‘What was the guy who wrote “Suzanne” doing in the Sinai?’: Matti Friedman talked about Leonard Cohen—and his own writing about Israel—during a visit to Montreal

Matti Friedman talking to Brendan Kelly at the Jewish Public Library in Montreal. (JPL/Facebook)

Israeli-Canadian author Matti Friedman’s newest book is Who By Fire: War, Atonement, and the Resurrection of Leonard Cohen, the story of Cohen’s tour of Israel during the Yom Kippur War,

Friedman was in Montreal Dec. 1 for an event at the Jewish Public Library and sat down with The CJN’s Hannah Srour-Zackon to talk about the book and about his writing more generally, including how being Canadian influences his work, and writing about Israel for North American audiences.

What drew you to write about Leonard Cohen for this book?
I grew up with Leonard Cohen like many young Canadian Jews and I was surprised to learn this story of his tour in the Yom Kippur War. It popped up in press coverage around the time he gave a concert in Israel in 2009. Israelis went crazy for Leonard Cohen and had a powerful connection to him, and it turned out that it was in part because of his tour during the Yom Kippur War. But I had never heard of it. I decided that someone needed to unravel the story.

I was also drawn to it as a Canadian-Israeli story, there aren’t many of those. It’s a story that puts together the two halves of my own life, as someone who grew up in Canada and moved to Israel when I was 17. But beyond that, I was interested in that tension that exists when art meets war. It works its way into art in interesting ways, and I was wondering if that had happened with Leonard Cohen. He seems so distant from wars and the Middle East. What was the guy who wrote “Suzanne” doing in the Sinai desert? That was all part of the draw for me.

One thing that stood out to me in the book was how Leonard Cohen had these different forces of home that were pulling at him, whether it was Canada, Greece (where he was at the time), or Israel. How do you think his experience during the Yom Kippur War changed his relationship with these different homes?
He moved around a lot and in many ways, he was homeless. He was on this island in Greece where he was unhappy, then he came to Israel, which he called his ‘myth-home’. It’s a very interesting phrase to unpack. He had a very powerful but also very upsetting experience there; he didn’t feel at home in the ‘myth-home’.

One of the interesting parts of the war stories is that he asks people to call him Eliezer (which is his Hebrew name), he wears something that looks like a uniform, and he sleeps on the ground with the soldiers. In the story of the missing verse from “Lover, Lover, Lover”, he calls them his brothers, so there’s something very familial going on there. He understands that this is somehow a place that has to do with him, but he can’t stay there. Still, he feels deeply connected to it.

I don’t claim to have intimate access to Leonard Cohen’s brain, but I think his home is Montreal. He can never really escape the gravitational pull of Montreal and of the Shaar Hashomayim, which is why at the end of his life, he returns there.

In “You Want It Darker,” he chooses Gideon Zelermyer, the cantor from his childhood shul, to sing the Hebrew word in one of his last songs. I think he sees himself as a man with various homes, but ultimately, he’s Leonard Cohen from Westmount. In the end, he reconciles himself with that.

How did you go about researching this?
There were two main halves to my research: one in Israel, and one in the world of Leonard Cohen. First, I started by trying to find soldiers who had seen Cohen in the war and who had interesting war stories to tell. That was a bit tricky at first, but in Israel, you can usually find someone who can give you a few more numbers. I ultimately collected a lot of stories, not all of which appear in the book but that was part of the research.

The other half of the research was trying to figure out what Leonard Cohen thought about all of this, which turned out to be hard. I had this moment when I thought I could interview Cohen in 2015. I discovered that my publisher in Canada, McClelland & Stewart, is Leonard Cohen’s publisher.

I asked my editor in Toronto if it was possible to get to Cohen and he didn’t see why not. He told me to write a summary of the book to send to Cohen’s people. So in my head, I’m interviewing Leonard Cohen about the Yom Kippur War, which would solve the problem because we know nothing from him about the experience.

I wrote this summary and included the photograph of him with Ariel Sharon, which I thought would jog his memory, and sent it to my editor at McClelland & Stewart. This was November 2016. I went to bed and woke up the next morning to find an email in my inbox with the subject line “Holy shit,” and it’s Leonard Cohen’s obituary. He died as I was writing that.

I did have two breakthroughs, though. One was an unpublished manuscript that he had written after the war, which was in the McMaster University Archives (where McClelland and Stewart keep their own archive). The truth is, as much as I would love to have met Leonard Cohen, journalistically that manuscript is better because it’s written right after the event.

I also got access to his notebooks he wrote during the war from the Leonard Cohen estate. They had drafts of songs like “Lover, Lover, Lover”, bits and pieces of experiences, and phone numbers and names. The book is based on all these sources.

Was there anything that surprised you during your research?
I was surprised to find how deep the trauma of the Yom Kippur War was for Israelis. I knew about the war, of course, but I don’t think I really understood what it was like. It was an earthquake for people, and for a lot of Israelis it’s still going on.

