The following is a transcript of Episode 105 of the Identity Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.
Yehuda: Hi everyone, and welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. We’re recording here on Sunday, July 10th, and for only the second time doing so in front of a live studio audience at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
You know, I talk a big game about ideas and beliefs, but if I’m being really honest and might as well be with all of you here tonight, I think that when I think about the question of why Zionism, it was for me, always about the stories. I find the stories of early Israel enchanting and captivating. And I mean, both the big stories and the little ones. The big ones like kibbutz galuyot, the ingathering of the exiles, that Zionism made throughout its history one of its most singular and exceptional focuses with crazy results.
We had magic carpets of yore but real ones that became airplanes that transformed Jewish history. Or the big story of the little army that could, winning a war against at least five other armies in a fashion that seemed to eerily resemble the liturgy of the Hanukah story, as though the real stories of our own lifetime could echo with the significance of the big stories that our people told for so long.
Truth is I’m kind of a sucker for those stories. I like stories to begin with and imagine living at a time in history when the big stories are actually ours. But I like the little stories too about Israel. Those that are little, but maybe not so little.
I remember working on a paper in high school about Shuli Natan. I was fascinated by the story of this little woman walking on stage with a guitar in early June, 1967 to sing Yerushalayim Shel Zahav for the first time at a music festival, a moment which transformed quickly from a performance into a prophecy.
I think maybe I got interested in that story because my parents had all of these great old records around the house of Israeli war songs. And we’ll talk more about that later tonight. And I thought it was so wacky. What, after all, is the relationship between that groovy seventies music and all of those Israeli war stories?
You know, stories that take place in Israel somehow and sometimes take on the quality of being ways of interpreting Israel itself. I don’t know whether it’s fair or right, but it’s common. It’s why people talk about the conversation they had with their taxi driver on the way from the airport, as though it’s a source of some sort of prophetic wisdom, some descriptor about the truth about this place that can be captured by an accidental conversation.
And it’s why so many of us who care a lot about this place can identify key formative moments in our Jewishness, in our sense of purpose, in our understanding of the world that took place while we were here, even for just a short time. Here’s my favorite Israel story. And I’ll give you a chance for our guest to think about maybe one of his favorites here too.
When I was in Yeshiva here for two years, between high school and college, we went for a weekend for a Shabbaton to Tzfat. And it was our second year, and so the rabbi of our program had said to us, listen, you were here with us last year and you went to some tisch and it’s gonna be the same rabbi doing the same tisch again, but here you are in Tzfat, the capital of Jewish mysticism, go find something interesting.
So we, a bunch of American Yeshiva students, wandered around the city, it was actually extremely quiet, until we heard people singing. We were like, perfect. We did what normal 18-year-olds do, which was opened the door of some place where people were singing and joined together with a group of people who were singing, Hasidim, singing and dancing around a table.
Until at some point in the middle, there was like a hubub that emerged. And the lights started going out. This is Friday night in Tzfat, and everybody turns quickly to the door to figure out who’s turning out the lights and there’s a man standing by the door, dressed all in white. Turning off the lights and saying, I quote, it’s over man, it’s over. The Hasidim rushed to the door, physically picked the man up, threw him out, and then bolted the door. At which point, all of us kind of shuffled around the room until we reached the door, unbolted it, and quickly ran out.
Does that story mean something? I don’t, I don’t know. Did it actually happen? I actually don’t know either. It’s a great story though. It’s good at parties. And I guess when I tell it, people nod knowingly about Tzfat. like, yes, that story makes sense in understanding something about the great Jewish mystical city and about the kind of weird things that happen when you’re here and in between things and in life and in search of wisdom in this little place in the middle east where human beings invented whole syndromes to describe what becomes of them when they’re here for too long or in the right or the wrong state of mind.
Other people tell stories about this place that are less enchanting and less captivating. That too is a pretty strong rising discourse around us in the Jewish community, the way that Israel is used, not just as a place where interesting and wild things happen, but also as the central plot point in a moral and political story, that’s supposed to mean something for the world, often at the expense of the narrative of Israel itself.
The biggest story about Israel in the world right now is often not really about Israel. It’s a morality tale about the west in which Israel is an antagonist. And while I guess sometimes it’s fair play to turn about the morality story of the early part of Israel’s history, when it played the role of the protagonist, I think maybe we’re better off acknowledging that neither of those stories, Israel as a great antagonist or Israel as the great protagonist, are as interesting as the thousand and one stories that actually transpire between the river and the sea every single day, some of which mean something big, and some of which just describe some things human.
Tonight I’m talking to one of my favorite storytellers in the world, my old friend, Matti Friedman, who has emerged in recent years with the unique gift of finding Israel’s big stories wound, around, and through a lot of little stories and using them to tell a different and more complicated, more nuanced yet equally meaningful story about Israel and its people than a lot of the big morality tales that otherwise take up all of the oxygen.
I’ll never forget sitting with Matti at a coffee shop years ago in the German Colony, his voice turned to a whisper, as he said, and I’m pretty sure I’m quoting, “Dude, this Aleppo Codex thing. It’s crazy.” A few, it, really, you spoke to me in hushed whispers about this story that was unfolding, swore me to secrecy, and a few years ago, a few years later that turned into Matti’s shocking first book, the Aleppo Codex, no spoilers, but it was the librarian, um, which won the Sami Rohr Prize in Jewish literature.
And since then, Matti published Pumpkin Flowers, a soldier’s story of a forgotten war, his memoir of his army service in Southern Lebanon. Spies of No Country in 2019 about Arabic-speaking Jews who formed the backbone of Israel’s first intelligence service in the Arab world at the founding of the state. And now his newest book, which I have a copy of here, Who By Fire about this strange story of Leonard Cohen showing up in the Sinai to entertain the troops during the Yom Kippur war.
Along the way, throughout the publishing of these books, Matti also became an outspoken critic of the way Israel was covered in international media. As a former AP reporter, Matti argued that deep bias obscures media coverage in Israel and material in today’s discussion, I think his argument, which I want to talk with him about essentially alleges that the media substitutes a different story, the one they seek to tell that, um, for the story that actually takes place here.
So Matti, this feels like years in the making. Um, thanks for doing this tonight. Um, Yeah, you can applaud for Matti.
Matti, I spoke this morning to the rabbis about the idea of the idea that Zionism is about an idea and about the commitment to be about something big, but it feels to me that in the Corpus of your work in these books, and we’ll talk specifically about Leonard Cohen tonight, but I wanna talk in general first that you’ve been arguing about the idea of the story, that the stories of Israel are much more complicated, much more interesting than the pretend idea or representation of what Israel’s supposed to be, that help us see something deeper and maybe even something simpler that we see.
So I, I’m curious, first of all, how do you see the stories that you see, and what do you see as your work in trying to tell these stories about Israel?
Matti: First of all, thank you so much for having me, it’s such a pleasure to be here. Uh, like Yehuda I’ve also just gotten through some strange virus that landed in my immune system, which is why we might cough and rasp our way through the conversation, like two old Jews. Maybe we’ll talk about our health a bit. How’s your health feel, Yehuda? Are you feeling good?
Yehuda: Yeah, doing okay.
Matti: Ah, Baruch Hashem. Um, I came to Israel, I think with the stories that many people here would recognize as the stories of Israel, the stories of, you know, Herzl in Vienna and the birth of political Zionism and pogroms in Eastern Europe and the birth of the socialist idea, the kibbutz idea, of course, the Shoah loomed very large in what I thought this country was.
And when I came here at 17, I went to a kibbutz because that was the story of Israel that, that I knew. And it turned out pretty quickly that those stories did not actually explain the state. And, uh, very soon after arriving here, I found myself as a soldier, uh, still a teenager, in an army outpost in south Lebanon in the late nineties.
