Matti Friedman, WHO BY FIRE

Matti Friedman, WHO BY FIRE

Journalist and author Matti Friedman joins Zibby to discuss his latest book, Who By Fire, which recounts the incredible true story of Leonard Cohen’s involvement in Israel’s Yom Kippur War. The two talk about the significance of Yom Kippur and the 1973 war in Judaism, Matti and Leonard’s missed connection, and Matti’s trajectory through journalism toward writing well-researched non-fiction. Matti also shares how he managed to include Leonard’s side of this story and the responses he has received from readers so far.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Matti. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Who by Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai.

Matti Friedman: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: I’m excited to talk to you for so many reasons. One, because I’ve gotten to know Cindy Spiegel from Spiegel & Grau pretty well. I really adore her and think she’s awesome. I’m very excited to hear about your journey with another entrepreneurial venture in the publishing world. Also, because as I just mentioned, I actually listened to this book, which I found fascinating. You’ve gotten me through several workouts, so thank you for that. I didn’t know this whole history, as most people didn’t. Why don’t you start by telling listeners a little bit about your particular fascination with this topic and how it became a book?

Matti: Sure. It’s hard for me to imagine working out to Leonard Cohen. That just seems kind of like a bit of a downer. I’m not sure if it’d really get your heartrate up. When I listen to Leonard Cohen, I want to sit back and ponder fate, so I don’t know. Was it good in the gym or not?

Zibby: I will say I did not run very fast. I was kind of dragging myself, but I would’ve been dragging myself anyway. It fit my feelings about working out, so there you go.

Matti: Okay, good. I grew up with Leonard Cohen just because that was my parents’ music. We used to play it in the car all the time. I’m Canadian. I’m from Toronto. If you’re Canadian, you grow up listening to Leonard Cohen. I did. He was kind of the soundtrack of a Canadian childhood. I don’t even remember listening to him on purpose until I was an adult. He was just always on in the background. Songs like “Suzanne” and “So Long, Marianne” and “Sisters of Mercy” and “Famous Blue Raincoat,” those are all classics that were always on. The idea for the book really came in 2009. By that time, I’d been a journalist in Israel for a long time. I moved here when I was seventeen from Toronto. In 2009, Leonard Cohen showed up for a concert as part of that great resurrection tour that he did as an elderly guy. He was in his seventies. He’d been in a Zen Buddhist monastery for a while. He kind of disappeared and then discovered that a former manager had stolen all of his money, so he had to go back out on the road. Initially, it was just a way to make a buck. He goes back out on the road and discovers that he is massively famous and beloved. People are thronging arenas all over the world to hear his music.

The last concert on that first stage of the resurrection tour was in Tel Aviv. I was here at the time. I just couldn’t under why Israelis were losing their minds over Leonard Cohen. People were willing to pay anything to get tickets. The phone lines crashed when the tickets went on sale. Fifty thousand people came to see Leonard Cohen in a country that’s basically the size of New York City in terms of population. It was a big deal here. I didn’t really understand why. I understood the connection between Canadians and Leonard Cohen. I know that he has a very fervent audience in the United States and across Europe, but I couldn’t really understand what it was about him in Israel. Then I read an article about this moment in 1973 that all Israelis seemed to know about even though the details weren’t exactly clear. The moment was a strange concert tour that he’d given in the middle of the Yom Kippur War. According to this article, he seemed to have shown up at the very tip of the Sinai front facing the Egyptian army in this war that was maybe the darkest moment in Israel’s history from the moment that it was founded. He played a concert tour. That moment just seemed ripe to be unpacked. I told myself at the time that someone needed to write a book about it. It took some time, but eventually, it was me.

Zibby: I think all these things where we’re like, somebody needs to write a book about that, everybody should write those ideas down and just go write the books. People who aren’t writers, I don’t think, think that all the time. Someone should write a book about this. This would be a great book. It’s interesting because you describe how hard it was at first to even find any information about this. He wasn’t forthcoming about this period of time in his life. Then you got access to some really interesting documents. You thought, at first, they were fictious. He was trying to write a novel about this. In the manuscript, then you realized it must have been based on this time period. Then you actually included a lot of the information, which was amazing. Tell me about that and how you even got hooked up with that.

