Review of Matti Friedman’s “Who By Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai” by David N. Gottlieb

Penguin Random House, 240 pp.

An Israeli relative of mine served as a tank commander in the Sinai Desert during the Yom Kippur War in Israel, which began on October 6, 1973. Almost fifty years later, there are still moments when the memories overcome him: watching the tanks of friends and fellow soldiers get immolated in Egyptian attacks; experiencing long hours of boredom, absent-mindedly digging holes in the sand, then leaping into those holes when the mortars rained down; seeing the large antenna that identified the commander of the enemy tank corps, taking out that tank, then watching the other tanks flee in all directions and targeting them one by one.

But as traumatic as those weeks were for him, my relative also remembers the redemptive pauses offered when, gradually from the distance, revered Israeli performers would appear like desert mirages, guitars in hand, and would play and sing their hearts out for men and women who would never have dreamt of seeing them live, much less in such intimate (and perilous) circumstances. The impromptu concert might be the last a solder would witness; if not, she or he would remember it for decades.

“You’re fearing for your life,” my relative said, “and all of a sudden someone comes to entertain you, and they bring you back to life.”

It is out of such moments that Matti Friedman’s book, Who By Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai is woven. In 2009, the Canadian poet and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen performed what would be his last concert ever, in Ramat Gan Stadium outside of Tel Aviv. Anticipation was so great and so explosive that phone lines for ticket sales crashed within a few moments of opening. Friedman knew of Cohen’s work, but the intense interest in Cohen’s Israel concert caught the Canadian-born Israel journalist and author completely off guard. One explanation, he soon discovered, was that a whole generation had a feeling of gratitude for and kinship with Cohen, knowing as they did of his presence during one of the country’s lowest moments. “What touched me deeply,” one veteran told Friedman, “was this Jew hunched over a guitar, sitting quietly and playing for us. I asked who he was, and someone said he was from Canada or God knows where, a Jew who came to raise the spirit of the fighters. It was Leonard Cohen. Since then, he has a corner of my heart.”

The Yom Kippur War marked a turning point in Israel’s history and self-conception. Whereas the country’s stunning victory in the Six Day War, just six years earlier, had unleashed a patriotic (and in some sectors Messianic) fervor, the surprise multi-pronged attack on Israel by a coalition of Arab countries on Yom Kippur, Judaism’s holiest and most solemn day, wrought devastating losses on the Israeli military and undermined confidence in the competence of Israeli political and military leadership. By the time a cease-fire was agreed to some three weeks later, as many as 2,800 Israeli soldiers had been killed in action, with approximately 8,000 wounded and almost 300 captured – a devastating toll in any war, but especially for a young country, heavily populated by survivors of World War II and the Holocaust, with a population at the time of roughly 3.3 million.

This ground has been thoroughly picked over by historians, novelists, playwrights, and journalists. In Who By Fire, however, Friedman explores more hidden terrain: as Israeli musicians made their way to the front to provide entertainment and moral support for those in the thick of battle, a foreigner found his way among them. This was Leonard Cohen. Upon hearing of war’s outbreak, Cohen had left his redoubt on the Greek island of Hydra (and his profound alienation from his own work) and somehow made his way to the Sinai Peninsula, where he played and sang his tormented heart out for his suffering Jewish brothers and sisters. Performing for the troops, who were more and more dazed and battered as the days went on, Cohen found a kind of personal artistic and spiritual redemption, and the soldiers for whom he performed, touched and a little awed by his presence there (as were the musicians who accompanied him), did, too.

In researching the book, Friedman unearthed a journal and an unpublished manuscript of Cohen’s. Who By Fire is pieced together, Friedman reports, from “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.” Among those documents was a forty-five-page manuscript, never published, in which Cohen recorded thoughts about his Yom Kippur war experience – about which he never publicly spoke. The papers included the original lyrics to “Lover, Lover, Lover,” one of Cohen’s most iconic songs, composed during his days in the Sinai – including a verse praising the heroism of the Israeli soldiers, a verse he later excised from the song.

Because the itineraries of the performers were hastily assembled or improvised altogether, and because their concerts were not well documented or reported, Who By Fire is a spare, episodic record of two weeks in the life of a nation and a person. But in its brief chapters and stark anecdotes, the book conveys the chaos of war and the character of its lonely protagonist – Leonard Cohen, alienated Jew and despairing genius, artist and wanderer, who felt summoned to serve, in his own way, when the Jewish State faced an existential threat and its young people were placed in the line of fire.

“It is as if you’re walking in the desert and God comes down to you and starts singing,” a veteran named Shlomo told Friedman. “I was like Moses hearing the voice, and I walked toward it. I’ll paint the picture for you: A steel helmet on the sand. Sitting on the helment is a figure with a guitar singing ‘Lover Lover Lover.’” A Skyhawk pilot named Amos remembered, “The experience, as I remember it, was forgetting everything and going into another world, one that wasn’t all of us racing around, and the dead people and the fear.”

The book is a boon for history buffs, music lovers, and Cohen fans. Friedman is at his best when he describes the memories of soldiers who were there – soldiers whom Friedman has managed to track down after identifying them through photos and other records. Their recollections can be hazy on the details, but not on the feeling of the concerts themselves. Friedman is also deft at helping the reader understand what Cohen must have been going through at the time:

“Cohen always wrestled with the idea of commitment, but these thoughts seemed particularly intense around the time of the Yom Kippur War,” Friedman writes. “He was nearly forty and a father. He’d just been on a long, strange trip through the sixties, a decade that cast off old strictures and identifications, but at thirty-nine you sometimes find yourself wondering if there’s actually something to strictures and identifications. What if the answer wasn’t in the Village or on a Greek island, but at the Gate of Heaven after all?”

Friedman is no stranger to war, having served in the Israeli Defense Forces in south Lebanon during the conflict there in 1990. His descriptions of the earlier conflict read like something out of the opening credits of the old TV show M*A*S*H. Writes Cohen “Sinai after a week of war was field hospitals, sandy airstrips, tents flapping in the blast of rotors. The closer you got to the canal the more burned vehicles you saw, the soldiers’ vacant stares more pronounced.” Yes, we know: war is Hell.

But Friedman, like Cohen, can surprise you. His ear for the voices of the former soldiers – some who turned to Orthodoxy after the war, and some who lost religion altogether – is sharp. His ability to weave together the strands of the story – the outer war and its existential threat to Israel, the inner war being fought by Cohen as documented in his notebook and manuscripts – creates the feeling that one gets when history and myth, the heroic and the ordinary, come together. In Israel, it seems, Cohen came alive. He pulled away from the militaristic aspects of his Israel experience, but he found the kind of visceral connection to Judaism he had been lacking.

Who By Fire is about a series of events that only the second half of the twentieth century could have produced. But it is also about what happens when you are an artist, and you run toward the fire.


David N. Gottlieb is director of Jewish studies at Spertus Institute for Learning and Leadership in Chicago. This is his second review for ACM.