And we were fighting Shia Muslim gorillas. Shia Muslims did not feature in the stories of Israel that I’d learned, uh, in Toronto, which is where I grew up. Our allies in, in south Lebanon were Arabic speaking Christians. I did not know that there were Arabic speaking Christians. A lot of the guys in my unit, the Israeli soldiers were not Kibbutzniks. They were people whose families had come from Iraq, come from Morocco, from Tunisia.
Clearly the stories that I’d come with were pretty good stories. I still love them, but they didn’t explain the place that I was in. And I had a moment of really acute confusion, which I describe in Pumpkin Flowers. And, uh, just a moment of being aware that I didn’t, I do not understand the place that I’ve walked into and I loved it. I’m fascinated by it. I basically resolved never to leave it even back then, but since then, I’ve been trying to explain it, first of all to myself.
So the articles and the books, and most of what I’ve written starts off as an attempt to explain this country to myself, kind of figure out the place where I’ve chosen to live my life. I’ve been here for 27 years at this point. And, and that is what I’m trying to do, primarily for me, and then for people who take an interest in this place from the outside the gap in perception, as you know, and as you mentioned is extremely wide.
Um, we have these stories that we tell about this place. Some of the stories are good stories. Some of the stories are, are bad stories, but they’re largely unconnected to the reality of this country. And it’s one of the reasons that even people who are sympathetic to Israel can come into Israel and feel that experience to be quite jarring because it really does not resemble the stories we tell about it. It doesn’t seem like an extension of the American Jewish world. It doesn’t resemble at all the stories that we grew up loving about the kibbutz and the pioneers and la hora It’s a completely different place. And we need to understand it on its own terms. That’s difficult, but that’s what I’m trying to do as a journalist.
Yehuda: So when you do that, I guess there’s a certain paradox of intimacy and storytelling here, which is the more you tell a story to people who think they know it, that actually renders it much more foreign, much more distant from who they are. I guess you’re trying to help people understand this is the real version of Israel, but it has the effect potentially of telling people you don’t actually have any meaningful relationship to this.
And there, I feel as an educator, there’s a certain kind of, you’re not an educator, you’re a journalist, you’re a writer. And so we have different jobs, but there, there winds up being something that I don’t know what to make of, of like, is the lesson, therefore, for those of us who are watching the story from afar to simply come to the conclusion, this is exotic, it’s foreign, it’s not what you think, go away.
I mean, that has the, that has, that has one of the implications of this. I don’t think you believe that. I don’t think you, I don’t think you’re pushing for that. So what would you want that sense of intimacy and relationship with Israel to be for people who would like to understand it better, even if understanding it better makes them feel further away.
Matti: It’s such a good question. I would say, you know, the place is exotic and foreign and not what you think, come on in. It’ll blow your mind. That’s what I would say. And I think that the attempt to force Israel into the preexisting stories, it leads to a lot of angst, a lot of disappointment, because the country cannot conform to those stories.
It never did, by the way. So, it’s not like if we, if we could rewind to 1952, we would actually find Ari Ben Canaan. There never was an Ari Ben Canaan,9 that was an American fantasy written by an American. Um, the country was always very different from what people thought it was. And you have to just accept it on its own terms.
And I found that if you are willing to do that, what you have is an absolutely incredible place with amazing energy. I mean, the country is electric. It’s going on in a way that very few places in the world are certainly not the city where I grew up. A lot of the electricity, isn’t good. So it’s not all good energy, but it’s very, very energetic and it, it will plug your Jewish life into something that’s alive and moving.
There’s nothing artificial about the country. It’s not, you know, generated by philanthropy. It’s not a play for people who are visiting. The place is happening. Like a real Jewish culture has taken off here in the past 20 years, I think, really in earnest. And it’s a bit Russian. And it’s a bit, you know, the kibbutz and it’s very middle Eastern and it’s all kinds of different things that are being mixed together in a way that’s unprecedented and very real.
And I think that that needs to be accessed and you can only access it if you’re willing to put aside the idea that the countries should serve your own narrative purpose, um, which I think it, there is a tension there between an educator and a journalist, because when you educate, you need to tell, you know, a group of people maybe in America, why they should be interested, and what people are primarily interested in is themselves. They want a story that seems like an extension of their own concerns. And, you know, that can be done in, in many ways we can talk about, you know, American style religious pluralism in Israel and how that works or, or doesn’t work.
Um, you can talk about Israel as a kind of projection of American racial problems, increasingly that’s a powerful way of accessing Israel. It’s not, it’s not true. The country doesn’t actually have anything to do with, with, with America’s racial problems. Um, but that is as an educator, a way to plug into people’s concern and get them, concerns and get them to care about it.
But I think you have to be very careful when doing that because it ends up with an imaginary version of the country that has almost nothing to do with, with the real country. And I meet people coming in here for the first time a lot. And, and I find them very confused as they try to reconcile the stories that they know with the country. Sometimes they’re very good stories. It’s like Jewish summer camp stories where everyone’s beautiful and just, and, um, and then you’re walking around the country and it doesn’t quite seem like that.
Sometimes people come in here with these very negative stories and they’re imagining some kind of, you know, racist hellscape and they don’t find that, um, they don’t find that either. Sometimes they imagine Israel, be, because it’s a Jewish state, it must be kind of an extension of what Judaism means to an American. So Jewish food, for example, but you won’t find Jewish food here. There’s no deli in Israel. Uh, I mean, you can find it here and there, but I mean, bagels only really show up here a few years ago and Israelis think it’s American food. So we don’t have Jewish food. We don’t have Jewish humor in the way that North Americans understand Jewish humor.
It’s a different country. It’s a middle Eastern Jewish country. And I think in many ways, it’s easier to understand if you’re a Muslim from Beirut than it is if you’re a Jew from, from New York in 2022. It requires a real mental leap to understand this place. And if you’re willing to make that leap, it’ll be incredibly rewarding.
Yehuda: You know, it’s funny. Um, you mentioned the food thing. We had someone here who was on a, a, a program participant who had COVID and we asked, you know, what do you need? And they said, I can I get chicken soup? And one of my colleagues says, you can’t find chicken soup anywhere in this country in the summer between Sunday and Thursday. Um, as like, and, and that, that was a moment of like, well, obviously, what would Jews have during a moment like this? So it’s just a small window into this.
But Matti, you still have made as a central piece of your project. You, you still are in the business in some ways of trying to explain Israel.
Matti: I’d love to think that journalism’s a business, by the way, that makes me feel like, like a capitalist.
Yehuda: It is, you get a salary for it, right? You write books. Um, no. So number one, you, you left a certain type of journalism with a kind of blaze of glory, I guess that was in 2011 or so, um, with a series of critical articles about the AP coverage, and have shifted to a different type of work, which is the long-form writing, you also write for Tablet. Um, and, and do that kind of other writing. I think you write for the Times as well as a columnist periodically. So there, there you, you were making a kind of shift away from a particular type of journalism, which is the ev the, the kind of news stories to something different.
And I think you would still see yourself in the work of trying to explain what this story is to people. Can you explain what’s at stake for you when it comes to that? Like both personally and professionally, cause it you’ve, you’ve, you’ve signaled very clearly what you don’t want people to come away with the conclusions. Um, but what does that electricity mean for you as not only a writer, but also as an Israeli?
Matti: I’m starting from the second part of that question. It’s just, um, it’s an amazing place to live. And I would wanna live here even if I wasn’t a journalist, I’m not here covering the country, right. I’ve lived here since I was 17. I have four kids and my life is here.
And looking back at that decision that I made, you know, as an, as a completely clueless, uh, 17 year old, um, largely by the way, because of a, kind of a random conversation that I had on the Bronfman Youth Fellowship Program, which we were both on, different years.