Matti: In the audiobook, the parts that are written by Leonard Cohen are actually read by an actor who sounds a lot like the young Leonard Cohen. It’s an interesting book to hear in that regard. My first act when I started to research the book was trying to put together the Israeli side because I understood that this book was going to have two halves. There’s going to be the Leonard Cohen side, and there’s going to be the side of the Israeli soldiers who saw Leonard Cohen in the desert at the worst moment of their lives. I set out to find Israeli soldiers who’d seen him and hear about these concerts. I tried to find video of the concerts. There was no video. I tried to find audio of the concerts. There was almost no audio. It’s really subterrain history. It has to be put together with interviews with people who are now in their seventies and photos in private photo albums. That’s really what I spent a couple years doing. The other side of the story was Leonard Cohen. How do I find out what Leonard Cohen was thinking? What was he doing here? Why did he come? How did he experience it? He made almost no public comment about it afterwards, which is also interesting in itself.

When I started to write the book, Leonard Cohen was actually alive. I started thinking about this book in 2009. It took a few years to get it going, but I was thinking about it. Leonard Cohen was alive and giving interviews. In the fall of 2016, I figured out that my Canadian publisher, McClelland & Stewart, is also Leonard Cohen’s publisher. I said, okay. I sent an email to my editor saying, “Can I interview Leonard Cohen about this?” He said, “Sure, I don’t see why not.” I said, “Really? Is that really possible?” He said, “Yeah, just put a summary of your book idea in an email. I’m going to get it to Leonard Cohen’s people. We’ll make it happen.” I was thrilled. I just didn’t think that was possible, that I could go meet Leonard Cohen. I already had this imaginary scenario where I’m sitting with him in his living room in Montréal sipping whiskey as we discuss the Yom Kippur War. By that time, Leonard Cohen had lived in Los Angeles for decades. He didn’t really live in Montréal. This is a completely imaginary scenario in my mind.

Zibby: This can be the historical novel that you write next.

Matti: That’s right, exactly. Then I sent this email and went to bed really excited about the possibility that within a few weeks I might be meeting Leonard Cohen. I woke up the next morning with an email from my editor, Doug Pepper. The subject line of the email was “Holy shit.” The email was just a link to the obituary because Leonard Cohen had died basically as I sent the email. That, of course, eliminated any chance that I was going to be able to interview Leonard Cohen. Then through a fortuitous confluence of events, I discovered this manuscript that Leonard Cohen had written. Immediately upon returning from the Yom Kipper War in the fall of 1973, he’d sat down with a typewriter on this Greek island where he lived at the time called Hydra. He cranked out this forty-five-page manuscript, which is weird and raw and obscene and unedited and unfiltered. He just poured out his very contradictory and very upsetting memories of what had just happened and then ultimately didn’t publish it. It sat in a box. I was lucky enough to find it at a library in Hamilton, Ontario, the library of McMaster University, which is just a couple hours outside Toronto. Thanks to an intrepid librarian who dove into the stacks and pulled out this manuscript, scanned it, and sent it to me, I got this incredible window into Leonard Cohen’s mind. We get to hear in the book, the man himself telling part of the story in his own very distinct voice.

Zibby: Wow. The way that he introduces it, leaving the island and traveling, paints such a vivid picture of what it was like in the days when the war started, how everyone — I think you compared it to some sort of emergency alarm. Everyone around the world put down what they were doing. They were like, we’ve got to get to Israel. We have to help. Eye doctors were hearing the news and running to the airports. The airports were a zoo, unrecognizable. Everybody who came, you said, needed — he wrote you were only allowed on the plane if you could help in some way, if you could be in a tank or you could help or fight or whatever. Even civilians were not even allowed in at that point. The moment just felt so — the way that he wrote about it, and then it was in the audiobook, felt like this mad rush. The whole world was mobilized. Tell me more about that.

Matti: It’s this incredible moment. I guess we have to remember that Israel in 1973 is seen very different than it is now. It’s a country that’s barely twenty-five years old. It’s barely three million people. We’re still very much in the post-Holocaust world where people really remember what just happened. Israel had a lot of sympathy. People feel concerned that the country could be in mortal danger. In those days, it was kind of like the bat signal. When there was a crisis in Israel, the bat signal —

Zibby: — Yes, the bat signal. That’s what you said. Sorry, I knew it was something better than I could remember.

