EconTalk |
Matti Friedman on Leonard Cohen and the Yom Kippur War
Jun 6 2022

41P7TzLkiPL._SX329_BO1204203200_-199x300.jpg In October 1973, an unhappy Leonard Cohen was listening to the radio on his Greek island home when he heard that Israel was at war. He headed to Tel Aviv, exchanging a personal and creative crisis for a national one. Absent a plan and even a guitar, Cohen wound up serenading Israeli soldiers at the front. Journalist Matti Friedman talks about his book Who by Fire with EconTalk host Russ Roberts and explains how a songwriter and a nation were transformed in the crucible of war.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Jun 6 2022 at 10:27pm

This is econtalk at its best for me. I didn’t know about the Yom Kippur war and didn’t know much about Leonard Cohen before this episode. Because I listened, I looked into both and it scratched the itch to discover something new and interesting. Also in some sense I feel I am getting to know Israel through Russ’s experience, and it’s a pleasure. Thank you to both Russ and Matti.

Ben Riechers
Jun 7 2022 at 10:07am

Every time I think this podcast is probably not going to be for me, I end up enjoying them immensely.

The entire podcast was educational for me.  One thing toward the end that triggered a thought.  Often free market people are defending free market policies. Matti Friedman mentioned offhandedly that  citizens of Israel couldn’t imagine a health care system that wasn’t provided by the government for everyone. It struck me that this might be a failure of imagination that the free market might deliver higher quality at a lower cost. And if socialist-oriented people can imagine it, what are their reasons for opposing it.

One last thing, no one should take as gospel the characterizations of conservatives as propagandized by Progressives and Liberals in the Democrat Party. They should talk to one.

Shalom Freedman
Jun 8 2022 at 11:24am

This conversation has two subjects, one is Leonard Cohen and his surprising service entertaining Israeli soldiers in remote dangerous areas in the Sinai during the Yom Kippur War, and the second is Israeli society then and now. Russ Roberts does a masterful job interviewing an articulate honest journalist Matti Friedman who spent many years researching the book. Friedman’s honesty is illustrated by his telling the story Cohen’s ambivalence about his own Jewish loyalty and his seemingly stronger connection to his universalist love of humanity side.
For the person who knows little about Israel or the Middle East it provides some valuable background to the Yom Kippur War. As a person who has lived in Israel for many years I would however say that it is a bit idealistic about communal love and loyalty in the Israel of today.

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TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: May 4, 2022.]

Russ Roberts: Today is May 4th, 2022, and my guest is journalist and author, Matti Friedman. His latest book, which is our subject for today, is Who by Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai.

I want to let listeners know that today's conversation may contain adult themes.

Matti, welcome to EconTalk.

Matti Friedman: Thanks so much for having me.


Russ Roberts: This is an amazing book. It's a small masterpiece. It's not very long. It's under 200 pages. It's about Leonard Cohen. It's about Israel. It's about war, poetry, music. And, overarching the whole thing is the pull[?] of tribe, which I have been interested in for quite some time on the program as listeners know.

And, I've asked Matti to create a Spotify playlist of Leonard Cohen songs and songs related to Israel that might be relevant. So, you're free to either listen to that on its own or listen in the background as you listen to our conversation. We'll put a link to that playlist at the website for this episode.

So, let's start with who Leonard Cohen was. Who was Leonard Cohen?

Matti Friedman: Leonard Cohen was one of the great stars of the 1960s. He came out of the same folk music scene that many of your listeners probably remember--people like Joan Baez and Judy Collins. And, he was very much part of the Bohemian scene in Greenwich Village in the late 1960s. He's, of course, the mind behind some pretty great hits--"Suzanne," "So Long, Marianne," "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye," just to name a few.