Yehuda: Jewish education works.
Matti: Right. I mean, it’s quite an amazing story. We were at, um, just like proof that an offhand sentence can change the course of your life, we were at Rosh Hanikra, which is in the Western Galilee, overlooking Western Galilee. And I said to one of the counselors on the trip, one of the faculty members on the trip, a lovely woman named Regina Stein, who maybe some of you know, um, I turned her and I said, wow, this is a great view. And she said, the view on my brother’s kibbutz is better.
And my whole life shifted. I ended up on that kibbutz. My parents ended up on that kibburz. I married someone from the kibbutz next door completely,
Yehuda: Just because of the view?
Matti: It started with the view. It turned out that there were some other things going on on the kibbutz that I liked.
Um, so that was just a, that’s an example. So I, I love living here and, um, and as time goes by I’m, you know, with all of the headaches that this place offers, and of course it offers many, I feel very lucky to be here and I feel very lucky to have come early enough to be part of the society and not feel like an outsider.
What’s at stake for me in my more political writing, the writing that I love to do is this kind of thing. Find a story that seems really strange and peripheral, um, and, and make a case for its importance. And I did that with, with all the books, just to find something that people don’t know and convince them that it’s really important to know about it, and that it’s got a great narrative, uh, arc, and that it’ll be interesting and, and fun. That’s what I like to do.
With the political writing, I really feel like I’m kind of fighting a battle for survival in many ways, because if people come to accept the framing of Israel’s story, as it is presented in what we would call the mainstream news industry, um, when I say mainstream media, it makes me feel like Rush Limbaugh or something, but you know what I’m talking about, it’s, you know, the big players in, um, in the mainstream news, what people on the right would call liberal media.
Um, if people accept that that is Israel’s story, then nothing that I do as an Israeli makes any sense, and it becomes impossible to have sympathy for Israel because the only really viable explanation for my behavior is malevolence when it’s taken to its, you know, to its logical conclusion.
So when I write in that first essay that I wrote about the AP, which was after I left in 2011, the essay actually came out in 2014 as an attempt to basically tell people, listen, um, the story that you’re hearing about Israel is an ideological fantasy that’s being generated by a kind of political campaign and you can’t see it if you’re out of Israel, it’s easier to see if you’re here. And I was trying to tell people, people like the ones who are sitting here that, um, that you need other sources of information about Israel, preferably just coming to Israel and then you’ll be able to understand the country, but that much journalism about Israel, and not just about Israel had become a kind of ideological campaign or an ideological fantasy whose goal was not to explain complicated events on planet earth, but to lobby for certain political outcomes or maybe create a kind of fantasy world in which certain values, um, make more sense than, than others.
That was 2014. So that was pre-fake news. It was pre-Trump. And it was, you know, that making that case that I made in 2014 has become much trickier in 2022. Um, and I, you know, when I get into it, I kind of walk into a minefield and I find myself politically identified with people who I don’t necessarily want to be politically identified with, but there’s really no way around it.
Anyone who wants to understand Israel cannot understand it through the mainstream news. And you know, it’s not for the usual simplistic reasons that are given. Something has happened in the way the news industry works. Many journalists have come to a new interpretation of what their job is, which is not to explain events, but rather to, uh, serve as activists for certain outcomes that has happened, not just in the Israel context, but, um, there’s no way around acknowledging it.
Um, because otherwise there’s simply no way to understand what’s going on here or to retain any sympathy for this place. So that’s why I feel like it’s important to write those political articles, even though they don’t necessarily come naturally to me.
Yehuda: There’s a risk that you and I have debated a little bit with the position that you’ve taken, which I know comes from a place of integrity. I know you well enough to know, and in fact, you’ve sometimes shared with me some of the stories that you couldn’t even get away with publishing about where you felt that there, there was something deeply disreputable going on in what was covered and what was not covered, what photos were allowed to be shown, what stories were allowed to be told.
Um, but it does wind up generating a kind of hostility or skepticism towards anyone who would come to those same political conclusions on the basis of seeing. Right that anyone that someone might come away saying, no, there actually is a problem around race, around occupation, around the power struggles, around all of these things. And don’t worry. I didn’t come to that conclusion on the basis of reading AP stories. I came to that conclusion on the basis of time spent here, you know, time with, uh, human rights organizations that are actually on the ground.
And I, I worry. And I dunno if you do too, but I do worry about the ways in which that kind of cynicism or skepticism about the conventional narrative, what Israel was told has a kind of silencing effect or a chilling effect on the capacity for people to form political opinions that maybe overtly critical of the state and its policies.
How do you negotiate that as someone who’s really trying to tell, help people to understand the truth of the story? And allow people to come to a whole variety of conclusions about it?
Matti: Sure. I mean, it, it’s a great question. And I think, what I do is I look at the Israeli debate and I’m happy that we have the debate that we have, you know, I consume all kinds of different kinds of Israeli media and Israelis when they talk about these issues, share basic assumptions, not all of us, but almost all of us. And there is a very, um, feisty debate in Israel about, you know, these issues and what needs to be done.
The story told about Israel abroad with very few exceptions and there are exceptions, of course is not a story about Israel as you mentioned at the beginning. It’s a projection of Western concerns and it’s a way of processing, uh, Western ill feeling about, about the west. So, you know, for example, race obviously is a demon that stalks America. Americans want a story about inequality because that’s their problem. So the Israel story becomes a kind of parable about American style inequality.
And you’ll hear people say things like what they’re doing to us in Ferguson is what they’re doing to us in Palestine. That’s a quote from a Congresswoman and you’ll see, you know, lines being drawn between, you know, Jim Crow and the West Bank.
Now, you know, the situation in the West Bank is, you know, extremely undesirable. We have two and a half million people living under military occupation since 1967. Bad of course, for the people under occupation, very bad for us, bad for the soldiers who have to enforce that, I’ve done it, and I’ve seen it as a journalist of course, and bad for the country whose values are corroded by a system of entrenched inequality, which is what, which is what we have, but has nothing to do with race in America.
It has absolutely nothing do with race in America. And if you think it does, you won’t be able to understand our dilemma. For example, um, the story here is set up as an Israeli Palestinian conflict. That’s the most basic claim that’s being sold to readers without even really making it explicit. When I was at the AP every single day, we had to move a story called Israelis Palestinians. We called it Is Pals. It was like the daily roundup.
Uh, and that has been done so frequently into such great effect that people actually think that our problem is in Israeli Palestinian conflict, which means that there is a Jewish majority here and the Muslim minority. And that one side is much more powerful and more numerous than the other side, more Western, more prosperous and so forth.
And if you frame it as an Israeli Palestinian conflict, that’s true. So the story isn’t a lie, exactly. But most of Israel’s wars have not been fought against Palestinians. Right? Israel fought wars against Egyptians, Jordanians, and Iraqis, and Lebanese. And Israel’s most potent enemy at the moment is Iran, which is of course not Palestinian. It’s not even Arab. The Iranians are Muslims, but they’re, but they’re not Arab.
So clearly there is a regional conflict going on. If you ask an average Israeli for their family story, they’ll say something like my, uh, father fought the Syrians in 1973. My grandfather fought the Jordanians in 1948. My grandmother’s a Jew from Baghdad who got run out of Baghdad in the early fifties, when the Muslim majority in Iraq ran out all the Jews.That’s a pretty standard Israeli story. It has nothing to do with Palestinians because for Israelis, the, the story is regional. It’s a story about the Middle East.