Matti: Then for some people, it was, “Where do I sign up?” kind of like the volunteers — different, but in some ways, like the volunteers who’ve gone off to Ukraine. Particularly for the Jewish people in the diaspora, like my dad — my dad, if you don’t remember, is just being galvanized by the crisis. People were really worried. There’s a lot of pressure on airplanes going to Israel. Hundreds of people are sleeping on the carpets at Heathrow and LaGuardia trying to get back to Israel; mainly, Israeli men trying to rejoin their reserve units. I give in the book, examples of American Jews or Jews from South Africa and some people who weren’t Jews but just wanted to help who heard the news on Yom Kippur, which is this very solemn day when many Jewish people are in synagogue. The news got around. Some of these doctors took their operating instruments, got on an airplane, and went off to help. Some of them landed at the airport in Tel Aviv and were immediately taken to the front. The first week or two of the war were really desperate. The army almost loses the war. Ultimately, 2,600 Israelis are killed in the war in a country that is, again, just barely three million people, so it’s a major catastrophe in Israel. The trauma of the war, in some ways, has never really dissipated. It kind of still goes on to this day.

That moment of the outbreak of war really galvanized people. One of the people was Leonard Cohen. He feels like he’s at the end of his career. He’s kind of played out. He’s announced that he’s retiring. He’s in an unhappy relationship. He’s a new father. His first son, Adam, is one year old. He’s thirty-nine years old. He’s on the cusp of a midlife crisis or maybe deep in a midlife crisis. Of course, in those days, a rockstar didn’t make it to thirty-nine. The cool thing to do was die at twenty-seven, which is what Jimi Hendrix had done, and Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin. Thirty-nine was really old. Leonard Cohen was kind of over the hill. He felt like he was done. Then this war breaks out. Surprising everyone, including himself, he walks out of this little fisherman’s cottage where he was living on Hydra. He walks down to the docks at Hydra. He gets on a ferry to Athens. Then he boards an airplane into this total catastrophe and ends up embarking on what I think is one of the — it’s a great moment in Jewish history, for sure, but it’s also one of the strangest moments in the history of rock and roll.

Zibby: Very true, oh, my gosh. Can you give the one- to two-sentence summary for people listening who don’t know what the Yom Kippur War was or even the importance of Yom Kippur in the Jewish faith? Even hearing the prayers over — there I am walking in Central Park. I felt like I was in temple listening. Could you just give the two-minute background for people who might not know what we’re talking about?

Matti: Sure. Yom Kippur is the most solemn day of the Jewish calendar. It’s called the day of atonement. It’s the day when you’re supposed to atone for the sins of the past year and look ahead to the coming year. We understand in the Jewish tradition that it’s on Yom Kippur that our fates are sealed for the coming year. You fast from the evening before to sundown on the day of Yom Kippur. The fast day ends with a prayer called the locking, which is when, according to the tradition, the gates of heaven are locked. Then you better get your atoning done by that time because according to some of the prayers of Yom Kippur, God is deciding your fate and expecting you to look into your own heart and get yourself in order ahead of the coming year. That’s Yom Kippur. In Israel, it’s a day when everything shuts down. There are no cars on the roads. There’s no radio. There are no flights. There’s no television. It’s a day where the country goes completely quiet. Most people are fasting. Many people are in synagogue.

At two PM on Yom Kippur, a war breaks out out of nowhere. Israelis were not expecting it at all. The Egyptians carry out a surprise attack across the Suez Canal in the south. The Syrians carry out a surprise attack into the Golan Heights in the north. Israel’s attacked on two fronts, caught completely off guard. The borders are barely defended because the army had really been caught with its pants down. Hundreds of soldiers who are defending the borders are killed on the first day. The borders are overrun. It does look for a while as if the Israeli army is not going to be able to win the war. For Israel, this is an existential moment. Israel’s existence is fragile. World War II is a very fresh memory. It’s 1973, so these events, they had happened less than thirty years before. Many of the people in Israel were alive for the second World War and for the Holocaust. It’s a moment pregnant with religious meaning because of the day of atonement. It’s a moment of, really, existential fear for Israelis. That’s the way the war is remembered to this day, as a mix of the holy day Yom Kippur and the war Yom Kippur and the tragedy. It’s all kind of mixed up. Leonard Cohen, who’s an outsider, just walks right into that big mess and somehow makes himself a permanent part of the way this country remembers that war.

