Leonard Cohen plays in Sinai during the Yom Kippur War, 1973. On his left is Gen. Ariel Sharon. (Yaakovi Doron).

The Israeli War That Made Leonard Cohen

Five decades later, on Spotify and in synagogue, you can still hear the echo of the Yom Kippur War. What happened in the Sinai desert in October 1973?

This week on Honestly we put out a really special episode about a forgotten concert tour that transformed the musician Leonard Cohen—and still echoes in the state of Israel. It’s the subject of a new book by our friend Matti Friedman called “Who By Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai.”

On one level, the book is about the unlikely meeting of young Israeli soldiers unprepared for the battle ahead with one of the great voices of the age. On another, it is about how this surprise war changed Israeli music, culture and its sense of self. If, in the aftermath of the Six Day War of 1967, Israel felt like it was on top of the world, the Yom Kippur War of 1973 shattered that confidence.

Given the horrible news out of Israel over the past few weeks—a spate of terrorist attacks, most recently in Tel Aviv—we find our hearts are in the East. Maybe yours are, too.

So it felt like a good time to share an excerpt from Matti’s wonderful book. And, if you haven’t listened to the podcast, which features tons of Cohen’s songs, you can do so here:

Some of the men on the sand look up at the visitor with his guitar. Others look down at their dirty knees and boots. Cigarettes glow in the dark. The heat has broken and the desert is still for now. They’ve been fighting for fourteen days and no one knows how many days are left, or how many of them will be left when it’s over. There aren’t any generals or heroes here. It’s just a small unit getting smaller. In the wastelands around them, thousands of Egyptians and Israelis are dead.

The visitor, dressed in khaki, is Leonard Cohen. This makes little sense to anyone at the outer extremity of the Sinai front in the Yom Kippur War of October 1973. Not long ago he was playing for a half million people at the Isle of Wight festival, which was bigger than Woodstock. Here it’s a few dozen. None of the soldiers know how Leonard Cohen came to be here with them, or why.

Cohen is thirty-nine. He’s been brought low and thinks he’s finished. News of his retirement has appeared in the music press. “I just feel like I want to shut up. Just shut up,” he told an interviewer. He might have come to this country and this war looking for some desperate way out of his dead end, a way to transcend everything and sing again. If that’s what he was looking for, he seems to have found it, as we’ll see. Five decades later, on Spotify and in synagogue, you can still hear the echo of this trip. Anyone reading these lines remembers the elderly gentleman grinning out from under a fedora at packed concert halls around the world, and knows that in 1973 his greatest acts are yet to come. But right now this isn’t clear to him or to anyone else.

Cohen addresses the soldiers in solemn English. A reporter who is there describes the scene in a dispatch for a Hebrew music magazine. In the yellowing newsprint you can tell the reporter is a cynic. He mocks the star as “the great pacifist” come from abroad, a glorified tourist. A reader has the impression that the reporter doesn’t want to be moved but is.

When the soldiers join Cohen for the chorus of “So Long, Marianne,” their voices are the only sound in the desert. He introduces the next number. “This song is one that should be heard at home, in a warm room with a drink and a woman you love,” he says. “I hope you all find yourselves in that situation soon.” He plays “Suzanne.” The men are quiet. They hear about a place that doesn’t have blackened tanks and figures lying still in charred coveralls. It’s a city by a river, a perfect body, tea and oranges all the way from China. “They’re listening to his music,” writes the reporter, “but who knows where their thoughts are wandering.”

Sometimes an artist and an event interact to generate a spark far bigger than both: art that isn’t a mere memorial to whatever inspired it, but an assertion of human creativity in the face of all inhuman events. It isn’t necessary to know the convoluted course of Spain’s civil war to grasp Picasso’s Guernica. A listener can wonder at Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, composed amid the Napoleonic Wars, without recognizing the bars of a French revolutionary song hidden in one of the movements. It’s possible to appreciate the beauty of a shard of glass without knowing how the window looked before it was smashed, or what the moment of shattering was like. But it seems to me that if we can know, our understanding is enriched—not just our understanding of a momentous occurrence or of the personality of an artist, but of the nature of inspiration, and of art’s supernatural ability to fly through years and places and lodge in distant minds, helping us rise beyond ourselves.