Um, half of the Jews in Israel come from elsewhere in the Islamic world. Uh, and that’s the way people see it. So when you frame it as an Israeli Palestinian conflict, what you’re doing is delivering a story that hits Americans hard, because it seems like a story about America. And the solutions maybe are solutions similar to ones that Americans would, would understand, but there’s 6 million Jews here and 300 million Arabs. And if we zoom out even farther, it’s one and a half billion or 2 billion in the Islamic world. There’s some debate about, about the numbers.
So Israelis do not feel like an empowered majority. They’re not white people in America, they’re an embatled minority, or at least that’s the way we feel. And in fact, part of the tragedy of the Israeli Palestinian entanglement is that both sides feel like an embatled minority and both sides are right, but you can’t even begin to understand that if you accept that face value, that the problem is, you know, something that seems like an American city or like an American problem.
So you, people have to come in here with a blank slate to the extent possible. I’m not saying that things are necessarily gonna be better, right? In some cases they’re worse, but in any case they’re completely different.
Yehuda: So let’s talk a little bit about some of the, the stories that you’ve been surfacing beyond the ones that you’re getting, trying to get people not to talk about, um, the stories that you want us to actually read.
So, um, this is a beautiful book. Strongly recommended if you haven’t read it yet. This book, the book is again called, Who By Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai, it’s honestly, Matti. It’s so strange. There’s something so strange about a phenomenon of an American pop star showing up in this
Matti: He was Canadian, Yehuda.
Yehuda: Um, I’m sorry, sorry. I’m sorry. Um, we’ll get to that, the Canadian piece. Um, it’s a really strange story. Here’s my great confession, which I’m gonna say to a bunch of rabbis, some of whom are gonna be mad at me. I found it a beautiful book, even if I don’t get Leonard Cohen all that much, or, um, or care about him all that much, um, but there is something I, I found something weirdly. This felt like a weirdly personal book.
I’m sorry to, to do this to you, but about a Canadian Jew showing up in Israel in the middle of war and having it become seemingly a formative story for him, although you don’t really, you don’t really get to or explain why he showed up or what it actually meant.
So what made you go look for Leonard Cohen in the Sinai? And was there some Canadian, were there some Canadian Jewish sympathies going on with, cause your own story, even of showing up in Israel and the way in which you were formed and forged by your time in Lebanon was such a significant part of your earlier book.
So maybe you could talk a little bit about what you saw in this story that drew you to it.
Matti: Sure. Look, we don’t have a lot of great Canadian Israeli stories. Let’s face it. So when, uh, when I saw one, I, you know, I kind of jumped on it. I’m not sure another great one is likely to come along.
Yehuda: In the often, yeah.
Matti: I might be wrong. But um, um, when Leonard Cohen showed up here in 2009 to give what ultimately turned out to be his last concert. And, um, he was an elderly guy at the time. He was 75. And you guys probably remember the story, he’d been in a Buddhist monastery, you know, the story, and then discovered that a former manager had stolen all his money.
So he had to go back on the road and then he goes back on the road as an old guy and discovers that he he’s beloved across the world. And suddenly he’s filling stadiums. And, and that’s this incredible resurrection tour that people remember. I hope some of you got to see him during that tour, but he has this incredible reconnection with his fans and, and new fans.
And that first stage of the resurrection tour ends in Israel in 2009. And when he came, Israelis went absolutely nuts for Leonard Cohen. And I couldn’t understand what was going on because Leonard Cohen is for me, he’s a Canadian icon. So I grew up with him. Of course, again, we haven’t produced that many, uh, you know, figures of international stature. I guess Neil Young is another one. Um, you know, there are a few others.
Yehuda: Moxy Fruvous.
Matti: Moxy Fruvous. Bear Naked Ladies. We could go on, uh, uh, there are, there are others, but, uh, I couldn’t understand why people here loved him so much. And that’s when, um, I saw the story of this tour in an Israeli newspaper. In Yedioth Achronoth, the details were pretty fuzzy, but it was clear that during the Yom Kippur War, the Yom Kippur War is in many ways, the worst moment in Israel’s history since 1948, it’s this absolute catastrophe. The army is reeling in Sinai. There are thousands of fatalities. The army almost loses the war and out of the smoke of battle comes, Leonard Cohen. On some kind of Jewish quest that had never been explained.
So I, I decided that I needed to, to explain it. And it was only in the middle of writing the book that I realized what you said, which is that this must have something to do with my own experience. And there’s some reason that I can identify with, with this guy who’s dropped in from the moon and finds himself in this Middle Eastern catastrophe. Not that I’m, you know, Leonard Cohen or can write like Leonard Cohen and not that my own little silly little war in Lebanon was anything like the Yom Kippur war.
But I did have that experience of, you know, that I mentioned that moment of saying, where am I, what am I doing here? What is this place where, where I find myself and what is my connection to the people here. And Leonard Cohen asked all of those questions during this really remarkable tour in 1973, which might be one of the most interesting and weird moments in the history of rock and roll.
Yehuda: And maybe in history of the state of Israel. What are the, it’s also, Matti, a weirdly, um, theological book.
And I couldn’t tell how much of that is an attempt to
Matti: That’s a real vibe killer by the way.
Yehuda: No, it’s not, not here. Not with rabbis, it is in fact a theological book.
Matti: Oh no. I guess not, I guess not with this audience. People at home don’t need to necessarily think that it’s theological.
Yehuda: I mean, you give one example, you, you even say at the beginning of the book that he’s caught between two gates, right? Like kind of the gate of hell, which is the Yom Kippur War and his, the original gate, Shaar Hashamayim in Montreal. You, I’ll just say, the gate of heaven, that’s the place where he comes from. And that he’s on a journey basically from one gate to another gate.
Um, and in two other places, in particular, you make it clear that he is at a certain point in his journey throughout this experience, he has, he has gone from being Leonard Cohen to Eliezer Cohen, which is a normal, like the name of what a regular Israeli soldier might have been. Like Leonard Cohen sounds a little strange. Eliezer Cohen sounds familiar.
And, and I thought one of the most evocative sections in the book, I, I don’t remember the page number, but you, you described the moment in which he’s speaking to a number of troops and singing to them as almost trying to bless them the way that a Kohen would, that he’s actually enacting a kind of Birkat Kohanim.
And so it’s hard not to read this as being, this is not merely a moment of a rock and roller shows up in the desert, that there’s something really deep going on Jewishly and help us understand a little bit how much of that is actually about what you think the journey that Leonard Cohen is on and how much of it is an attempt to really understand all of the evocative Jewish symbolisms that come with this story of a, of who the Jewish people are in 1973in this moment of profound vulnerability.
Matti: Those are great questions. And I think if I, if this were a novel. Then I would be ridiculed for the amount of symbolism in the book, because it’s, it’s almost ridiculous how much there is, but what can I do? It’s a true story. And it’s really, it’s really there.
Leonard Cohen, I think comes for a few reasons. One and we shouldn’t hide it is that he’s trying to escape his life. And he’s trying to escape the woman who he’s living with on this Greek island Hydra and he feels like he’s hit a wall and he’s deeply unhappy. And we know that thanks to this manuscript, that I, I was lucky enough to find in a university library in Hamilton, Ontario, which Cohen had written immediately after the war and then shelved.
And the manuscript gives us an incredible window into Cohen’s brain at a very unhappy and very exciting moment in his life. And that’s how we know that he was stuck, that he was um, deeply deeply unhappy. And the Cohen who we meet in this book is not the elegant Cohen who we might remember from, you know, that last stage of his life, where he’s this lovely guy with a fedora and he’s standing on the stage and he’s grateful for everything.
This is a very angry Leonard Cohen and, um, he’s, he’s a dark figure in many, in many ways. So part of what he’s doing when the war breaks out is using our crisis to escape his own crisis. And you would not be the first one to do such a thing.