So, many of us probably remember Leonard Cohen in the later stages of his career when he's an elderly gentleman playing to packed stadiums across the world, but the Leonard Cohen of 1973, the Leonard Cohen of this story, is quite a young man. He's 39, deeply unhappy, feels like he's at a creative dead end. He's actually announced that he's retiring. So, he's a star who is in a rut. He's kind of hit a brick wall, and that's where the war catches him.

Russ Roberts: And, many listeners, I suspect, will only know one song of Leonard Cohen, although they won't know it's Leonard Cohen necessarily. And, that's "Hallelujah," which has been covered a zillion times. It's a very popular song on shows like American Idol. And, that song, of course, is written way after the period we're talking about, along with some of his darker songs; and we will talk about that.

So, this is a story that's set in 1973. And, in 1973, what's happening in Israel?

Matti Friedman: So, 1973--and I think you remember some of this, Russ, because I know you lived in Israel as a child in those years between the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973--but these are very upbeat years in Israel. The victory of 1967 saw Israel defeat three Arab armies--the Syrian army, the Jordanian army, and the Egyptian army. Israel captures the Golan Heights and the West Bank and the Old City of Jerusalem and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt. And, this is a great victory that leads to a period of euphoria in Israel. So, the country really feels very confident. They've pulled off this great military victory; and people I think get a bit confused about the actual direction of things.

Israel becomes overconfident. And, this all comes crashing down on October 6th, 1973 when the Yom Kippur War begins. It's also worth pointing out that in Israel, 1973 is still the 1960s. So, that kind of communal feeling of the 1960s, even the music of the 1960s, it was still going on in Israel in 1973. In those years, everything reached Israel late. So, cultural trends that were already old in America hadn't yet arrived in Israel. So, for most Americans, the 1960s ended, I guess, with that famous Rolling Stones show that goes awry--

Russ Roberts: Altamont--

Matti Friedman: at the Altamont Speedway. And the Summer of Love, by 1973, is a distant memory. It's four years earlier, but that hasn't reached Israel yet. So, the 1960s are still going on; and in Israel, the 1960s really end with the Yom Kippur War in a kind of metaphysical way. October 6th, 1973 is really a turning point for Israel in many ways.

Russ Roberts: I want to recommend the listeners two books we'll link to, Abraham Rabinovich's book of The Yom Kippur War and Michael Oren's book of Six Days of War. They're both fantastic historical accounts of these two wars and that period in between.

I lived in Israel at the age of 15 in 1971. Before we started recording, Matti said, 'Oh, that was the idyllic time.' And, of course, I didn't know that. It just was 1971. But it did come crashing down.

So, what happens in 1973 on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jews? And, both in Israel, it's often observed by both religious and non-religious Jews.

Matti Friedman: Right. Everyone feels Yom Kippur in Israel, even people who aren't necessarily religious or observant. Most of the time, people tend to fast, which is part of the tradition of Yom Kippur. Many people go to synagogue.

And, the idea of Yom Kippur, which literally means the Day of Atonement, is to think about your actions in the preceding year and look ahead to the coming year. And, we have this idea that people's fates are sealed on Yom Kippur--that you have until the end of Yom Kippur to properly atone for the sins of the preceding year before your fate is sealed for the coming year. And, there's a prayer at the heart of the Yom Kippur service that really makes that explicit, that says: 'Today, God is sitting in judgment and he is going to decide who will live and who will die; who by water and who by fire.' And, the prayer goes on. So, that's a key idea for people observing Yom Kippur.

In practice, what Yom Kippur looks like in Israel is it's completely quiet. So, it's quite eerie if you're not used to it. The streets are empty. The busiest highways are completely empty. No one drives on the roads. There are no flights in and out of the airport. There's no TV broadcasts. There's no radio broadcasts. The country really goes completely silent for 24 hours. And, that was the scene in Israel on Yom Kippur on October 6th, 1973, when the war breaks out at 2:00 PM with a surprise attack on two fronts, one in Egypt and one in Syria.