People who are responding to the book are responding in a deep way to an experience that shaped their lives. I didn’t really understand that until I started working on the book, and particularly until it came out because I’ve received responses from readers beyond the usual ‘I found your book interesting’. It’s addressing a very central experience in the lives of Israelis.

How else have people responded to the book?
The book has come out in a few different languages, and in English people see it as a book about Cohen. In Israel, people mainly see it as a book about the Yom Kippur War and respond to it very strongly as a war story in which Leonard Cohen features.

Cohen is a figure that really speaks to people, and he meant something to people of that generation. Something about Leonard Cohen elicits deeply personal feelings, and a lot of the responses have been like that. It’s a combination of a figure who means a lot to people and a historical event that means a lot of people that makes the response a bit potent at times.

As an English-language writer living in Israel, what is it like to write for a largely North American audience?
Writing for a foreign audience requires taking a few steps back from the nitty- gritty of life in Israel and looking at the broader picture. This puts things in perspective, and I find writing for people outside of Israel makes my writing about Israel better as it takes you out of the day-to-day political story and forces you to think about it in a deeper way, making it accessible to readers from places like Montreal.

When I wrote my first book (The Aleppo Codex), I thought I would need to produce a different version for Israelis, but then it turned out almost everything I needed to explain to English readers also needed to be explained to Israelis. I found that Israelis responded positively to the tone, which was different from the very high-resolution stuff they’re used to. It’s good to be forced to take a few steps back and assess the things you think don’t need explaining.

Do you feel that being a Canadian informs your writing and the stories you choose to cover?
The answer is yes definitely. As a Canadian, I don’t have the same sense of borders as someone born in Israel. For example, I wrote this book called Pumpkinflowers which is about a war in Lebanon I was involved in in the late ‘90s when I moved to Israel and became a soldier. But it’s also about a trip I took back to Lebanon as a Canadian tourist and saw it from the other side, something I could do because I was Canadian. I had this sense that the borders that apply to everyone in Israel didn’t apply to me because I’m Canadian.

I can also empathize with anyone, even those diametrically opposed to me. I have that knowledge which allows me to interview people in different ways, even if I reject everything they’re saying. I think I’m open to my surroundings in a way that is particularly Canadian.

Over the past few years there’s been increasing political polarization among North American Jewry and I’m curious if you felt a shift as a result in the Jewish publishing landscape.
The political climate has become increasingly fraught in recent years. Books about Israel that would have easily been published a decade ago probably wouldn’t be published today. The publishing industry in general has shifted, it’s much more suspicious of Israel. I think the interest that used to be there in terms of sales isn’t what it was, and the interest that exists is often hostile. Because of this, people are hesitant to touch on subjects that could get them in trouble.

The discourse surrounding Israel is more likely to be projections of American racial problems onto Israel, or of European colonialism. Israel is considered a politically problematic topic. Luckily my books have been published, but I know people who have had trouble getting books published.

Has this had any impact on the way that you engage with your North American audiences?
Yes, there have been many times where I’ve spoken to North Americans about the issues with the story they’re getting about Israel. I’ve found that to even begin discussing a story like the one in my book, it’s necessary to address the political fantasy news story that people are getting. This fantasy is designed to discredit the country which makes it difficult to engage with the country in a meaningful way, which is what I see as my actual job.

To a lesser extent, I also want to help people navigate through the positive propaganda; if you think Israel is a story about pioneers dancing around the bonfire, we’re also not going to be able to talk about it as a real country. People are bombarded with these narratives and it’s having an impact. Anyone who deals with explaining Israel to English speakers is spending more and more time doing that kind of thing.

Shifting gears back to your book, it was just announced that it will be adapted as a limited TV series, making it the first non-documentary dramatization of Leonard Cohen onscreen. How did that project come together?
It came together thanks to producer Jill Offman. When the book was still in manuscript form, she heard about it and thought it would make a great drama. She very tenaciously pursued this project for almost two years, and she managed to get the cooperation of the Leonard Cohen estate; the biggest production company in Israel, Keshet International; and Yehonatan Indursky who created and wrote Shtisel.

I’ll be very interested to see what they come up with, how they pull it off, who they get to play Cohen, and what the vibe is like between the American or North American actor who will play Cohen and the Israeli cast. I think it’ll be an interesting process and I think the product is likely to be pretty interesting.

Are there any actors you would like to see play Leonard Cohen?
There’ve been a few names thrown around, one was a young Dustin Hoffman, and I have to say, he would’ve been perfect.  But as for modern actors, it’s not my world. You would need someone who has that intense, dark Leonard Cohen sexuality, which is not easy to nail. He’s depressed in a way that somehow is evocative and not depressing to the people around him. I think they’ll find someone good to pull it off.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.