Um, the second part of it is a, is a very Jewish instinct that he has, which is, um, that you don’t stand idly by your brother’s blood. And he, he hears about this war. He’s on this Greek island called Hydra and he hears about it on the radio, gets on a ferry, goes to Athens, gets on an airplane from Athens to Tel Aviv, comes and he doesn’t know what he’s going to. I mean later, we know that he plays for, for troops and he gives this incredible concert tour, but he did not intend to do that.
He came without a guitar. He told people he wanted to pick grapefruit on a kibbutz. And the tour happens when he meets a few of Israel’s, by coincidence, he meets some of Israel’s best musicians at a cafe in Tel Aviv and ends up touring the front with them. They tell him, we’re going down to play for soldiers, come with us.
And it’s Oshik Levy. These are names that maybe might be familiar to some of you, Oshil Levy, huge star of the seventies, Ilana Rovina, also a famous, uh, grand dame of the stage, uh, Pupi Garnon, who was a comic uh singer and Matti Caspi, who was a musical legend and Cohen ends up with them at the front.
And he has this deep, this deeply Jewish experience, which begins with him telling, as you mentioned, telling everyone to call him not Leonard Cohen, but Eliezer Cohen, which is a very almost, you know, banal, Israeli name, half of the country is called Eliezer Cohen and he was trying to fit in. He was kind of growing native and he wore something that looked a lot like a uniform. And he slept on the ground with the soldiers. And he obviously deeply identified with, with the soldiers.
And he finds himself at an air force base called Chatzor, which is in central Israel. It was actually the first base where this improvised band played and he’s singing to an auditorium that’s packed with Israeli air crew, uh, men who could be dead within a few hours. I mean in the first week of the Yom Kippur War, the Israeli air force was being decimated by these Soviet missiles that had been given to the Arab armies.
It was the worst week in the history of the Israeli air force and, and things were not going well. And he knew it and the, the audience knew it and he gets up and he sings a new song that he’d just written and it’s called Lover Lover Lover. And that’s the verse that you’re, that you’re mentioning one of the verses in Lover Lover Lover.
And you can still hear it to this day, uh, is, um, may the spirit of this song, may it rise up true and free, may it be a shield for you, a shield against the enemy. Does not sound like a love song. If you’re expecting a song called up Lover Lover Lover to be a love song, he’s trying to give them a kind of, uh, amulet like he thinks his song is an amulet. He has the idea that his words can protect people.
Now, why does Leonard Cohen or Eliezer Cohen have that idea? Well, he has that idea cuz he’s a Kohen. I mean, he doesn’t come out and say it, but I, I hear, you know, I’m happy to, to theorize that that’s what’s going on. Right. And he says at another point in his life that when he was taught as a child, that he was a Kohen, he did not think this is a quote, I did not think that was auxiliary information. He understood that was important.
And his power, his kind of superpower was that he could stand up in front of the congregation, he and his ancestors, and they would bless, they would call down divine protection on their congregation. And that meant something, um, a it’s interesting to, to consider if that led him to poetry, right? If you wanna be a poet, you have to believe that words have power.
Okay. He learned that at a young age and he learned it, not in a poetry seminar. He learned it at a shul called Shaar Hashamayim in Montreal. B, I think there’s pretty clearly a line between “yivarechecha hashem vayishmerecha,” and “may this song be a shield for you against the enemy.” And you know, it’s Cohen riffing on birkat hakohanim, just later he would riff on Untenah Tokef, with his song Who By Fire.
Yehuda: Is Cohen doing exactly what you don’t want diaspora Jews to do? I mean, really, I couldn’t tell in reading this, I could tell that you were a fan of Leonard Cohen. I couldn’t tell whether he was doing exactly what you want or exactly what you don’t want diaspora Jews to do, which is to enter into the story and think that it’s their presence, which is gonna control the outcome to protect the soldiers from what’s happening.
That is he a, is he a tourist, a passenger on this journey that’s not really about him? Um, is he benefiting in some ways, spiritually from other people’s traumatic experience? Like who is he as a character in Jewish history relative to this challenge that you’re talking about today?
Matti: That’s a great question. And Cohen does have a maddening tendency not to do what I want him to do, like many other people. Uh, and in the book, I kind of tried to go with Leonard Cohen cause you know, he’s Leonard Cohen. Um, you know, he’s not, um, I think not someone who I would’ve liked had I met him at that time and I’m a huge Leonard Cohen fan.
But what makes the story interesting is that he’s, he’s very complicated and very wrapped up in his own dark material. Not necessarily available to the people who are around him, but the reason that I don’t think that it was the reason that I do think that Leonard Cohen was doing what I, what I want, um, is that he, he came without an entourage. He came without a film crew. He, he came alone. He was with the soldiers in the most authentic way possible. He was not riding on their backs to achieve some kind of PR stunt.
In fact, none of the concerts were filmed. We have no video of any of these concerts and the photographs that exist, exist largely in the private photo albums of soldiers, who I had to track down, um, all over, all over Israel. He made no attempt to publicize it after the war. He was here in the most authentic way, and he was here to help. He was here to help.
Whether, you know, a Canadian poet can help soldiers who are about to die or any kind of poet or any painter or any singer can actually help in a situation like this is, is a good question, right, I’m not, I’m not sure, but certainly his presence meant something to the soldiers.
The people who saw Leonard Cohen in Sinai, many of them never forgot it, because Leonard Cohen was an international star and he came when very few others came. They came at the darkest moment in, in the history of modern Israel and at the darkest moment for these very young Israelis, suddenly he was there with them and he was there in a very real way.
And you can hear it in some of the fragments of recordings that we have, he’s, he’s here and they know it and, and he knows it. And it’s, and it’s real. Did he understand where he was? No. Did he understand the complexities of the war? Absolutely not. Did he have a sense of the complicated geopolitics? No, not at all.
When he comes into Israel, he uses this in this manuscript. He uses this very interesting heavy and kind of fraught term. He says, I’m going to my myth home. That’s how we thought about Israel, his myth home. What is a myth home? The myth home makes me nervous. When we talk about, you know, things that I like or don’t like.
The myth home means that this is not a real place. It’s not some tiny, you know, deeply messed up country in the Middle East. This is supposed to be some myth that exists in Leonard Cohen’s mind. And it’s a myth that’s very much linked to his own sense of what Judaism is, which is supposed to be a transcendent kind of communication with God. That’s what he really thought Judaism was. Prophecy. That our job was to look up to heavens, you know, hear what God was telling us and to transmit it.
And he was disappointed in his own Jewish community in Montreal for the same reason, he tells them he kind of famously leaves the community and slams the door with a speech in 1964, where he, you can hear this on YouTube where he, he kind of rips into them. He says, you know, um, once we had a vertical seizure, he means Mount Sinai. Once we were, you know, once we looked up and we heard heaven and now we’ve forgotten how to be vertical. Now we’re all horizontalists. You know, we knock on our own doors, he says, and we’re surprised that no one answers.
And, you know, he wanders off and goes to the village and goes to Hydra and, and, you know, uh, goes very far from his, from his synagogue. And, um, that, that’s the kind of Judaism that he’s looking for. Now, if you come into Israel looking for that, that myth home, you’re not gonna find it. I mean, you could find it, you know, it shines through the cloud at some point, um, like in a war, but most of the country’s life is picking up the garbage and paying taxes and having an army that has to do terrible things and sending kids to school and the usual dirty business of politics and moral blindness and terrible moral errors. And like the usual stuff that human societies do all the time.
And I think for a guy like Leonard Cohen and for many others, that is very disappointing and I think he leaves disappointed.
Yehuda: He leaves disappointed, but he becomes Leonard Cohen again. Right. So there’s something, it, maybe it doesn’t do exactly what it’s supposed to do, but it does clearly do something for Cohen.