Russ Roberts: And, Israel is completely unprepared. Of course, in every war, you can always find things after the fact: 'Oh, there was this piece of evidence,' but of course, there's thousands of pieces of evidence and the needle in the haystack is never large enough for people in these situations to be prepared. So, partly overconfidence, partly human error: Israel is caught entirely flat-footed in the afternoon of the day when many, many people are not watching TV, they're not picking up the phone. And, so, what happens? What happens at 2:00 PM to the Israelis when they're attacked?

Matti Friedman: Because it's Yom Kippur, and because the country was wildly overconfident, the borders are defended by these skeleton crews of soldiers--some infantry, some tanks. The Suez Canal, which was the border between Israel and Egypt at that time, is manned by a few hundred guys. And, there's no real plan for a surprise attack because Israel doesn't think that one is imminent. And, the basic understanding was that the Egyptian army had been beaten so badly in 1967, six years earlier, that they would never dare attack again. That was really the assumption. And: If there were plans for an attack, Israel assumed that it would know--that it would have forewarning and would be able to prepare. So, no one saw it coming.

And, in retrospect, of course, there were signs that were missed. And, this becomes a great scandal about how Israeli intelligence failed, about how the military failed, about how the political leadership failed; but that all happens after the war. At 2:00 PM on October 6th, no one has any idea that a war is about to break out; and then it does. And, Egyptian forces surge across the Suez Canal and overrun the very scant Israeli defenses on the Canal.

And, the same thing happens in the North of Israel, on the Golan Heights: the Syrian army carpets the Golan with artillery and then surges into the Golan Heights, and the Israeli defenders on the Golan Heights fall back.

And, the first day, or two, or three--in fact, the first week of the Yom Kippur War--is catastrophic for Israel, and the losses are so high that they're hidden from the public. And, many Israelis only realized later that in the first week of the war, the army almost lost the Yom Kippur War. So, it was pretty close, certainly in the first week of the war.

Russ Roberts: And then, but on that day, what's happening in the synagogues of Israel as religious and non-religious people find out what's going on? What do they do? How did they find out?

Matti Friedman: So, at 2:00 PM, it's kind of approaching the end of Yom Kippur. So, they've already said this prayer, which we mentioned, this prayer called 'Unetanah Tokef,' which is that famous prayer that includes a list of ways that you could die in the coming year--who by water, who by fire? It's a pretty colorful text: Who by wild animal, who by sword, who by strangulation, who by stoning, who by earthquake? That prayer has already been recited. And, it's before the evening prayer, which is called 'Ne'ilah' or the locking, when traditionally the gates of heaven are locked and your fate is sealed.

So, in between those prayers, the war happens and sirens go off across the country. And, the siren in Israel is a sound that we're familiar with. In fact, we're speaking on Yom Hazikaron, which is Israel's Remembrance Day; and a siren just went off across the country, which happens every year. And, everyone stands and observes a minute of silence across the entire country. Cars stop on the busiest streets in Tel Aviv, and this very eerie siren just shuts everything down in Israel.

And, that was the same sound that people heard on Yom Kippur. Sirens went off and everyone was very surprised because there had been no indication. The average Israeli had no indication that anything was coming.

And then the radios come back on, right? There's no radio broadcasts on Yom Kippur. But suddenly, the radios start broadcasting again, and what they're broadcasting is call-up orders--these code names that are instructing Israeli men to report to their units. And that's when people start understanding that something very bad has happened. Although the scale of it really only becomes apparent a few days or even weeks later.


Russ Roberts: And, I talked a little bit about this in the episode we did with Tyler Cowen about being an immigrant. I've been here 9 or 10 months. But the army plays a very different role in Israel than it plays, say, in the United States or many other Western countries. Almost everyone has served--outside of a couple groups. Some of the ultra-Orthodox don't serve. Maybe the Arabs don't serve. They used to be drafted, but now it's optional. But, the army--other than that--quote, "other than that"--everybody serves.

