Who By Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai

  • Review
By – March 28, 2022

Leonard Cohen fans know that Judaism was a crit­i­cal part of his iden­ti­ty. Experts know that sec­u­lar Israelis revere his mem­o­ry. These two facts come togeth­er in this riv­et­ing book by Mat­ti Fried­man. When the Yom Kip­pur War began in 1973, Cohen was one of so many dias­po­ra Jews who went to Israel with the com­mon and naive expec­ta­tion that they would work the har­vest in kib­butz­im in place of mobi­lized sol­diers. Liv­ing on the remote Greek island of Hydra, Cohen was thir­ty-nine, in an unhap­py rela­tion­ship and a stalled career. He hopped a boat to Israel with­out even a gui­tar and land­ed in the mid­dle of the Tel Aviv music scene, where sev­er­al of Israel’s top per­form­ers spot­ted him and con­vinced him to ride along and enter­tain the sol­diers who were fight­ing and dying in the Sinai.

This sto­ry has nev­er been told before in full, but Fried­man takes it on in a spare, inci­sive, infor­ma­tive style. He pro­vides the back­ground and mil­i­tary nar­ra­tive of the war from the view­point of Israeli forces on the ground in the Sinai. Fried­man cap­tures the har­row­ing real­i­ty of fight­er pilots dying by the dozen while Israeli civil­ians went about their com­pla­cent lives. Even more remark­able, Fried­man gained access to the note­book that Leonard Cohen kept with him dur­ing his weeks in the Sinai, and it is excerpt­ed here for the first time. He also acquired ama­teur pho­tographs and rem­i­nis­cences from sol­diers and musi­cians who encoun­tered Cohen at that piv­otal peri­od of Israel’s history.

This book tells two sto­ries togeth­er, eco­nom­i­cal­ly, yet in depth — the sto­ry of the Yom Kip­pur War and its influ­ence on Israeli musi­cal cul­ture, and the sto­ry of the rela­tion­ship that devel­oped between Leonard Cohen and the land of Israel. Dur­ing his time in the Sinai, Cohen lived in tents, ate with sol­diers, and even helped load the wound­ed onto heli­copters. Fried­man describes Cohen’s route through the war zone and the var­i­ous infor­mal sets he played with whichev­er musi­cians and sol­dier audi­ences were avail­able. But when he’s not writ­ing about Cohen, Fried­man also recounts the mem­o­ries of the many Israelis he inter­viewed. Some were in the army or air force when the war start­ed, and some were abroad. Their rec­ol­lec­tions inform the way that the war changed Israel, and their pho­tos of exhaust­ed young fight­ers with their 1970s side­burns are heart­break­ing. Fried­man weaves the sto­ry of the Israelis and the sto­ry of Cohen togeth­er in a way that gives them each equal weight and makes them mutu­al­ly rel­e­vant. This is mas­ter­ful writ­ing, and it makes a reward­ing read for lovers of Leonard Cohen and for lovers of Israel.

Beth Dwoskin is a retired librar­i­an with exper­tise in Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture and Jew­ish folk music.

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