Shabbat Shuvah — Who By Fire

Shabbat Shuvah — Who By Fire

By Melissa Berenbaum, Oct. 1, 2022

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah.

If I were to recount a story about a man who runs away from his responsibilities, only to find there is no escaping those obligations, you would say you know the story. It’s the story of Jonah, which is read on Yom Kippur. The Book of Jonah is a parable, reminding us that it’s more or less impossible to ignore or turn away from God’s call and that God is merciful when we turn away from wrongdoing and evil and turn toward God.

But I do want to talk about another person, more contemporary, who may have thought he was running away from some of his commitments, but his running away was in fact running toward his responsibilities.

The year was 1973. The person is Leonard Cohen. He was then living on the Greek Island, Hydra, with a woman and their young child Adam, born in 1972. That life was already something of an escape for a man who grew up in Montreal in an Orthodox family at Sha’ar Hashomayim. His grandfather laid the cornerstone of the shul in 1921. At his bar mitzvah, Leonard Cohen was called to the Torah at Sha’ar Hashomayim – Eliezer ben Natan Ha-Cohen.

His life on Hydra, first with Marianne Ihlen (of the song Marianne) and then Suzanne (but not the same Suzanne of the song), was a simple, but hedonistic, life. He consumed a lot of drugs and created a lot of great music through the 1960’s. He was part of the same music scene that included Joan Baez, and he had achieved success and fame. But at 39, he was unsatisfied, unfulfilled and told people, including reporters that he was done with music and essentially had nothing more to say.

On October 6, Yom Kippur that year, Israel was attacked, as we all know, in the Sinai and on the Golan Heights. Israelis living outside the country scrambled to get home to join their units. And facing middle age, trapped by a family, blocked creatively and fed up with what the music business had become, Leonard Cohen made his way to Israel, to his myth home, as he called it. He intended to volunteer on some kibbutz that he knew would be in need of workers to replace the men who were being called into service. So done was he with music that he didn’t even bring a guitar with him.

Is he running away, or is he answering a call? Maybe he is more like Avraham… Hineni.

He had no specific direction when he got to Tel Aviv and went to a Café where he was recognized by some Israeli musicians – Ilana Rovina and Oshik Levy and they invited him to join as they were going to play concerts. He initially demurred, but after they requisitioned a guitar for him, he joined them.

We all probably have some familiarity with the USO shows that provide live entertainment to American troops serving abroad. These are lavishly produced entertainment spectacles that have been done since World War II. I remember them from the Vietnam era because they were filmed and then broadcast on American television.

Well, Leonard Cohen, Ilana Rovina, Oshik Levy and they were joined by Matti Caspi, were a long way from the USO shows. The first couple of concerts took place at air force bases, in a movie theater or similar auditoriums.

And almost from the start, Cohen’s inspiration and creativity were re-ignited. He began sketching out “Lover, Lover, Lover” on the first day he played and introduced it at the second show at Hatzor Air Base. Here are some of the lyrics:

I asked my father, I said “Father, change my name.”
The one I’m using now it’s covered up with fear and filth and cowardice and shame.
The refrain: Lover, lover, lover, lover, lover, come back to me.

Matti Friedman, author of Who by Fire – Leonard Cohen in the Sinai, speculates that this verse relates to the widespread practice of exchanging diaspora Jewish names for Hebrew names, as part of the process of integration and assimilation into Israel. We all know Golda Meyerson became Golda Meir.

And a later verse:

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

Cohen wrote in his notes that he hoped that this song might offer protection to the soldiers about to embark on their missions. Did he really think a song could protect soldiers facing war? Or was he fulfilling his responsibility and obligation, as a Cohen, to offer the priestly blessing to the soldiers who were about to embark on life-or-death missions?


And the refrain…. Lover, lover, lover, lover (and a few more) come back to me. We don’t know exactly the context. It could evoke God’s presence as in Shir Ha Shirim, or a conventional expression of one missing another, as a soldier missing a girlfriend.

It’s well documented that the concerts had a big impact on the soldiers. The music provided an escape – from the danger, the threat of death, the reality of death and injury. And Cohen was well known in Israel, having performed there in 1972 and through his albums.

