The passing of Leonard Cohen was the source of great mourning in Israel. The Canadian Jewish legend had always seen himself as a brother to all Israelis.
During his nearly 60-year music career, Cohen often visited Israel and even worked on a kibbutz for a time in the 1970s.
But his most notable visit came during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, when he put a European tour on hold and rushed to the Sinai to be with Israel’s frontline troops. His impromptu first performance in the desert dust standing amid tanks and other military equipment was a huge source of comfort to Israel.
Cohen himself was so overwhelmed by the experience that he retreated to a rock at the corner of the encampment and penned the popular song “Lover Lover Lover.” In the final verses of the song, Cohen offered encouragement to Israel’s soldiers:
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
For a full eight weeks, Cohen traveled with famed Israeli musician Matti Caspi, visiting the widely dispersed Israel Army camps across the Sinai and uplifting the exhausted soldiers fighting for the survival of the Jewish state.
Cohen at the time was already a world-famous musician and performer, having previously given two concerts in Israel. Caspi later recalled how he, Cohen and two other popular Israeli singers – Oshik Levi and Pupik Arnon – drove from base to base in an old Ford Falcon. The quartet called themselves the “Geneva Conference” after the international forum that was attempting to bring an end to the bloody conflict.
His traveling companions noted that despite his international star status, Cohen refused a special tent or room, preferring instead to sleep on the ground amongst the soldiers.
Many of the soldiers who met Cohen during his desert tour told of the great love he had for the people of Israel. When he returned to perform in Tel Aviv seven years later, Cohen told the audience about how the courage of those soldiers had inspired him.
Shortly after the Yom Kippur War and his time in the Sinai, Cohen published one of his best albums, New Skin for the Old Ceremony. The lyrics of several of the hit songs were clearly influence by the war and his experiences with the Israeli troops.
In the upcoming December issue of Israel Today Magazine, I write more about Leonard Cohen, who was an inspiration to so many Israelis, myself included.