friedman discovered in the archives at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Although the manuscript is not a traditional narrative — it is the writing of Cohen, after all, which often defies interpretation — but it does constitute Cohen’s contemporary account of the war.

Friedman’s work presents the background and details of the war and the era, and a bit of music history as well. The excellent historical narrative is greatly enhanced with prose from the Cohen manuscript. In this sense, the singer has his own voice between Friedman’s description of events. This is a very insightful, effective literary device.

After the war, Cohen wrote and sang his way into international acclaim before he died in 2016. There is still great interest in his career and work. For example, there is the recent release of a documentary about Cohen and his most famous song, “Hallelujah.”

Who By Fire is a fine book about Cohen in the Yom Kippur War and provides readers with new insights into the poet/songwriter. Friedman gets as close to Cohen as any biographer possibly can; however, I’m not sure anyone but Cohen really knew what Cohen was thinking. 

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