Matti: It does something big for Cohen. And that’s one of the most interesting things in the story. He, at some point in the manuscript says, this is a place where I can sing again. He’s announced that he’s retiring in 1973, he’s given up on music and he’s said that publicly, he has nothing left to say, I just wanna shut up. That’s a quote from Leonard Cohen.
He’s lost faith in his art and he’s had it with the music business and he is gone. That’s part of the rut that he’s in, in 1973. And when he comes here, he writes, he says, this is the place where I can sing again. And another place he says, this is the place where I can be born again.
So he’s looking for some kind of rebirth in, in his myth home, he’s looking for the vertical seizure. In my opinion, he has this idea that such a thing is possible and has happened to us in the past a vertical seizure, which is just such an amazing phrase. I love it so much. Where does the vertical seizure happen the first time?
Yehuda: In Sinai.
Matti: In Sinai. Yeah. And where does Leonard Cohen’s successful vertical seizure happen? It happens in Sinai. It’s one of those facts that you couldn’t make up, if it were a novel.
Yehuda: You know, one of the other threads that you wind up pulling through the story, which I, I really had not thought about before is that you identify the Yom Kippur War as a transformational moment, with respect to both music and religion. The music of war changes as a result of 1973.
Um, but religion as well. And one of your protagonist characters, who’s one of the entertainers becomes frum basically as a result of the, of the ’73 war. So what you’re describing as an experience that happens to Cohen as a Canadian born foreign entertainer that happens here, searching for this kind of shift, which doesn’t necessarily make him quote, unquote more religious, but does generate the kind of stimulus of enabling him to think differently about what he’s doing as a project also has an effect on Israel and on the sense of spirituality.
It seems just, you know, Yom Kippur War could have pulled in two totally different directions for the Jewish people and for the state of Israel. The moment of such a severe cataclysm on the moment of such a Jewish holiday. Can you talk a little bit about how and why you see the Yom Kippur war as a transformative moment in Israeli religiosity and spirituality?
Matti: Sure. I mean, we’re talking about clumsy symbolism that, uh, I would never get away with in a novel. So the, the Yom Kippur War breaks out on Yom Kippur, of course, which is the day on which our faith
Yehuda: A lot of coincidence.
Matti: I know, I know if you, yeah, yeah. Um, uh, you know, like a few hours or maybe even less, depending on how long davening was on Yom Kippur, after people said Unetanah tokef, and said who by water, who by fire, who by wild beasts, who by sword, who by earthquake, who by strangulation, um, a war breaks out, siren goes off, men are called up and people are sent to die in exactly the ways that have been detailed at the height of the Yom Kippur service.
It’s just not the kind of detail you can, you can make up. And for Israelis, Yom Kippur is two different things. Yom Kippur is, um, the, the Holy Day of Atonement and Yom Kippur is the war and it’s inseparable in Israel. We commemorate the war on Yom Kippur. So in the newspapers leading up to Yom Kippur every year, the, the newspapers are full of stories about the war.
And we sometimes call it the War of Atonement as if the war itself were an atonement. By the way, when we say that, we mean it was an atonement for the arrogance and confusion that resulted from the Six Day War and kind of led us into the catastrophe of the Yom Kippur war.
Um, and Leonard Cohen is here and he experiences all of this, this incredible blend of ancient history and modern history. And, you know, unetanah tokef is a prayer, we don’t actually know exactly when it was written or by whom, but it’s clearly coming out of a very violent period in Jewish history, um, where, you know, they look out the window and they can see, you know, a million ways to die in very colorful and violent ways.
And, um, that, that prayer goes out into the world. It’s written around, you know, maybe a thousand years ago. And it travels around the Jewish world, makes its way into the liturgy, ends up in a synagogue in Montreal, in Canada, and some kid in the thirties growing up in, in Montreal, hears this prayer and it sticks in his head and then he leaves the synagogue and he goes off to Greenwich Village to hang out with Nico and Joan Baez.
And then he, um, you know, goes off to this Greek island and tries every drug, you know, on the list of, you know, possibly possible mind bending substances. And then he, um, comes to this war and something clicks in his brain and he writes his own version of, of the prayer. So that’s all, which is called Who By Fire, which at this point is probably more famous than the, than the prayer.
And, and then there’s another evolution of that, which is that in some synagogues you can hear the original prayer, unetanah tokef, sung to the tune that Leonard Cohen wrote for Who By Fire. So it’s quite an incredible Jewish story, you know, that which has threads woven in and out of it and all that’s happening here, on and after Yom Kippur and Leonard Cohen is here for that. And it it’s a moment whose spirituality and who’s like, you know, theological punch, um, is, is inescapable. And in some ways it, it, uh, remains with us to this day.
Yehuda: I, this is one of these places, Yom Kippur, the Yom Kippur war, where the chasm between the American Jewish and diaspora Jewish experience of the high holidays or of the Jewish calendar, and the Israeli experience, are so vastly separate from one another.
The high holidays are the high holidays for diaspora Jewry. It’s your, it’s your, you know, two bites at the apple over the course of the year of when you’re gonna get people. And as a result, they become days that are rooted very much in introspection, in life choices, in a way that’s very different than it is in Israel as the, as the anchor of a moment of collective trauma.
And I couldn’t help, but notice on one hand, the way that that’s illustrated so profoundly in this story. And it’s one of those heartbreak stories of recognizing the gap between America and Israel that we were talking about before to really understand Yom Kippur here is to feel incredibly distanced from our own Yom Kippur commemorations very far.
On the other hand, there was something hopeful near the end of the book. When you noticed how, I don’t remember the name of the Israeli artist who even last year I believe covered, um, has produced a new version of Who By Fire in Hebrew, that weaves itself in with the liturgy.
And so somehow the diasporic version of unetanah tokef finds its way back to Israel, that there may be some way in which the weaving between the liturgy as Jews read it and study it in diaspora versus the way that it’s actually heard in Israel. Maybe there’s some pathway forward for thinking of these stories as more intertwined or symbiotic with one another.
Matti: I think that’s probably one of the reasons that I wrote the book that I sense that this was a moment of meeting. That was a confusing meeting, cause you have, you know, this poet, um, and Israelis at the most, and the poet who comes from Montreal in New York and, um, meeting with Israelis at the most Israeli moment, maybe of Israel’s history, this dark dark moment.
And there’s no moment where the two worlds would’ve seemed farther from each other. The great diaspora voice of the age, Leonard Cohen and these traumatized and terrified 19 year old, new Jews who had just, you know, been shown in the most violent way possible that, um, you know, the, the fury of the Middle East, um, could eat them alive and you’d think it would be a moment of incredible, you know, distance.
And yet Leonard Cohen was not willing to let it be that. He didn’t speak modern Hebrew. Again, he didn’t know where he was. There’s no indication in his manuscript that he has any idea where he is. He says, he’s in the desert, like beyond that, he has no idea, but he’s here with them. And he understands that he’s connected to them.
He even calls them his brothers in a verse, which is a story that I tell in the book in a verse of Lover Lover Lover that then disappears. Which is an interesting story in itself, but he calls him his brothers. And for a moment, there is a deep connection. And I think, again, I, I couldn’t have spelled this out when writing the book or when I, when embarking on the project, but I felt like the Jewish world could use this kind of story. Like it happened in 1973, but it’s very current in my opinion. It’s a powerful story from the past that I think helps us wrap our heads around the present moment.
Yehuda: I, I couldn’t help but think even just programmatically as I was reading it, we’re a year away from the Yom Kippur that marks the 50th anniversary of Yom Kippur and to ask, what does that mean?