Zibby: Wow. Can I ask a really stupid question? Are there any movies about the Yom Kippur War to make it more mainstream in the way that other films have done for other wars?

Matti: That’s an interesting question.

Zibby: I can’t think of one.

Matti: That’s a great question. I don’t think that a mainstream Western movie has been made about that war. There’s a biopic that’s coming out soon about Golda Meir, who was the prime minister during that war and who’s still seen in Israel as an ambiguous figure because she’s seen to have mishandled that war. I’m not sure what place the war plays in that movie. There’s an Israeli movie called Kippur by a director named Amos Gitai. I don’t know of any mainstream Western — I hope I’m not forgetting one that I’ll remember when we’re finished with the podcast.

Zibby: For something that was such a cultural moment and really a huge before-and-after, I feel like it would reach more people and people would understand if there was some sort of movie star explaining what happened. Anyway, diversion. We’ll work on that movie later. We’ll come back to that.

Matti: If you make one, let me know.

Zibby: Okay, yeah. I’ll invite you to the screening. You can even bring the hairdresser who helped your wife.

Matti: Actually, I was hoping for a starring role. I guess I’ll make do with a ticket to the screening.

Zibby: Well, let’s see how it goes. We’ll see who we get. We’ll see what parts are left. Leonard Cohen, by the way, was not even particularly religious. You had a whole section about how he sort of viewed Judaism as something like coming out of a wax museum or something. I probably got that quote wrong, too, because I didn’t write it down. It was something frozen in time for him. He dabbled in it but was sort of waiting for some sign. He was like, all right, I’m tolerating this. It’s not like he was super religious and was raring to go. It was almost like a conscientious defector joining into a war or something, a very incongruous set of events.

Matti: Absolutely. He grows up in this very serious Jewish community in Montréal called Shaar Hashomayim. That’s the name of his synagogue. He is a from a very important family in the community. His grandfather had been the president of the community, and so did his great-grandfather. He was from a very established Jewish community in Montréal. He grows up soaked in the Jewish tradition. His maternal grandfather is an important rabbi who’s an expert in Hebrew grammar who comes from Lithuania. He just grows up immersed in the language of the Bible and this, I would say, wealthy and established Jewish community. He rejects it. He walks out on it. He says it’s stale and that they’ve lost — there’s a very interesting and angry speech that he makes to the community in 1964 as he departs for his bohemian life elsewhere. He tells them that they’ve lost track of what it means to be Jewish. They’ve lost the ability to speak to God. They’ve lost the ability to hear what God was trying to tell them. They’re just interested in social events. It’s all about synagogue dues and who’s wearing what. They’re only interested in themselves. They’re not interested in the divine message that is at the heart of Judaism. He puts it in much more elegant words than I’m doing here.

It’s an angry rejection of how he saw diaspora Judaism. He walks out. He ends up in the Village playing with Joan Baez and Nico and Judy Collins and Dylan. Then ends up on this Greek island living a completely different life that’s very removed from this very staid Jewish community in Montréal where his family’s in the garment business. It’s all very middle class and proper. He’s obviously doing something completely different. It’s the sixties, and acid and women. He didn’t really follow the course that had been intended for him by his father and uncles, but it’s always there inside him. His work is very hard to understand without understanding the Jewish tradition. Leonard Cohen’s poetry is just full of Biblical language and Biblical allusions. He always has this very deep affinity for the Jewish people, for the Jewish world, and for Israel. That’s one part of what he’s doing in Israel in 1973. He’s on this island when he hears on the radio that a war has broken out. He just needs to be there.

