Cover Image: Who By Fire

Who By Fire

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Before previewing this book as a comparison to other significant moments in Leonard Cohen’s life, I had no knowledge of this chapter in history.

To summarize author Matti Friedman’s offering:  In October 1973, the poet and singer Leonard Cohen—thirty-nine years old, famous, unhappy, and at a creative dead end—traveled from his home on the Greek island of Hydra to the chaos and bloodshed of the Sinai desert when Egypt attacked Israel on the Jewish high holiday of Yom Kippur.  Moving around the front with a guitar and a group of local musicians, Cohen met hundreds of young soldiers, men and women at the worst moment of their lives. Those who survived never forgot the experience. And in significant ways the war transformed Cohen and the direction of his career.

The writing is well researched and often touching. The volume may be esoteric for those less familiar with the historical setting. However, Friedman’s conclusion captures some of the feeling that his story unfolds: “The fact that Israelis have always considered Cohen to be a kind of Israeli is not only because he’s Jewish. There are plenty of Jewish artists, and almost none with that status. It is, at least in part, because of the memory that at one of this country’s darkest moments, he came. He didn’t have to, and few others did. The story of Cohen in Sinai is one that people here know, even if the details have never really been clear.”
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Who By Fire by Matti Friedman is more than simply a book about Leonard Cohen, it is a book about life, death, and change told through a less known but very impactful period in Cohen's life.

While his tour during the Yom Kippur War isn't widely known it is not quite unknown, especially in Israel. Yet even for longtime fans of his (my interest in his words and music dates back to the late 60s) little detail and almost none of the impact of that tour on Cohen is known. Until now.

Even though this book is certainly about Cohen it is just as much about those who saw him on that tour and about how it affected their lives. Cohen mentions that he was the one helped and changed by his tour just as much as he helped those who saw him. The material Friedman gets access to shows a side of Cohen that is not quite what we have come to know, yet also very much the man we came to know. That doesn't seem to make sense, and some may disagree, but in reading what he wrote during and shortly after that time one sees more of an amplified version of what he is remembered as rather than a different version.

I'm not sure I can express what I want to say very well, so I will just leave the previous paragraph as is and suggest that, if you are a fan of Cohen or just admire his work, you should read this book and discover for yourself how his experience altered the course of his life. I think you may be surprised at just how much reading this may affect you.

This version of the Yom Kippur War is told from Israel's perspective but the overall message(s) go beyond any particular war or conflict. So don't let any political or religious biases, in any direction, keep you from reading this. The take aways for me have to do with my relationship with humanity and not with a particular nation-state or religious belief system.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.
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A fascinating account of a musician entertaining troops. Nope, not the Bob Hope show or anything like that. It's Leonard Cohen in Israel during the Yom Kippur war. I'm guessing that most people know nothing about this effort of his and it is eye opening on many levels. If you have any interest in Israel, you'll want to read this book. It's well written and well-researched. An eye-opener!
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Matti Friedman is a treasure. Yet again he has provided an insightful and powerful path into understanding an important cultural figure in a complicated historical reality. Still reading it, but it’s great.
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As a recent convert to the music and wisdom of Leonard Cohen, I have been actively searching out books about his life and career, especially if they offer an interesting and original angle. 
Journalist Matti Friedman’s excellent and timely work “Who By Fire - Leonard Cohen in the Sinai” is one such book. It tells the true and astonishing story of an extraordinary chapter in the career of singer and songwriter Leonard Cohen that not only changed his life but also left an indelible impact on the state of Israel itself. To quote Friedman - “Sometimes an artist and an event interact to generate a spark far bigger than both”. 
In 1973, Cohen travelled to Israel during the conflict known as the Yom Kippur War to give impromptu concerts to Israeli troops at the front lines in the Sinai desert. Friedman makes use of an unpublished document which Cohen himself wrote about his experiences during this time, as well as interviews with people who were there and actually attended the “concerts”. 
Friedman paints a vivid account of the effect of Cohen’s songs on the young soldiers. Cohen himself was also reinvigorated by his journey, going on to write some of his best-known songs, including “Hallelujah”, after having contemplated retirement some months before. But Cohen’s visit also affected the nation’s music and “spiritual life,” leading the country to abandon “the militant secularism of the founders for an openness to the old wisdom.” This may sound incredible but Cohen was an incredible artist, and Friedman’s erudite prose brings the story to life with stunning credibility. 
Friedman’s scholarly work is a glorious testament to a great artist and to the enduring power of song to change the world.
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