And how might a book like this and this, even this music serve as something of an organizing conversation for the Jewish people to think about Yom Kippur and how we are all implicated by this relatively recent history. And one of which, stories of which, have still not been fully told. I would suspect that many more Jews in the diaspora think about ’67 and they do ’73 for all sorts of obvious reasons, that’s considered the kind of transformative catalyst around the politics of Israel, but the psyche of Israel is irreparably changed in ’73.
Let me ask you one other question about the book and then one broad question then I’ll open up for, for some Q and A. You said something in the book that I, I read it a few. I’ve read. I read the paragraph over a couple of times, cause I couldn’t, I couldn’t really believe it. You said that, um, Cohen believed that only the only culture worth anything came from loyalty to a language, a group, a place, and that a world without those differences would be unbearable.
You position him as the antithesis to John Lennon’s “Imagine” and the quote that you attribute to him again, I was like that can’t be right, is the quote, “Only nationalism produces art.” Can, what? Um, that actually runs counter to a totally different ethos, which says that art is in some ways, a rebellion, a rejection of these rigid political categories that people use to differentiate themselves from one another, that foists boundaries or between peoples that breaks down hybridities and binaries and all of the stuff that actually creates a authentic human response to the world. What are we, what are you talking about? And was that actually Leonard Cohen? Or was it you?
Matti: I did not put words in Leonard Cohen’s mouth. Um, I had the feeling while writing this book that actually Leonard Cohen is breathing down my neck, making sure that I was being very, very careful with his, uh, with his story. I hope I succeeded, Leonard, if you’re listening.
Um, that is a quote from Leonard Cohen and I think what he, and it’s an amazing quote. And it’s one, of course that I completely agree with. What he, what he means is that art has to come from somewhere, that no art is gonna come from generic culture. Um, you know, from the world, for example, that we seem to be moving into, the world of the internet and Amazon and this kind of world where differences are, have been blurred.
Um, great art comes from a person who lives in a place and speaks a language and knows a landscape, right? Michelangelo is an Italian. And he sees certain things and he knows the church and he creates eternal art that crosses the borders and does whatever, you know, you said, but he, he didn’t come from nowhere. He wasn’t a person without borders. He came from a, from a very specific place.
Picasso was a Spaniard. And when he painted Garnica, he was painting his, his country, which was being ripped apart by a war. And that is eternal art. Uh, but it didn’t come from nowhere. It came from, from somewhere. And I think Leonard Cohen, what he, what he’s saying is that art has to come from somewhere.
You have to be from a place. You have to know who you are. There’s no such thing as generic culture as illustrated in, you know, in, uh, Lemon’s song Imagine, imagine there’s no borders and no religions and no peoples and no nationalities. I think Leonard Cohen thought that sounded terrible. As do I.
Um, he wanted people to be peaceful, right? He wasn’t into war, but he wanted people to come deeply rooted in their own culture as he was by the way. You know, he never, he never tries to be anything other than a Jew from Montreal. He never changes his name. And that in my opinion is maybe the key observation about Leonard Cohen. Right.
Um, Robert Zimerman changes his name because he wants to be something else. Uh, Leonard, and becomes Bob Dylan for the younger members of the audience. Um, but Leonard Cohen, uh, probably, you know, was pressured to change his, his name. It wasn’t easy to get famous in the sixties with a name like Leonard Cohen. Uh, and he didn’t, because that’s who he was. He was a Jew from Montreal. He was from West Mount. He was from Shaar Hashamayim. That’s who he was and he never, he never changed it. And he, you know, was not a fan of, um, you know, parochial politics.
And, you know, he certainly was a man of the great world and, uh, a Universalist in many ways, but he was from Shaar Hashamayim in Montreal and his poetry steeped in our tradition. And I think he thought that losing that tradition would be terrible in favor of what? Uh, he says the same thing about Canada, I think he once got into an argument with Mordecai Richler, uh, another famous writer from Montreal who had suggest, suggested maybe tongue in cheek, maybe not that Canada should be abolished, uh, and swallowed by the United States.
And, and Leonard Cohen really went after him because Leonard Cohen thought that Canada was great. It was great to have Canada. Like, why would you want everywhere to be the same? And he even says that Canadians and Jews are similar because they exist on the margins of the empire and have to constantly define themselves, you know, vis a vis the empire.
And I think he thought that that was likely to generate interesting art and that abandoning all of this in favor of some, you know, generic nothingness would be an artistic disaster. And I’m afraid that we’re about to see how true that is.
Yehuda: What’s the next story, Matti?
Matti: Ooh. Um, uh,
Yehuda: You could tell us one that you’re not actually gonna write a book about, but that we should pay attention to.
Matti: Oh, okay. I’m happy to, um, I’ve been writing a few stories for Smithsonian magazine, which is magazine that I love in the states. And I did a story for them about half a year ago, about a dig at some biblical copper mines, uh, in the Arava desert, which is a fascinating story that has some very interesting insight into the accuracy of the Bible.
And now I’m doing a story for them, which we’re editing right now about dates. Like the fruit. As a way of seeing the middle east, the date as kind of a gateway into an apolitical middle east, and I had a fantastic time reporting and I climbed date trees, I went to Abu Dhabi. Um, by the way, if you type into Google dates in Abu Dhabi, what comes obvious up is,
Yehuda: Differently related.
Matti: I’m just offering that as a tip. Uh, cause I don’t know what kind of algorithms I’m in now, but um, but it was, it was a great, I had a great time writing the story.
I write regularly for Tablet. I just wrote a story that, um, which is one of the weirdest stories I’ve ever written about a strange German who showed up in Western Galilee after the second world war and tried to rebuild the temple. And I won’t give away the end, but it ended very, very badly.
Yehuda: The temple didn’t get built. Right, that’s the,
Matti: That’s the, that’s not the bad part. Uh, but that was for Tablet and I’ve got a few other things going on.
Yehuda: Yep. All right. Let me take a couple of questions from the, from the, from the audience that are here. Yes.
Audience Member #1: Thank you. Just a quick question. How much did the, uh, the Shoah figure into this, this, what you call Shaar Shamayaim Montreal? Is, is that really Shaar Shamayim or is it really the culture that he grows up in as, Jewish Canadian community was much closer to Europe than the American Jewish community and then of course, what happened in Europe?
Matti: I think that’s true. I mean, the Canadian Jewish community has always been, you know, one or two generations behind the American Jewish community in terms of, you know, where, where it is. Uh, Cohen grows up, not close to Europe, physically, but, um, but uh, personally his grandfather, his mother’s father is an important rabbi, who’s known as Saar Hadikduk, the prince of grammarians, and he’s from Kovno in Lithuania and he spends part of Cohen’s childhood living with him in the house.
So he’s connected to the Jewish world of Europe. Now he’s in Montreal and Cohen’s born in 1934. Cohen’s family is very established in Montreal. It’s a wealthy family, leaders of the community. They were in Montreal long before the Holocaust, and they weren’t immediately affected by it. But of course it was very much in the air.
And immediately after the war, a lot of Holocaust survivors showed up in Montreal and you couldn’t kind of, you know, you couldn’t ignore it if you were a Jewish kid in Montreal in 1945, 6, 7, and he does mention it, uh, particularly in his early poetry. He actually has a very interesting poem in which he pretends to be his grandfather, this, the rabbi, writing a poem and, uh, considering Zionism as an alternative to the ovens. And I won’t ruin it for you because if I try to remember it all, you know, I’ll completely kill the verse.
I actually quote it in the book, uh, but he says, you know, I look at these paratroops in the Tel Aviv streets, you know, marching proudly. And I just, I can’t be happy about it. That’s what he says. You know, when I consider the other option, which is, you know, the crooked backs of the Jews in the ghetto and the ovens, you can’t spurn any answer to that. And yet still. You know that I’m just not into this army and state business.