And they serve for a long time. They don't just go for two or three years. They have to go to Reserves--as adults, with families. They have to continue to be part of the army in a way that's very alien, I think, to most Western listeners.

So, when you're talking about the code names, these are adults sitting or standing in synagogue or having gone home to take a nap in between these two services you mentioned and they're suddenly finding their rifles and trying to get to where they need to get to.

Matti Friedman: That's right. So, in Israel, you do several years of service after high school. At the moment, it's about three years for men and two years for women. And then you belong to a reserve unit. So, the bulk of Israel's military force is actually reserves. It's people who are accountants or taxi drivers or just regular civilians who have a reserve unit, do a few weeks of training or operational duty every year and then in the case of an emergency report in what's called--in Hebrew, it's called tzav shmoneh--order eight. An order eight is an emergency call up. And, when that happens, a code name is read out on the radio--these days, it would be a WhatsApp message. And then, you have to report to your base where you got fitted out with your gear, and then you head off.

And, that's what happened on Yom Kippur. So, the guys being called up weren't 18- or 19-year-old infantry men. They were 30-year-old schoolteachers and 40-year-old managers. And, the country's male population was basically mobilized and that takes time. So, before the reserves reached the front or until the reserves reached the front, the standing army--which as we said was very scant along the borders, had to hold off these massive attacks until the bulk of the army could be moved down to Sinai and up to the Golan. And, that took time. And, while the reserves were on the move, the guys who were unlucky enough to be on the borders were being shredded.


Russ Roberts: So, how does Leonard Cohen fit into this story?

Matti Friedman: It's kind of surprising to me, Leonard Cohen in this story. I think a lot of the soldiers who encountered him were quite surprised. I think Leonard Cohen was actually quite surprised to find himself in this story as well. I'm not sure that he had entirely been planning it.

But at the time, he's living on a Greek island called Hydra, where he'd drifted over there in the 1960s. There was a Bohemian scene on the island and he has various versions of how he ended up there. In one version, he just says that--he grew up in Montreal, of course. He's a Canadian from Montreal. So, he's used to living in a place where you never see the sun and it's gray and freezing at least half the year. And, then he showed up at this island and the sun was shining.

So, he bought a white house and fell in love with a blonde woman and with the sunlight. And, that was part of what was going on.

But, the blonde woman is a reference to Marianne who is his legendary muse about whom he writes the song, "So Long, Marianne," and several other songs. But, that Marianne is gone by the time the 1973 war breaks out. And, Cohen is on the island, living with a woman with whom he has a very serious relationship. He calls her his wife in writing, although they weren't technically married. And, they have a son. They have a one-year-old son--the name's Adam--Cohen's first child. And, he's 39.

So, 39 is a pretty significant year. It's a prime year for a crisis and that's exactly what was happening to Leonard Cohen. I think that he was trying to have some domestic life and he felt trapped. He felt trapped by it.

And, in his own writing, it's clear that the war catches him at a low point. And, Leonard Cohen struggled with depression for much of his life and was pursued by demons of various kinds and tried to escape them by, I guess, using some of the usual methods--mind altering substances, women--but they don't always work.

And, in the fall of 1973, he's really struggling. And, we know that thanks to a manuscript that he wrote, this incredibly honest, very raw, unfiltered manuscript that he wrote immediately after the war.

And, the manuscript was never published, but I was lucky enough to find it in a university library--in the McMaster University Library in Hamilton, Ontario--which is a strange place to find a great literary treasure. But this really is. It's a 45-page typed manuscript in which Cohen is very honest about where his life is in the fall of 1973.