It’s unclear exactly what he intended to do once he got to Israel. He didn’t intend to play for soldiers. That’s quite clear. That happens afterwards almost by mistake. He just needs to be in the country to help somehow at this moment of crisis. He has a deep Jewish affinity even if he has a kind of skepticism about Jewish communities and skepticism about the state of Israel, by the way. As you know from the book, he doesn’t leave Israel waving the Israeli flag and singing the national anthem. He has very ambiguous feelings about all of it. Deep down, he has a tribal affinity. The story of this war is, in many ways, a story of Leonard Cohen struggling with his tribal affinity versus his understanding that he’s a universal poet who can’t be part of one tribe and has to address the soul of humanity. You really see him struggle with those questions as the war progresses and as he writes songs in the war and inspired by the war afterward.

Zibby: Wow. Let’s go back to you for a second. You’re a father of four in Tel Aviv. You’ve somehow ended up with a book coming out from a small New York City publisher. How did this happen? How did you link up with them? Go on.

Matti: First of all, I have to say that I’m in Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv.

Zibby: Oh, I’m so sorry. I am so sorry.

Matti: For Israelis, it’s a very important distinction because people from Tel Aviv are much cooler than people from Jerusalem.

Zibby: You know what? I don’t know why I said that. I apologize. I’m sorry.

Matti: They’re literally a half-hour drive from each other.

Zibby: Still.

Matti: It’s like Brooklyn and Manhattan. As a Jerusalemite, we’re very proud of being here.

Zibby: I am in Manhattan too, so I get it.

Matti: Even though we recognize that the people in Tel Aviv are cooler than we are. I grew up in Canada. I moved here when I was seventeen intending to be here for a year. That was twenty-seven years ago. Since then, I worked in agriculture. I spent three years in the military, which you have to do here after high school, and then studied Islamic studies and became a journalist and spent most of my time as a daily journalist working for the AP, the big US news agency, and then a decade ago, set off on my own to do independent journalism and write books. I’ve written four. One is called The Aleppo Codex. It’s a dirty story about the most important copy of the Bible. It’s all nonfiction. The second book is called Pumpkinflowers. It’s a military memoir about a weird war that I blundered into as a Canadian teenager coming to Israel in the nineties.

The third one is called Spies of No Country, which is about Israel’s first spies, but also about Israel’s complicated ethnic identity and Israel’s cover story and the way it differs from its actual identity, which is something I’m interested in. This is the last one, Who by Fire. This is the first book I’ve published with Spiegel & Grau, which is new. Everyone involved in Spiegel & Grau is a veteran of the publishing world. As an independent publisher, it’s new. It’s really exciting to be part of what they’re doing. It’s a great operation. They have a great list. I was really lucky to get in with them. Of course, they’re hardcore Leonard Cohen fans. That was part of the draw. There’s something about Cohen that really speaks to maybe not everyone, but it speaks very strongly to some people. I hope that this book helps people access Leonard Cohen. If a certain number of people learn about Leonard Cohen or fall in love with his music as a result of this book, I will feel that my work is done.

Zibby: Amazing. Are you doing a lot of outreach to congregations? How are you marketing this book? I’m fascinated by marketing.

Matti: I wish I was better at marketing than I am. I’m more of a reporter than someone who really knows how to sell. Yes, we’ve done some great events. We had one in New York, actually, at Temple Emanu-El at the Streicker Center. It was a musical event where I did the talking and a cantor named Gideon Zelermyer performed. Gideon Zelermyer is well-known for several reasons. Among Leonard Cohen fans, he’s known for his collaboration with Leonard Cohen on what was essentially Leonard Cohen’s last song called “You Want it Darker.” He features Gideon’s voice. Gideon is the cantor at Shaar Hashomayim, at Leonard Cohen’s childhood synagogue. That collaboration is also very heavy with meaning. It’s a great, great song. We did that musical event. I did an event in LA with an up-and-coming folk musician named Gigi. She did Leonard Cohen. I think she kind of discovered Leonard Cohen because of this event. She’s twenty-two, if I’m not mistaken. It was a discovery for her. I’ve spoken at a few synagogues. I’ve been doing a lot on Zoom, of course, this being 2022 and the world not quite back online yet. I was in my hometown of Toronto.

