What has poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen accomplished that he is considered one of Israel’s adopted sons - so much so that a street was named after him in Be’er Sheva immediately after his death in 2016?
At the age of 39, Cohen was rich and famous. He was one of the biggest names in the music industry in the ‘60s, having packed stadiums and concert halls across the globe, but he was emotionally and creatively exhausted, and was contemplating retiring. And then the 1973 Yom Kippur War broke out. In a show of solidarity, Cohen traveled to Israel immediately after Egypt attacked Israel. Performing for small groups of soldiers at the southern front in the Sinai desert with a borrowed guitar and a group of local musicians – literally “unplugged,” without amplifiers and stages – the war reinvigorated Cohen.
Although Cohen couldn’t speak Hebrew, and didn’t comprehend war machinations and politics, he understood his audience. “I was afraid at first that my quiet and melancholy songs weren’t the kind that would encourage soldiers at the front,” Cohen told an interviewer, “but I learned that these wonderful kids don’t need glorious battle anthems. Now, between battles, they’re open to my music maybe more than ever before. I came to raise their spirits, and they raised mine.”
This trying experience inspired Cohen to compose some of his best music. During breaks between performances, Cohen wrote a number of songs that were included in his 1974 album. The hauntingly beautiful “Who By Fire,” Cohen’s version of the Unesanneh Tokef prayer from the Yom Kippur liturgy, clearly reflects the Yom Kippur War’s impact on him. Another example of Cohen’s Jewish roots that seeped into his music after the war was his most famous hit, and considered by many to be one of the greatest songs of all time, “Hallelu-jah,” which he recorded a decade later.
One soldier’s quote, whose theme was repeated by many others, explains the country’s deep-seated admiration for Cohen: “What touched me very deeply 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 G-d 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.”
Cohen’s last trip to Israel was in 2009. After spending many years in a Buddhist monastery, he discovered that his manager had stolen all of his savings. In order to replenish his bank account, Cohen – for the first time in 15 years – scheduled a concert tour, and discovered that during his absence from the industry, he had ascended to the upper strata of fame. During his triumphant return, Cohen played to packed stadiums around the world. The world tour ended in front of 50,000 adoring fans in Israel. In a touch of spirituality, unity and drama, Cohen ended the concert by spreading out his fingers and blessing the crowd with the birkas kohanim, the priestly blessing of protection and peace.
Despite being an anti-war pacifist, Leonard Cohen came to Israel during one of the country’s darkest moments and connected with the Jewish nation in their mutual moment of despair. Those few weeks of compassion and empathy cemented Cohen’s eternal status as a national treasure.
This article is based primarily on “Who By Fire,” a fascinating account by Matti Friedman of Leonard Cohen’s unfathomable trip to Israel during the depths of the Yom Kippur War.