The moment, in this case, was a concert tour, maybe one of the greatest, certainly one of the strangest. The tour might have produced a celebrated rock documentary or live album—but no one thought to film it and hardly any recordings survive. It happened in the midst of an Israeli war but isn’t documented in the country’s military records. The account you just read is the only description of any of the concerts to appear in print at the time, and even that magazine, a local version of Rolling Stone, has been defunct for years. The tour has lived on as underground history—in word of mouth, in photographs snapped by soldiers, in notebooks filed in an office on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, in a box of papers in Hamilton, Ontario, and recorded between the lines of a few great songs. Reconstructing what happened has meant piecing together these scraps over many years.

While no detailed account has appeared before, and while this cultural moment is known even to Cohen’s fans as a footnote, if at all, its importance keeps growing in a curious way. Here in Israel, for example, before the anniversary of the war every fall, more and more articles appear in the press, as if the story must be told and retold each year. Some of the descriptions are repetitive or inaccurate. But all are genuine expressions of the fact that the memory of that terrible month, October 1973, has somehow become linked to the strange appearance of Leonard Cohen.

If Cohen’s tour is now part of the Yom Kippur War, the war itself is inseparable from a date in the Jewish calendar. The fighting began with a surprise attack by Syria and Egypt at two p.m. on the Day of Atonement, when Jewish tradition demands introspection and tells us that our fates are decided for the coming year—who will die, and how. The symbolism here is so clumsy that it seems to beg an apology.

The war’s timing has lent a kind of awful grandeur to the grim proceedings. In fact, the war is sometimes called the War of Atonement, as if it were itself a penance for the pride and blindness that preceded it, for the failures of leadership that left Israeli soldiers exposed on October 6, 1973, when the Syrian army attacked though the basalt outcroppings of the Golan Heights and the Egyptians across the sand embankments of the Suez Canal. Israel’s judgment had been clouded by victory in the Six-Day War, six years earlier, and the country had allowed itself to sink into arrogance and complacency. The borders were defended by a handful of ill-fated infantrymen and tank crews. 

For a few desperate days on the Golan plateau there were nearly no Israeli troops left between the Syrians and Israel’s heartland beneath the heights, in Galilee. On the southern front, the one of interest to us here, the Egyptians captured the Israeli outposts along the Suez Canal, drove into Sinai, and shredded the defenders’ frantic counterattacks. Israel’s air force, which was supposed to win the war, was instead crippled by new Soviet missiles, and within days the defense minister, the one-eyed war hero Moshe Dayan, was heard despairing that the “Third Temple is in danger,” meaning Israel itself. Only with extraordinary exertion, and at the cost of more than 2,600 fatalities, did the soldiers in the field turn the war around and, by the end of the month, deliver a victory that still felt like a defeat.

When the battles ended, the prestige of Israel’s generals and political leaders, the icons of the founding generation, was shattered. The country became less confident, less united, and more introspective; after the war this was, in many ways, a different country. The mistakes would be picked apart in hundreds of anguished memoirs and critical histories whose publication began at the end of the war and continues to this day. When I served in an Israeli infantry unit twenty-five years later, our training involved imaginary battles against columns of enemy tanks invading through the desert, a scenario that had little to do with the actual warfare of the late 1990s—it was recognizably Yom Kippur, the war the army was still fighting in its mind.

For people in Israel, the ancient fast day and the dark anniversary of the war are so intertwined that they can no longer be detached. And so Leonard Cohen—whom many considered a poet of cigarettes and sex and quiet human desperation, who’d dismissed the Jewish community that raised him as a vessel of empty ritual, who despised violence and thought little of states—made himself not only part of this Israeli war but of the most solemn day of the Jewish calendar. How this all came to pass has never been explained: the meeting of young soldiers at a moment of extreme peril with one of the great voices of the age. That’s the subject of this book.

One of the oddest aspects of this episode is that Cohen almost never mentioned it afterward. This fact seemed stranger and stranger to me the more I discovered about how deep he went into the war, and how significant the experience was for the people who saw him. There are a few comments to the music magazine ZigZag in London a few months later, when he was asked explicitly, but not much more. The same seems to have been true in private: people who were close to Cohen don’t remember ever hearing the details. Cohen’s concern wasn’t history but the soul. He might have felt that a link to real events would reduce his work to mere journalism. “For me, poetry is the evidence of a life, and not the life itself. It’s the ashes of something that’s burning well,” Cohen once said. “Sometimes you confuse yourself and try to create ashes instead of fire.” In this case, the war was just the fire. It wasn’t his business to explain how many logs went in and how hot it burned, or how close he was standing. Some beautiful ashes came of it, and that’s enough.

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