Basically that’s what he writes. He had a very kind of conflicted approach to Israel. He was not at all a flag waving, Hatikvah singing Zionist. Although his connection was very, was very deep and very real. And I think many Jews who did wave the flag and sing Hatikvah, didn’t come to be at the front in the Yom Kippur War and Leonard Cohen did. So it was definitely part of his brain.
Audience Member #1: One quick follow up. Was he aware, uh, when he was at the Canal that he was standing next to Sharon?
Matti: Yes, He mentions Sharon in his manuscript. And I mentioned it in the book as well. There’s a famous picture, which in my opinion is one of the great Jewish photographs of the 20th century, where you see, um, it’s a crowd of soldiers.
It’s in the book, it’s a crowd of soldiers in the desert and these two archetypes standing next to each other. There’s actually more than two because Matti Caspi’s also there. Um, but that, and that’s for Israelis, but these two, maybe like the two ultimate examples of the two Jewish worlds that had been created after the second world war, Leonard Cohen, this kind of dissolute, poetic genius, um, and Ariel Sharon, the man of war.
Cohen, Cohen even has a line where he says man of peace and man of war and, and they’re standing next to each other at this concert. And it’s just an absolutely astounding photograph. Cohen was very much aware of who Sharon was and mentions him in his manuscript and even says, I want your job. That’s what he says, he thinks in his brain when he sees Ariel Sharon, cause he was kind of, Leonard Cohen was kind of enamored of, of armies and force.
And he writes about it in a very, uh, interesting way. And then he says, how dare you to Sharon in his brain. I don’t think he actually said this to Sharon, but how dare you, meaning you know how dare you send people to their deaths and decide, you know, play God in unetanah tokef, who will live and who will die? How dare you.
So he has those two conflicting emotions when he meets Ariel Sharon, who he calls the lion of the desert, because Ariel means lion of God. And he, he knows it. I mean, Cohen really gets it. Ariel Sharon seems not to have noticed that Leonard Cohen was in Sinai I, I looked through everything that Sharon wrote about it.
Uh, I called his son Gilad Sharon, nothing. Um, and then I looked back at this photograph and if you look at it and I hope you will afterwards, you’ll see that Sharon, isn’t even looking at Leonard Cohen. Cohen’s playing his heart out and he looks transported and he’s, you know, he’s doing everything to be the shield for the soldiers.
And Sharon is actually talking to a woman who is standing behind Leonard Cohen. Uh, the only woman, uh, in the, in the shot, probably the only woman within a radius of about 50 miles. Um, Ilana Rovina, this famous actress who was touring with Cohen, who was, you know, famously, uh, beautiful and, um, and interesting. And that’s what Sharon cared about at that moment. And you can see it in the picture. He’s not interested in Leonard Cohen.
Yehuda: Incredible. Um, other questions?
Audience Member #2: Thank you. This is just so amazing. Um, I’m thinking about visit when I visited in Kibbutz Beit Hashita and learned about their Yom Kippur War story and how Yair Rosenblum wrote a new unetana tokef for them, which I have been doing ever since I learned it here for the, like for 20 years. And I wonder if there’s any intersection between these artists?
Matti: Oh, wait, can I put you on the spot?
Audience Member #2: Yeah.
Matti: Can you sing us the first few bars of it for those who don’t know? In my opinion, it’s the most beautiful tune for unetana tokef. But no pressure.
Audience Member #2: No pressure.
Unetanah tokef kiddushat hayom, ki hu nora vayom.
Matti: No, that was great. Um, it’s, it’s an absolute. Yes.
It’s a story that I tell in the book, because it’s one of my favorite stories and, um, it actually is connected to what you would’ve said about an Israeli pop artist who recently did a new version of, of unetaneh tokef, and is a great example of what we’re talking about, about how the, the story threads, parts of Jewish history in and out of each other over centuries.
Um, we have this, this very weird prayer called unetaneh tokef, which the text of which, you know, the more you read, it gets crazier and crazier. It’s an extremely weird text. Some it’s very beautiful, you know, that, you know, it’s like a shadow passing and all that’s very beautiful. The ways to die are pretty, uh, pretty explicit.
Um, but, um, you know, then it leaves the synagogue, goes back into the synagogue. No community in Israel was hit harder in the Yom Kippur War than Kibbutz Beit Hashita, which is in the north, lost 11 sons in the three weeks of the Yom Kippur War. For a community that small, it’s a blow that in many ways they never recovered from. This was the next generation of the kibbutz.
These were young fathers, young workers. Um, you there’s, uh, footage. You can see, um, online where these trucks after it’s, after the war, it’s middle of the day, 11 trucks pull into the kibbutz gate with these 11 guys. And, and every year before Yom Kippur, as one of them puts it, one of the kibbutznikim puts it, a dark cloud gathers over this kibbutz.
Years after the war in the nineties, one of Israel’s greatest songwriters Yair Rosenblum comes to this kibbutz and is staying there. And he picks up this vibe before Yom Kippur and he decides he wants to give a gift to Kibbutz Beit Hashita, and he plays around with different options and ultimately settles on this prayer unetaneh tokef. And in a moment of inspiration, according to a description that I read, it’s basically a morning of inspiration, he writes his tune, which combines it’s some of it’s chazanut and some of it’s Israeli, modern Israeli music. And some of it sounds Sefaradi and some of it sounds Ashkenazi and it’s, um, it’s, it’s just an absolutely beautiful tune.
He teaches the kibbutz choir to perform. This is a completely secular keyboards, of course. Right. They do not believe in the God who is being described in unetaneh tokef, who sits on his throne and judges. You know, they don’t believe it. Um, but they, um, mark Yom Kippur as a Memorial for the war. Which you know, is hard to, um, hard to avoid.
And, and the choir performs unetaneh tokef with the Rosenblum melody that, that fall. And, um, and it’s a moment in the Jordan Valley. People hear about it immediately after Yom Kippur, something happened on Kibbutz Beit Hashita. There was some kind of religious moment on Kibbutz Beit Hashita. And we talked about how Israel kind of slowly comes back to religion, comes back to tradition after the Yom Kippur war.
This is part of it. Um, that that kibbutz would never have connected to a prayer like unetaneh tokef before 1973, something happens with the Rosenblum tune, which, um, has now become the most popular tune for unetaneh tokef across Israel.
As I was writing this book, just to close this story, a pop singer who I love named Aya Koren, great singer, by the way, you can find her stuff on Spotify. She had the idea of taking unetaneh tokef um, and Who By Fire, which is Leonard Cohen’s riff on unetaneh tokef and doing a mashup, kind of combining them.
And she had a chazan named Shai Abramson. Who’s got a beautiful, I don’t have very little, um, tolerance for classical chazanut, but he’s got a beautiful voice. And he, uh, he performs unetaneh tokef in the Rosenblum melody, and she performs Who By Fire in the Cohen melody, but translated into Hebrew. She translated into Hebrew and you can find it on YouTube. It sounds like it shouldn’t work. And it sounds like a terrible idea. It works. And it’s amazing.
Especially if you know that between every line of that song is the Yom Kippur War, the Rosenblum melody’s about the Yom Kippur War, Cohen’s Who By Fire is about the Yom Kippur War. The war’s not mentioned, but it’s in every word of the prayer. So it’s quite an amazing musical moment. And I encourage you to find it. If you can. Thank you for that question.
Yehuda: Well thank you to, to Matti Friedman for being here tonight.
Matti: Thank you, Yehuda. Thanks so much for coming.
Yehuda: And thanks to all of you for listening to our show.
Identity Crisis is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. This week’s episode was produced by David Zvi Kalman and edited by M Louis Gordon with assistance from Miri Miller, Shalhevet Schwartz, Yoav Friedman, Tal Zamiri Wilner, and Michael Groomer with music provided by Socalled.
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