Tracing a Portrait of Leonard Cohen Through the Fog of War (New York Sun review, Feb. 28, 2022)

By A.R. Hoffman

People have been singing about wars for just as long as they have been fighting them. The poet Homer and the prophetess Deborah both wove together melody and military, and no doubt songs will emerge from the battle for Kiev just as they did from those for Troy and Mount Tabor. 

Art may be just an interloper on the battlefield, but it nearly always shows up. Wherever you find the brutal, the beautiful is sure to never be far behind.

That juxtaposition is the beating heart of journalist Matti Friedman’s new book, “Who By Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai,” out March 29 from Spiegel & Grau. It centers on a trip the singer and songwriter made to the front to perform for Israel Defense Forces troops during the early and perilous days of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when the Jewish state was nearly surprised out of existence by invading Arab armies.

This is a story Mr. Friedman is well positioned to tell. A journalist from Canada who moved to Israel and served in the army, he is quickly assembling a suite of books that tell Israel’s story with insight and grace. 

“The Aleppo Codex,” “Pumpkin Flowers,” and “Spies of No Country” each are modest in their premises — an old Torah scroll, a memoir of fighting in Lebanon, an obscure unit of Arab-speaking spies — but elegant in their execution and illuminating in their scope. “Who By Fire” is a worthy addition to this library of insight.

When Cohen made his way to Tel Aviv from the Greek island of Hydra, he was nearly 40 and the Jewish state was just 25. Cohen grew up up the scion of Montreal Jewish royalty and showed great poetic promise at McGill, only to flee his family and his synagogue for the life of the 1960s, his version of which he found on Hydra, a rock in the midst of endless azure water and sun enough to make him forget Canadian winter. 

By 1973 Cohen was famous — if not the global icon he would become in the ensuing decades — with “Suzanne,” “So Long, Marianne,” “Sisters of Mercy,” and “Bird on a Wire” having already been released. Three years before he had performed to an audience of 500,000 at the Isle of Wight music festival. 

By the time he reached Israel, Cohen’s early star was no longer at its brightest. He was not a prodigy anymore, and the promise of his school day literary career seemed to have given way to something far more bitter: what he described as living “inside of hatred and keeping to my side of the bed and always screaming, ‘No, this can’t be my life,’ inside my head.”

The man who decided to go to Israel was pushed just as much by a sense of Zionist longing. He was worried that he “would not get the blessing,” an especially dire fate for someone descended from the priests of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem whose ancestral job it was to dispense benedictions. 

The existence of what Mr. Friedman calls “a concert tour, maybe one of the greatest, certainly one of the strangest” ever taken is a certainty, but those hoping for a minute-by-minute transcription won’t find one. It lives on as “underground history,” and pinning down exactly why Cohen went and what he did once he was there is akin to counting grains of sand. 

Even those who heard him sing on the front lines couldn’t quite believe that he was there, and have marveled at it. One soldier recalls that “the presence of Leonard Cohen at this field hospital was so unlikely that he may not have believed it was actually happening.”

The difficulty in reconstructing the details of Cohen’s series of performances at the front during the war pushes Mr. Friedman to reportorial doggedness and literary creativity. This is a book that feels a little bit like a Leonard Cohen song — straightforward and also elliptical, telling the truth “slant,” in Emily Dickinon’s memorable phrase. 

(Read the rest here.)