By David Lipset
When Syria and Egypt, still indignant at their humiliating defeat in the Six Day War six years earlier, attacked Israel on Yom Kippur, the annual Day of Atonement and the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, in early autumn 1973, the singer and poet Leonard Cohen was in a dark state of mind. Then aged thirty-nine, Cohen had been living on the Greek island of Hydra, where he had become estranged from his partner and baby son. He was at the point of calling his career to a halt, feeling that he had nothing left to say. But the enveloping crisis in the Middle East aroused Cohen’s attachment to the Jewish state. He flew to Israel with the vague idea of working in a kibbutz and thereby helping in some way, the war having deprived these small socialist communities of their young men.
While Cohen was sitting in a café in Tel Aviv, one or two Israeli musicians recognized him and persuaded him that it might be useful to join a group that was about to perform on the Suez front. Matti Friedman, an Israeli-Canadian journalist, has written a fascinating little book about the grim weeks that followed this moment. The Cohen estate (the singer died in 2016) gave Friedman access to a brief manuscript the singer wrote about this interval, but it doesn’t appear to have been that informative. Instead, much of Who by Fire is drawn from conversations Friedman had with the now elderly men and women who fought in that October 1973 war. They had little to say about Cohen, whom they either did not remember or found preoccupied, but gave vivid and detailed accounts of their camaraderie and of the bodily and emotional battering of war.
They also supplied Friedman with a batch of unaffected photographs, which illustrate the book. The honest narrative reaches a climax when Friedman describes performances at airfields near Suez. One took place only a day or two after the Israeli commander Ariel Sharon’s troops had crossed the canal, experiencing heavy losses as they did so. Cohen sang “Bird on the Wire” and a few other well-known songs for a crowd of exhausted soldiers – Sharon included. Some knew of him and his music, others did not. As helicopters came and went, Cohen witnessed injured soldiers being unloaded. The sight upset him until he learnt that the combatants were Egyptians, not Israelis. The relief that he felt at this moment he later considered unforgivably provincial.
Cohen returned to his partner and son in Greece soon after the concerts were finished. He acknowledged at the time the extent to which this interlude revived him personally and creatively, although, on the whole, he had practically nothing further to say about it. Friedman addresses this important gap in the singer’s biography as best as he can, given how little he had to work with. More forcefully, Who by Fire offers a valuable granular account of the Yom Kippur war from the perspectives of Israeli soldiers.