Matti Friedman’s book recounts many of the concerts – none of which were filmed or taped. He tracked down soldiers – now grandmothers and grandfathers – who attended these concerts, most of which were in the Sinai, closer to where the battles were being waged. They were impromptu performances, with little equipment like speakers and lighting. Oshik Levy’s description of a typical concert – an officer takes them in the desert at night in a truck. “The front is close but he doesn’t know how close. They stop by a few big artillery guns clustered in the sand. Everything is completely black. Does anyone want to hear some music? Some dirty soldiers gather around.” He “builds a stage of ammunition crates and arranges a truck’s headlights for illumination. They start singing. Suddenly an artillery officer says politely, ‘Can you stop for a moment,’ and shouts ‘Gun three!’ The ground shakes and the air ripples with the force of a projectile. Everyone is deafened for a few seconds. They begin singing again.”

The memories of those who saw Cohen perform are sharp and precise. A soldier named Shlomi recalls an attack on the Africa side, after Israeli troops had crossed the Suez. An Egyptian plane overhead, firing at the soldiers below. One soldier manning a machine gun on an armored personnel carrier shot the plane down. Later Shlomi, after roaming through the desert looking for fuel cans returned to the improvised base camp and recalls hearing a voice. He said he felt like Moshe, hearing the voice and he walked toward it. He saw someone sitting on a steel helmet resting on the sand, with a guitar, singing – it was Leonard Cohen.

There could be much to say about the battles of the Yom Kippur War – 2600 lives lost. How perilously close Israel was to the precipice. And I’m sure many here (not including those in the 20s and 30s group, and I would add even those in their 40s) can remember where they were and how they learned that Israel was being attacked and what they did to offer help and resources to the Jewish state.

But this is about Leonard Cohen’s journey and the significance and impact his experiences in Sinai had on him and its relevance to this season of return and repentance. Cohen was reluctant to talk about his experiences in the Yom Kippur War, of being up close to war and its horrors, to see young men die. He did return to Hydra, to Suzanne and Adam, probably to appreciate the mundane and ordinary, which is what the war was waged to protect. They had another child and he began writing music again…. he had something to say. This rebirth gave us “Hallelujah” and “Dance Me to the End of Love” and so many others.

So we come to Cohen’s version of the U-ne-taneh Tokef…. Who By Fire. He wrote it just months after his experiences in the Sinai. And it was released in 1974 on the first album following the war. Think about the prayer, recited on Yom Kippur and shortly after, Israelis learned the nation was under attack. From the shul to prepare for reserve duty – nothing could be more dramatic, more real than listing the ways peoples’ lives could end in the coming year and going off to defend your country.

Cohen, who grew up in an Orthodox synagogue and knew the prayer, its meaning and significance – all knowing God who inscribes and seals mortals for the coming year, who will die and who will be born, who will die in the right time and who will die an untimely death, who by water, who by fire …. And you know the rest.

He took that prayer with his experience in Israel, among soldiers, and gave us Who By Fire –

And who by fire, who by water
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial
Who in your merry merry month of May
Who by very slow decay
And who shall I say is calling?

Matti Friedman tells the story of Kibbutz Beit Hashita, that tragically lost 11 of its young men in the Yom Kippur War – the next generation of the kibbutz. This was a particularly secular kibbutz where the members didn’t really observe Yom Kippur. After the war, Yom Kippur became a day of mourning on the kibbutz. Some years later an Israeli songwriter, Yair Rosenblum, visited Kibbutz Beit Hashita where he wrote a new melody for the U-netaneh tokef. He combined European cantorial melodies, Sephardic tunes and modern Israeli music. That melody is used in many Israeli synagogues. And then Israeli singer Aya Korem translated Cohen’s song into Hebrew and layered it on to Rosenblum’s melody. Listen here.

Leonard Cohen seems like Jonah – in that he tries to escape. But his escape route brings him right back to his roots, to who he is. He had to go back out on the road doing concerts around 2009 when he discovered his manager had stolen his savings. He played in Israel, and if you go to the Anu Museum in Tel Aviv, you can see a clip from that concert at the end, when Eliezer Ha-Cohen raised his hands, parted his fingers and blessed the crowd with the Priestly Benediction and left the stage.

May our t’shuvah be meaningful and fulfilling. G’mar hatimah tovah. Shabbat shalom.

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