So, he's listening to the radio on this island and he hears that a war is broken out in Israel. And, surprising even himself, I think, and certainly surprising that people around him, he walks down the stairs on the island of Hydra--there are no cars on Hydra. So, he walks down the stairs down the hillside from this little white house where he's living with his partner, Suzanne and their son, Adam. And, he walks down to the docks, to the ferry docks, catches a ferry to Athens, somehow manages to get on a flight from Athens to Tel Aviv, which isn't that easy because the flights are being mobbed by Israeli men who are trying to get back to their units. And, it's hard to get a seat on flights to Israel. But he manages to get on and that's how he shows up in Tel Aviv, at one of the worst moments of Israel's history, in the fall of 1973.

Russ Roberts: And, he doesn't have a guitar with him, right? He just shows up and he doesn't have a plan.

Matti Friedman: It's quite clear that he doesn't have a plan.

So, when I initially started looking into this story, my assumption was that he had come to play for soldiers, but it seems clear that that's not the case. He came without a guitar, as you mentioned. He had announced his retirement from the music business, and he'd been very explicit about having kind of lost faith in his art. He told an interviewer that he just wants to shut up, that he doesn't have anything else to say. And, this was known. This had been reported. So, he wasn't coming as 'Leonard Cohen, the rock star.' He didn't have plans to perform. It's quite clear.

He meets some people and tells them that he wants to volunteer on a kibbutz, a communal farm in Israel. And, that actually makes sense, because that is something that a lot of volunteers from the West had done six years earlier in the 1967 war, because Israeli men are called up to the front. And, that means that there's no one left behind to do the harvest, to pick the grapefruits, to pick the oranges. So, Leonard Cohen thought he might be able to help out in that way, or so he told some of the people that he met. But, his plans are altered by a chance meeting in a cafe in Tel Aviv a few days after he arrives in the country.

Russ Roberts: And, what happens?

Matti Friedman: So, he's at a cafe called Cafe Pinati[?]. In Tel Aviv in those years--maybe some of your listeners have been here in recent years--but Tel Aviv at the moment is a very cool city. It's a pretty amazing international city. And it's got a beach. It's got a great art scene, and you can really have a great vacation in Tel Aviv. But, Tel Aviv in 1973 was a very small place. Israel was a very small place. It was barely three million people at the time, and it was a country that was barely 25 years old. And, many of the people in Israel at the time were refugees--refugees from Eastern Europe, people who had survived the Holocaust, people who had been driven out of their homes across the Islamic world, people from places like Morocco, Yemen, Syria, people living with very fresh memories of trauma and displacement.

And, the country was a very odd mix of optimism and forward-looking ideology, and very, very bad memories that people were either trying to remember or trying to forget. That's the country that Leonard Cohen shows up in.

There are two Bohemian cafes in Tel Aviv. One is called Cafe Casit, and one is called Cafe Pinati. And, if you want to meet anyone who's important in the Israeli arts scene, you go to one of those two cafes and you'll meet basically everyone. And, he was at one of them. He was at Pinati and he was sitting at a table in the corner, according to some of the musicians who met him--some of whom I spoke to.

And, one of the singers--a pretty well-known Israeli singer named Oshik Levi--according to one version of what happened, he looks over and he sees Leonard Cohen sitting in the café. And Leonard Cohen was a major star. I mean, it's surprising to see him in Israel. He was a major international star. Israel was a very small country. People didn't really come here in those days--you wouldn't just see celebrities of that magnitude hanging out in Tel Aviv. Cohen had played in Israel the year before, so he was known. He played a few concerts here and people knew that Leonard Cohen was a big deal.

And, a second singer who was with Oshik Levi in that cafe, a woman named Ilana Rovina, didn't believe him. She said, 'No way. There's no way that's Leonard Cohen in Tel Aviv in the middle of the Yom Kippur War.' And, Oshik Levi told her, 'No, that's Leonard Cohen, and I'm going to prove it to you.' And, he walks over to the table and says, 'Excuse me, are you Leonard Cohen?' And, when the answer is yes, they all go over to his table and they talk him out of this plan that he has to work on a kibbutz. And, they say, 'No, you have to come with us. We're going down to the front to perform for soldiers.' And, he says yes.