Obviously, there’s a lot of interest in this that comes from Jewish communities just because people are interested in Israel. Everyone knows Leonard Cohen. There’s a lot of built-in interest in Canada where Leonard Cohen is just a massive cultural hero. Canadians are very proud of anyone who is of global significance who came from Canada. There aren’t that many. Although, Neil Young is Canadian, and Joni Mitchell. There are a few. Leonard Cohen really looms very large. Of course, he’s painted on — there’s a huge mural of him on the side of a massive building dominating the skyline of Montréal. He’s really big in Canada. There’s been a ton of interest in the book. It’s been really amazing to get feedback from people who take the story very personally, particularly in Israel, people who remember the war. I’ve got emails from people who saw Cohen in the war, people who really remember those days. It’s been a pretty wild ride over the past couple months. It’s been really interesting to see the book make its way in the world.

Zibby: I love, by the way, how you compare Canada’s relationship to the US similar to Israel’s relationship with the Middle East and how there was this solidarity between Canadians and Israelis because of that.

Matti: Canadians and Jews are both kind of — Leonard Cohen says this. They’re both these small groups on the periphery of the empire and also defining themselves vis-à-vis the empires. Canadians are this small group of people just to the north of the United States, very preoccupied with the United States, with not being the United States, and very tribal about anything that can be claimed as Canadian, like Leonard Cohen or certain American comedians who are Canadian. Canadians can basically list every famous Canadian, to the most random. Jason Priestley, Canadians just know that he’s Canadian. It’s the same thing with Jews, small group of people who have the outsized sense of our own importance. We know who’s Jewish and who isn’t. Leonard Cohen liked that. He didn’t think that tribal identities should be dismantled. He had this argument, in his head at least, with John Lennon and the idea of “Imagine,” which is that we should dismantle all boundaries, no religion, no nations, no people, no differences of language. Leonard Cohen was very much enamored of those differences. He didn’t think we should hate each other or anything like that, but he thought that it was important to have a place like Canada or a group of people called Jews or a city like Montréal. He thought that that kind of particularism was necessary in order to produce art. I don’t think he wanted to see the world lose its uniqueness. He didn’t want us to move to this world where everything would be generic, which might be where we’re going. We might be moving toward a world where the internet makes everything flat, and we’re all talking about the same stuff in the same language.

Zibby: I hope not.

Matti: Me too. I think Leonard Cohen saw that as a kind of nightmare scenario.

Zibby: Last question for you. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Matti: My first point of advice would be, never take any advice from me because you’ll just be gravely disappointed. I don’t want to be responsible for it. I think it’s important to — it relates to that last question. Because of the internet and because we’re all so involved in discussions that we see online, I think there’s a lot of people, not just fiction writers, but also journalists, who are writing about what everyone else is writing about and thinking about what everyone else is thinking about. The stronger the groupthink tendency gets because of social media, the harder it is to produce anything unique and really different. That is what I would say. Just preserve that space where you’re into something that’s really different. If you know a place in a really deep way, great. If you know another language, if you know another country, if you have a story that’s really, really different and really unique, don’t get drawn into the discussions that everyone else seems to be having on Twitter or Facebook. Just concentrate on that unique thing that you know because, as Leonard Cohen definitely thought, art that’s worth anything is going to come out of that unique personal experience. It’s going to come out of difference. It’s not going to come out of some generic discussion that everyone seems to be having. That’s becoming increasingly hard as social media kind of irons out of all our differences and draws us into the same discussions and forces us into predictable patterns of thought. No interesting literature or art can be produced in those circumstances. There is an element of resistance that’s necessary. In order to write anything, we have to create a space in which we can think our own thoughts and jealously preserve it. Then you might be able to write something worthwhile.

Zibby: Hallelujah. I love it. Matti, thank you so much. That was really interesting. The book was super interesting. I learned a lot. I have a new perspective on a lot of things. I was entertained and riveted. I feel like I took this really interesting lecture course or something. It was great. I love that. I love to learn. Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.

Matti: Thank you again for having me.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Matti Friedman, WHO BY FIRE

WHO BY FIRE by Matti Friedman

Purchase your copy on Amazon and Bookshop!

Check out the merch on our new Bonfire shop here.

Subscribe to Zibby’s weekly newsletter here.

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts