• Annemeet Hasidi-van Der Leij

Tribute to Leonard Cohen 1934 – 2016

When Leonard Cohen heard on the news that the Yom Kippur War had begun in Israel, he felt he had to drop everything and head for Israel from Athens to help in the national effort in any way he could. And so he did.

Leonard Norman Cohen, (21 September 1934 – 7 November 2016) was a Canadian singer, songwriter, poet and novelist. Cohen was born on 21 September 1934 in Westmount, Quebec, an English-speaking area of Montreal, into a middle-class Jewish family.(1)

When the Yom Kippur War in Israel began in 1973, Aharon (Yalo) Shavit, the commander of the Etzion Airbase in Sinai, telephoned his close friend, the singer Oshik Levi. “You have to come here and perform,” Shavit told him. “This isn’t anything like what we know. It’s not like the Six-Day War at all. It’s something completely different.”

Levi did not hesitate. The next day he and his partner in the show, Mordechai Arnon, came to perform for the troops just before they entered the war.

At the same time, not far from the chaos in Israel, Leonard Cohen was in the midst of a performance tour on the island of Hydra in Greece. His wife Suzanne and his son Adam were with him. When Cohen heard on the news that the war had begun, he felt he had to drop everything and head for Israel from Athens to help in the national effort in any way he could. And so he did.

The original plan was to volunteer on a kibbutz even though he had no idea what a kibbutz was or what he would do there. The values that the IDF represented intrigued and attracted him, and he was determined to join the army and give of his talents. Cohen believed he would contribute significantly to the Israeli struggle. “I will go and stop Egypt’s bullet,” he said, with a measure of bravado, in one of his poems.

It was not the first time Cohen had tried to feel close to war. The war stories of his father, who had fought in World War I, influenced him deeply, and Cohen loved to look at his father’s photo album, which was filled with photographs of him in his uniform, holding his gun.

On his return to the United States after performing for Israeli soldiers in the outposts of Sinai, Cohen would say in an interview, “War is wonderful. They’ll never stamp it out. It’s one of the few times people can act their best…. There are opportunities to feel things that you simply cannot feel in modern city life.”

While quite a few of the soldiers didn’t know who Cohen was, others identified his songs and his voice, and were very touched that Cohen had come to Israel to be with them during those difficult times. For those who knew Cohen, his show was an extraordinary event. After all, it was not every day that they got to be present at a private, intimate performance just for them. It was a musical escape from hell. During one show, before Cohen sang “So Long, Marianne,” he told the soldiers: This song should be listened to at home, with a drink in one hand and your other arm around a woman you love. I hope you’ll have that soon.

Everyone who met Cohen and spoke with him during his stay in Israel describes him as modest and gentle man who wanted to connect to and feel the audience he sang for. “On some of the bases we went to, I tried to get him preferential treatment, a room to sleep in, decent food instead of army rations. But he wouldn’t allow it,” Levi says with a smile. “The three of us slept in sleeping bags in the canteen or anywhere else we could sleep. He never complained about anything, not even once.” About a year later, he was quoted as saying: "I've never disguised the fact that I'm Jewish, and in any crisis in Israel I would be there. I am committed to the survival of the Jewish people."(2)

The song 'Who by fire' was written by Leonard Cohen inspired by Yom Kippur prayer 'Unetane tokef.' This song was written following Leonard Cohen experience singing in front of Israeli soldiers in the frontier in Yom Kippur war in 1973.

Cohen was described as a Sabbath-observant Jew in an article in The New York Times:

Mr. Cohen keeps the Sabbath even while on tour and performed for Israeli troops during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. So how does he square that faith with his continued practice of Zen? "Allen Ginsberg asked me the same question many years ago," he said. "Well, for one thing, in the tradition of Zen that I've practiced, there is no prayerful worship and there is no affirmation of a deity. So theologically there is no challenge to any Jewish belief."(3)

Cohen was involved with Buddhism beginning in the 1970s and was ordained a Buddhist monk in 1996; however, he continued to consider himself Jewish: "I'm not looking for a new religion. I'm quite happy with the old one, with Judaism." In his concert in Ramat Gan, Israel, on 24 September 2009, Cohen spoke Jewish prayers and blessings to the audience in Hebrew. He opened the show with the first sentence of Ma Tovu. At the middle he used Baruch Hashem, and he ended the concert reciting the blessing of Birkat Cohanim. Cohen died on 7 November 2016 at the age of 82 at his home in Los Angeles. His death was not announced until 10 November. Cohen was survived by his two children and two grandchildren.(1)



(3) See Larry Rohter, "On the Road, for Reasons Practical and Spiritual." The New York Times, 25 February 2009. For an extended discussion of the Jewish mystical and Buddhist motifs in Cohen's songs and poems, see Elliot R. Wolfson, "New Jerusalem Glowing: Songs and Poems of Leonard Cohen in a Kabbalistic Key," Kabbalah: A Journal for the Study of Jewish Mystical Texts 15 (2006): 103–152.

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