The story of how the Jewish-Canadian singer-songwriter ended up singing for soldiers and crossing the Suez Canal with the IDF during one of Israel's most desperate hours...
“I am in my myth home but I have no proof and I cannot debate and I am in no danger of believing myself … Speaking no Hebrew I enjoy my legitimate silence.”
This was how Leonard Cohen, the Jewish-Canadian singer-songwriter and poet, described his arrival in Israel in the fall of 1973, shortly before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. At the time, Cohen was staying on the Greek island of Hydra with his girlfriend Suzanne Elrod and their son Adam. Their relationship was experiencing some turmoil and it was an unhappy period for him.
Cohen’s abrupt decision to book a flight to Israel may have been partly inspired by rising tensions between the Jewish state and its neighbors, but it appears there were other reasons as well. In his unpublished manuscript “The Final Revision of My Life in Art,” Cohen wrote: “…because it is so horrible between us I will go and stop Egypt’s bullet. Trumpets and a curtain of razor blades.”
Cohen didn’t know anyone in Israel. A married couple on the flight offered him to stay with relatives of theirs in Herzliya, a suburb of Tel Aviv. According to his biographer Ira Nadel, Cohen had a string of short affairs with several women during this period, with the singer often spending his evenings wandering the streets of Tel Aviv in a rather lonely state of existence.
One day, after the war had broken out, a group of Israeli musicians including singers Oshik Levi, Matti Caspi and Ilana Rovina, were sitting in Tel Aviv’s popular Pinati Café when Levi spotted a man who looked just like Leonard Cohen sitting alone in the corner. When Levi approached Cohen and confirmed it was indeed him, the local singer asked the international celebrity what he was doing in Israel. Cohen answered that he was looking to volunteer on a kibbutz so that he could help tend to the harvest while the locals went off to war.
The Israeli musicians explained to Cohen that it was not harvest time, adding that they were about to head down to the Sinai desert to entertain the troops who were desperately trying to fend off the surprise Egyptian attack. They offered Cohen to join their group. The visitor was hesitant, offering a string of excuses: He was a pacifist, he had no guitar, his songs were sad and hardly morale-boosting, but all of these were brushed aside and Cohen eventually agreed to join the band.
The singer was popular in Israel even though only a year earlier he had publicly voiced pro-Arab political views. He told the “Davar” newspaper: “I am joining my brothers fighting in the desert. I don’t care if their war is just or not. I know only that war is cruel, that it leaves bones, blood and ugly stains on the holy soil.” Explaining the apparent shift in his political position, Cohen said: “A Jew remains a Jew. Now it’s war and there’s no need for explanations. My name is Cohen, no?”
Cohen spoke of his experiences in Sinai with the Israeli musicians in an interview given a year later to Robin Pike of Zigzag magazine: “We would just drop into little places, like a rocket site and they would shine their flashlights at us and we would sing a few songs. Or they would give us a jeep and we would go down the road towards the front and wherever we saw a few soldiers waiting for a helicopter or something like that we would sing a few songs. And maybe back at the airbase we would do a little concert, maybe with amplifiers. It was very informal, and you know, very intense.”
Matti Caspi, one of Israel’s most popular musicians, would accompany Cohen, who was just one of a chain of performers, on classical guitar. He also acted as Cohen’s translator, whenever the singer would offer a few words to his audiences of weary battle-worn soldiers. In an Army Radio recording, Cohen can be heard introducing his popular hit “Suzanne”: “These songs are too quiet for the desert. They belong in a room with a woman and something to drink. Where I hope you’ll all be very soon”.
Caspi recalls some of their experiences on his website, telling of how Cohen’s famous song “Lover, Lover, Lover” came together during their early performances: “He actually wrote the lyrics and melody onstage during a show for some soldiers, and from show to show he would improve on it”
And may the spirit of this song
May it rise up pure and free
May it be a shield for you
A shield against the enemy
– Final verse of “Lover, Lover, Lover”, by Leonard Cohen
Caspi also tells of the following experience: “I can remember a surreal image of us next to the landing strip at the airport at Rapidim. We saw a Hercules plane land, and dozens of soldiers poured out of it. They were ordered to sit down on the runway and then I accompanied Leonard Cohen as he sang “Bird on the Wire.” When the song was over, they were ordered onto trucks heading down to the Suez Canal. Right after that another Hercules landed and the scene repeated itself: They sat down on the runway, Leonard Cohen sang the same song and immediately afterwards they got on the trucks heading to the canal.”
Cohen and Caspi spent the whole day like this, as truckload after truckload of soldiers were treated to a brief performance by an international superstar in the most unlikely of locations. After evening fell the musicians themselves boarded the last of the trucks and headed west. They crossed the Suez Canal, arriving in the enclave on the Egyptian side that had been captured by IDF soldiers under the command of Major General Ariel Sharon, the controversial officer who would eventually become prime minister of Israel decades later. Caspi added: “We found ourselves helping to carry injured soldiers to waiting helicopters. These were the same soldiers we had performed for only a few hours earlier”.
Cohen’s ambivalence towards the war is clear in his recollections of his meeting with Sharon – “I am introduced to a great general, ‘The Lion of the Desert.’ Under my breath I ask him, ‘How dare you?’ He does not repent. We drink some cognac sitting on the sand in the shade of a tank. I want his job.”
The singer’s experiences during the Yom Kippur War were a major source of inspiration for his next album, “New Skin for the Old Ceremony,” released in August, 1974. In addition to “Lover, Lover, Lover,” the album also included songs with such titles as “Field Commander Cohen,” “There is a War,” and “Who by Fire,” a song famously based on the Yom Kippur prayer “Unetanneh Tokef.”
Cohen told Robin Pike about the emotional impact the war had on him:”…you get caught up in the thing. And the desert is beautiful and you think your life is meaningful for a moment or two. And war is wonderful. They’ll never stamp it out. It’s one of the few times people can act their best. It’s so economical in terms of gesture and motion, every single gesture is precise, every effort is at its maximum. Nobody goofs off. Everybody is responsible for his brother. The sense of community and kinship and brotherhood, devotion. There are opportunities to feel things that you simply cannot feel in modern city life.”
Leonard Cohen would continue to visit and perform in Israel throughout the rest of his life. He passed away in November of 2016.
You can read more about Leonard Cohen’s life and experiences during the Yom Kippur War in Ira Nadel’s biography, “Various Positions – A Life of Leonard Cohen,” available at the National Library of Israel.
You can find the original photos that appear above at the Farkash Gallery: https://farkash-gallery.com/
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