Russ Roberts:And, somebody finds him a guitar. And, he's not a great guitarist. He's not a great singer. He's got a strange, gravelly voice, and he kind of talks through his songs. His guitar style is very rudimentary. I happen to like it, but it's not everybody's cup of tea. And, I'll just mention, if you haven't seen the movie McCabe & Mrs. Miller, watch it. The soundtrack is all Leonard Cohen songs. And they're unbelievable in that movie. They're extraordinary.

So, he gets a guitar. They head out. How many times, roughly, is he going to perform over the next few weeks?

Matti Friedman: So, we don't really know. One of the first things that I did when I dived into this story--which, I mean, I began looking into this story in 2009. So, it's 2022. It took me a long time to put it together. But, one thing I hoped to find was a list of concerts.

Russ Roberts: Sure.

Matti Friedman: Because if it was a military tour--I was kind of thinking something like Bob Hope--there was probably a unit in charge of artists and there was an officer who had a list. And, we're going here, and now we're going here on this day.

But that really is not the way Israel works even in peace time and certainly not in war time. The country is extremely chaotic and disorganized, which is part of its charm. And, it can also drive you kind of crazy if you're trying to get a driver's license or renew a passport. But you just get used to it. It's the Middle East. I grew up in Canada. So, it's quite a transition from an extremely orderly society to this one.

So, I went to the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] Archive--the archive of the Israeli military--and I asked them which army unit would have been in charge of artists in the Yom Kippur war. Maybe there's a list. Maybe there's some map of concerts. No, of course, there's no such thing. No one had any idea where these artists were most of the time.

A lot of them were just driving around the front independently. I mean, this group of artists--so, it's Cohen and a pickup band of Israeli musicians, including people who went on to be some of the greatest musicians in Israel. It's a small group of people. It's Cohen and four musicians that they just get into a Ford Falcon owned by Oshik Levi, the singer, and they drive off to the war. That's really how it works.

So, no one had any idea where they were or where they were playing, and there is no list of concerts. So, we don't know how many times he played or where exactly.

So, after that disappointing visit to the Archive, I understood that the research was going to be more complicated than I'd expected. And, what I was going to have to do was track down soldiers who had seen him. And, I would have to look for memories of these concerts in the minds of people who are now in their 70s and I was going to have to look for photos of the concerts in the photo albums of soldiers who had fought in the war.

And, it became a different research--a much more interesting kind of research--a much more human approach toward what is essentially underground history. And, this tour officially never happened. There's no record of it in the military archive. So, there's no official record of it. It has to be reconstituted by putting together the pieces. And, that of course makes it harder, but it also makes it much more interesting and gratifying when you succeed.

Russ Roberts: And, that's part of the incredible charm of the book. How many soldiers do you think you spoke to?

Matti Friedman: Oh, I spoke to dozens of soldiers. Not all the stories are included in the book. I didn't want the book to be too long and I didn't want to repeat myself. Some of the stories get repetitive. And, what I was looking for was not just stories about the concerts, but stories about the war. Because, the book is--as much as it's a book about Leonard Cohen and this really strange and fascinating moment in rock history, maybe one of the strangest moments in rock history really. So, it's about that, but it's also about the Yom Kippur War because it's the war that lends the weight to the concerts. And what makes the concert so potent and powerful is the fact that they're a matter of life and death.

Cohen is playing for people who might be dead within a few hours. His song might be the last thing that they hear. And he knows that, and that makes the concert so potent.

So, if you don't explain what the war is and if you don't explain who these soldiers are and what happened to them before the show and what happened to them after the show, then you don't get the incredible electricity of the concert. So, the book is about the soldiers, as much as it is about Cohen. And, these very young Israelis that he meets at the worst moment of their lives are as much the stars of this concert tour as the star himself--coming all the way from the great world beyond Israel.

