Tour of Duty: When Leonard Cohen Serenaded Ariel Sharon on the Battlefield

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

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Leonard Cohen performing with a young Matti Caspi on guitar during the Yom Kippur War as Maj. Gen. Ariel Sharon looks on.
Leonard Cohen performing with a young Matti Caspi on guitar during the Yom Kippur War as Maj. Gen. Ariel Sharon looks on.
Iddo Shejter
Iddo Shejter

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.

Leonard Cohen performing with Matti Caspi during the Yom Kippur War in Sinai.

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.”

Cohen had just turned 39, was frustrated with his music and had recently announced his retirement. His relationship with his then-partner Suzanne Elrod, with whom he had a child, was also falling apart.

The book jacket for Matti Friedman's "Who By Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai."

Besides this, Cohen’s religious upbringing had led to his Judaism becoming a greater part of his identity, which led him to seeing Israel as a sort of long-lost home. He performed there for the first time in a year and a half before the war in Tel Aviv. When the war broke out, along with the need to get away from his home on the Greek island of Hydra, it felt natural for him to be there.

Singer without a guitar

It’s not clear what Cohen intended to do upon his arrival shortly after the war began on October 6. Perhaps he planned to volunteer on a kibbutz that was missing workers who had been sent to the war. Performing for the soldiers wasn’t apparently on his mind – after all, he had arrived in Israel without his guitar.

However, by total chance, Cohen was recognized by singer Oshik Levi and actress-singer Ilana Rubina (aka Rovina) while sitting at a café in Tel Aviv. Levi convinced Cohen to play for the soldiers and quickly assembled a band that included future Israeli star Matti Caspi, just 23 at the time.

At an air base where he would give his first performance of the war, Cohen wrote “Lover Lover Lover,” including a verse about Israeli soldiers – which was later removed when the song was recorded in 1974. Friedman discovered these lyrics in a notebook that Cohen’s estate gave him access to, and are revealed for the first time in his book:

“I went down to the desert to help my brothers fight

I knew that they weren’t wrong

I knew that they weren’t right

But bones must stand up straight and walk

And blood must move around

And men go making ugly lines

Across the holy ground.”

"Who By Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai" author Matti Friedman.

In order to piece together what had taken place in Sinai, Friedman also interviewed Israelis who had seen the musician there. This was how he discovered that the tour’s logistics were dictated by the chaos of war. In fact, there is no official record to prove that Cohen was even there. The singer-songwriter himself had no idea where he was being taken to or where he was; his manuscript refers to the whole Sinai area as “The Desert.”

One of the few performance dates Friedman was able to verify with any level of certainty, October 14, was because a soldier recalled seeing Cohen the day after a well-known Israeli general, Albert Mendler, had been killed in action.

He also reveals how the process for deciding where Cohen would perform was often an argument between representatives of different units as to who had more dead soldiers and was therefore more deserving of a concert.

Leonard Cohen performing for Israeli soldiers in Sinai. Some performances were deep into enemy lines.

Deep impression

The best example of the chaos surrounding the tour is its most iconic image, where Cohen is seen singing for dozens of soldiers. Standing next to him is then-Maj. Gen. Ariel Sharon. The photograph was taken at an Egyptian air base on the southern side of the Suez Canal. How Cohen was allowed so deep into enemy territory is unclear. Sharon’s son, Gilad, told Friedman he had no recollection of his father ever mentioning Leonard Cohen. Indeed, Friedman speculates that the army general had no idea who Cohen even was.

In the manuscript, Cohen wrote that he would often be driven around in the middle of the night, until his jeep happened upon tired soldiers. He would sing a few songs for them, and then move on.

The sight of musicians performing for soldiers during wartime often looks absurd. There is archival footage of an IDF entertainment troupe performing for soldiers in the Golan Heights during the war, in which the performers are seen helplessly smiling and clapping in a bid to perk up the shell-shocked combatants.

The dissonance between the soldiers’ experiences and those of the troupes and their cheerful songs would often have the opposite effect of what was intended. But something about Cohen performing his melancholic songs, and then later sleeping under the same conditions and eating the same rations as the soldiers, seemed to leave a far deeper impression on those who saw him. The sense was that he truly identified with those in battle.

Leonard Cohen performing live in 2009.

The book gives some surprising insights into who Leonard Cohen was. Unlike the sweet, fedora-wearing elderly gentleman most are familiar with from his later years, Friedman says the Cohen who showed up in Sinai – at least as far as his writings reveal – was a dark and flawed character, both angry and depressed. He was driven by lust, treated women awfully and was totally self-involved.

Also, the writer notes, Cohen’s knowledge of Judaism and its entrenchment in his identity was surprisingly deep. This is a key theme of the book and explains how his affiliation with the Jewish people motivated him to go to Sinai. During the tour, those there say he asked them to call him by his Hebrew name, Eliezer.

However, when he found himself feeling relieved that the dead soldiers being brought in on a helicopter were Egyptian and not Israeli, he became disgusted with himself and realized that he had allowed his tribal instincts to push him too far. He felt that as a poet, his work needed to have a universal outreach. He would backtrack even further years later and say that “Lover Lover Lover” was written for the Egyptian and Israeli soldiers. “In that order,” Friedman emphasizes.

The author believes, though, that Cohen never ran away from his Jewish identity; he just wrestled with it. The title track on his final album, “You Want It Darker” – released a few weeks before his death in November 2016 – featured the cantor from his synagogue. And even though Cohen wrote a poem in the 1980s that was scathingly critical of Israel, being a critic of Israel is a big part of being Jewish, Friedman argues.

Cohen’s manuscript reveals another previously unexplored aspect of his Judaism: his preoccupation with his being a Kohen – a high priest in the Jewish tradition who is believed to be descended from Moses’ brother, Aaron. He wrote often of a spiritual role that required him to call down for divine protection in the name of the community.

In retrospect, it is impossible to fully understand Leonard Cohen without examining this chapter in his life. A musician who had recently called time on his career would, just four months after the war, be recording his fourth album, “New Skin for the Old Ceremony,” which contained the war anthem “Lover Lover Lover” and “Who By Fire,” whose lyrics were inspired by the Yom Kippur liturgy. His Sinai tour gave him a full understanding of who he was as an artist, Jew and man.

Perhaps more than anything, Friedman’s book is a reminder of how the world’s relationship with Israel has changed in the decades since. Nowadays, Israeli military operations draw global condemnation and performers are increasingly pressured to boycott the country. But in October 1973, as the state fought its bloodiest war since gaining independence, one of the greatest artists of the 20th century not only came, but traveled deep into enemy territory to share his music during the nation’s darkest hour.

“Who By Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai,” by Matti Friedman, is published by Spiegel & Grau and is out on March 29.

Leonard Cohen pictured in 1974, the year "New Skin for the Old Ceremony" was recorded and released.

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