Author Matti Friedman’s book on Leonard Cohen’s tour of the Sinai Desert during the October 1973 war between Israel and Egypt is an expedition into the troubled soul of one of the world’s greatest songwriters
By Iddo Schejter
October 1973 may be the most horrific month in Israeli history. During this much-documented time, when approximately 2,300 Israeli soldiers were killed during the Yom Kippur War, a surprising figure who seemingly had nothing to do with the bloody events was there on the front lines. Just like Israel, he was also soul-searching.
Leonard Cohen’s Sinai tour during the 19-day war enjoys a relatively prominent place in Israeli lore, but is less well-known among his global fan base. This is understandable: Cohen rarely spoke of his journey into the desert. However, many Israeli soldiers, whose brutal battles with Egyptian forces were interspersed with serenades of “Suzanne” and “So Long, Marianne,” would never forget him.
As a Jewish-Canadian journalist and Israel Defense Forces combat veteran, as well as the author of three books that explore little-known tales from Israeli and Jewish history, Matti Friedman is uniquely qualified to recount the story of Cohen and the Yom Kippur War – which he does expertly in “Who By Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai.”
“I’m always looking for stories that seem marginal but that say something big,” Friedman tells Haaretz in an interview. “I wanted to use the war to see Leonard Cohen the singer in a different light and use the singer to see the war in a different light.”
Unlike most books about the war, which deal primarily with the battles and politicians, Friedman shows how music touched those going through some of the most difficult moments of their lives.
The idea came to him during a Cohen concert at Ramat Gan Stadium back in September 2009. The singer-songwriter had disappeared from the public eye for well over a decade, living in a Buddhist monastery, only making a comeback after discovering that his manager had emptied his bank account.
The music of his fellow Canadian meant a lot to Friedman, but he was surprised by how connected Israelis were to him too. Around the time of the concert, he read an article in an Israeli newspaper about the 1973 visit, which helped him understand why Israelis loved Cohen, and he began researching the book.
What started with the sporadic gathering of newspaper clippings eventually led to a surprise discovery: 35 pages of Cohen’s unfiltered thoughts typed upon returning from Israel, held in the archives of the Canadian publishing company McClelland & Stewart as part of an unpublished memoir, “Final Revisions of My Life in Art.”
Friedman says Cohen’s writing helped him understand something he’d never realized before: “Our crisis in the Yom Kippur War was in some ways a way out of his own crisis.”
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