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WHO BY FIRE: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai

Matti Friedman

Nonfiction, Spiegel & Grau, 2022

A Vanity Fair best book of 2022

Mosaic Magazine best book of 2022

The little-known story of Leonard Cohen's 1973 tour of Israel during the Yom Kippur War, including previously unpublished writings by Leonard Cohen.

"WHO BY FIRE is a stunning resurrection of a moment in the life of Leonard Cohen and the history of Israel. It’s the story of a young artist in crisis and a young country at war, and the powerful resonance of the chord struck between them. A beautiful, haunting book full of feeling."  ―Nicole Krauss 

In October 1973, the poet and singer Leonard Cohen – 39 years old, famous, unhappy, and at a creative dead end – traveled to the Sinai desert and inserted himself into the chaos and bloodshed of the Yom Kippur War. Moving around the front with a guitar and a pick-up team of local musicians, Cohen dived headlong into the midst of a national crisis and met hundreds of fighting men and women at the worst moment of their lives. His audiences knew that his songs might be the last thing they heard, and those who survived never forgot the experience. And the experience transformed Cohen himself, recharging his sense of purpose, career, and family. Instead of leaving music and his family behind, he returned to Hydra to have a second child with Suzanne and began touring again. Cohen’s war tour was an electric cultural moment, one that inspired some of his greatest songs – but a moment that only few knew about, until now.


In WHO BY FIRE, Canadian-Israeli journalist Matti Friedman gives us a riveting account of what happened during those weeks. With access to never-before-seen material written by Cohen himself, along with dozens of interviews and rare photographs, Friedman revives this fraught and formative time, presenting an intimate and unforgettable portrait of the artist, and of the young people who heard him sing in the midst of combat. Who by Firebrings us close to one the greatest, most brilliant and charismatic voices of our times, and gives us a rare glimpse of war, faith, and belonging.


Rights Sold:

Canada: McLelland & Stewart; China: Guangdong People’s Publishing House; Israel: Kinneret; Italy: Giuntina; Russia: Knizhniki; Serbia: Treci trg; Spain: Nagrela Editores; USA: Spiegel & Grau



“An expedition into the troubled soul of one of the world’s greatest songwriters.“


“A fascinating and intense account of Leonard Cohen’s time in Israel during the 19-day Yom Kippur War of 1973. A must for any Leonard Cohen completist, with excerpts from his unpublished manuscripts from that time. Soulful and thoughtfully done.”

—Suzanne Vega

“A short, symphonic book of remarkable stories of yearning, love, and war, whose leitmotif is a haunted artist bearing secret chords that enchant the world.”

—Rabbi David Wolpe

“Matti Friedman excels at finding the great significance in forgotten things: forgotten manuscripts, forgotten wars, forgotten spies. In this account of Leonard Cohen’s forgotten concert tour during the Yom Kippur War, not only is a hidden side of Cohen revealed but so too a hidden side of Israel. Who by Fire is a book about the change that happens when you come through the flames.”

—David Bezmozgis

“Although he could not have anticipated it when he was researching and writing, the symbolic timing and importance of Matti Friedman’s latest book, WHO BY FIRE, is particularly poignant. … [A] beautifully intimate portrait.”


“A revealing and absorbing account of those few short weeks when the fate of Israel was at the precipice, but its revelations will stay with the reader for much longer than it takes to read the slim volume. … Friedman’s compelling narrative of a pivotal war that left an indelible mark on a nation, the Jewish people and one musician draws readers in and doesn’t let go of us until the last page has been finished.”

—Jewish Journal

“Friedman illuminates in this fascinating tale an extraordinary chapter in the career of singer and songwriter Leonard Cohen that left a lasting impact on the state of Israel. … This demonstration of the power of song will stun fans of the legendary artist.“

—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Compelling …. Cohen fans will savor this little-known footnote in the singer’s life.”

—Kirkus Reviews

“With remarkable insight, discipline, heart, scope, stunning reporting, and sometimes quite beautiful writing, Friedman has recreated those days of war and music, regeneration and humility, that freed Cohen to create some of his greatest works of art.”

—Mother Jones

“Compelling… . [Friedman] beautifully ties together ideas about the author’s craft, identity, and connection to Israel…. A brief, audacious, thorough book turning … a dream world unconventionally and surprisingly real.”

—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 

“A word-of-mouth treasure…. Offers vital insight into Cohen’s trajectory as a songwriter and the scope of his work.”

—City Journal 

“An important hybrid work of music and war reporting.”

—Mitchell Kaplan, Boca Magazine

“Matti Friedman’s impeccably researched and exquisitely written account of Cohen’s unlikely foray into the front lines of a nightmarish war answers the never quite explicated question—just what in the hell did the reluctant scion of a prominent Montreal rabbinical family think he was doing on an Israeli warfront?... Who by Fire offers Cohen aficionados a welcome opportunity to get lost in their own longings.”

—Hadassah Magazine


—Times Literary Supplement

“WHO BY FIRE passed the most stringent test for readability of any book I can recall in the last two decades. ... Beautiful, haunting, and profoundly memorable.“

—Mosaic Magazine

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