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.