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Remembering Leonard Cohen’s Yom Kippur War Tour of Duty

In October of 1973, the singer flew to Israel to entertain the soldiers on the front lines, and left with one of his finest albums

Liel Leibovitz
September 29, 2017
Courtesy of Maariv
Leonard Cohen with Mati Caspi and Ariel Sharon during the Yom Kippur War, October 1973Courtesy of Maariv
Courtesy of Maariv
Leonard Cohen with Mati Caspi and Ariel Sharon during the Yom Kippur War, October 1973Courtesy of Maariv

A few days after Yom Kippur, 1973, with Israel still fighting a bitter war for its survival with Egypt and Syria, a handful of entertainers were sitting in Pinati, a popular Tel Aviv café, and planning a tour of the front lines, eager to give the men fighting and dying there a few hours of much needed distraction. They were Oshik Levy, a handsome pop star; Ilana Rovina, a singer and the daughter of the legendary theater actress Hannah Rovina; the actor Pupik Arnon; and a young musician named Mati Caspi, who would soon become one of the country’s most iconic stars. As they planned their act, Levy noticed a familiar looking man a few tables over, and he said to his friends that the man looked a little bit like Leonard Cohen.

“Don’t you wish!” said Rovina. The Canadian-born singer-songwriter was a superstar in Israel, having played two sold-out shows in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem just a few months earlier. What were the odds that the internationally renowned musician would now be plopped down at a small café in the middle of the war?

But Levy couldn’t look away. “I swear on my life,” he said to his friends, “it’s Leonard Cohen.”

He got up and walked over to the thin stranger with the soulful eyes.

“Are you Leonard Cohen?” he asked.

“I am,” the man said.

Cohen had heard the news of the war, and felt he had to come and see it for himself. Instinctively, Levy asked Cohen if he wanted to join their tour. Cohen did, so Levy ran to the café’s phone, rang up a friend in the army, and arranged for a guitar. A few hours later, the small band of entertainers, with Cohen in tow, were en route to the southern air force base in Hatzor.

Cohen’s improvised 1973 Yom Kippur tour is the stuff of legend in Israel. It also gave birth to one of his finest albums, New Skin for the Old Ceremony, which featured songs like “Lover Lover Lover,” written as the rockets exploded and the machine guns trilled. In 2013, an Israeli television crew revisited Cohen’s wartime visit by talking to Levy and the others who were fortunate enough to witness it. Here is their report, the perfect way to prepare the spirit for another Yom Kippur, our first without Leonard Cohen:

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.