Russ Roberts: You're calling them concerts. They're 25 people sometimes sitting around the back of a truck with some other truck's lights shining on them. It is incredibly informal most of the time. There are hardly any concert venues for this, because it's literally--like you say, it's at the base, where people are either going to be attacked soon or going to be attacking. It's incredibly visceral for the audience. But, when we call it concerts, it's misleading perhaps.

Matti Friedman: That's right. People might be imagining a stadium or--

Russ Roberts: Chairs--

Matti Friedman: Chairs--right? There are no chairs. Or people might be thinking of a Bob Hope set up with kind of a rear base and some more-or-less orderly set up far from the action; or people might remember that famous scene from Apocalypse Now with the Playboy bunnies and its kind of famous scene from Apocalypse Now. But it wasn't like that at all. Cohen was really, for much of the time, really at the front. He was moving in a Jeep, very close to the front lines. Their descriptions of what happens--and Oshik Levi, who I met, he remembers them driving along in the dark on these roads in the desert and they would just see a few artillery pieces parked in the sand, and they would stop.

And, they would walk over to the soldiers who were filthy and scared and depressed, as soldiers are. And, they would say, 'Would you guys like to hear some songs?' And, if the soldiers said yes, then they would set up a stage. They would kind of put together an ad hoc stage made of crates of ammunition. And they would use the Jeep's headlights as spotlights. And, there wasn't an amp most of the time. And they would just stand up on the crates and play.

So, Leonard Cohen, who'd been playing a few years before the 1973 War--he was playing at the Isle of Wight festival, which was half a million people. It was bigger than Woodstock.

And, here he is playing for maybe 8 soldiers, 20 soldiers, maybe 30 soldiers if it was really big. And, he would just stand up on these crates of ammunition and he'd play "Suzanne" to these soldiers or he'd play "That's No Way to Say Goodbye."

And, it's just such a strange scene to imagine, because the music is so distant from the experience of the soldiers. He's singing in English. We can assume that many of the soldiers did not understand English. And yet, it seems clear that anyone who heard Cohen play in Sinai never forgot it. He made a huge impression and the memory lives on in Israel to this day. It was that potent.


Russ Roberts: And, as you point out, many of them didn't know who he was. You say, he had come to Israel for a couple of concerts. Well, people in the music scene knew who he was, but the average soldier probably had no idea who he was. Speak briefly--it's one of the more extraordinary parts of the book.

You interviewed all these soldiers, now, in their older age. And, many of them, of course--the participants in those performances died. Others have died since from natural causes. But one of the most remarkable things about this war is that--you alluded to it in just a phrase. You said, 'It was hard to get to Israel for Cohen, because a lot of Israeli men were trying to get back to their units.'

And, I think it's hard, again, for non-Israelis to appreciate the urgency with which people head toward conflict and violence in defense of their country and what they did to get here. To get to Israel in time for the war. To be supportive of their--it's not just patriotism, of course. It's also the comaraderie that comes from war. And they knew that their units were going to be in combat. And, they weren't going to be sitting in Minneapolis or LA [Los Angeles] or New York or Paris. They were going to come home. And they did.

Matti Friedman: There are incredible descriptions of hundreds of Israelis camped out on the carpets at the airports in New York, at the airport in Paris, at Heathrow, in London--people kind of desperate to get back to Israel, which is the opposite direction you'd think people would be moving in, in the middle of a war. And, there were so many people trying to get back that at first, the army has lists of who can get on an airplane and who couldn't get on an airplane. And, from the lists, you could understand how the war was going, because at first, the people who they were letting on the airplanes back to Israel were tank crews and hospital staff. That's who they needed. So, you can understand that the tanks were getting ripped up and that they had a lot of wounded.

And, as the war progressed, they started letting infantry officers and then infantry. And, then other people could get back. But the planes were mobbed.

And, in my book, I have a few stories of people who were abroad when the war broke out and kind of fought and used any means necessary to get back to Israel. One of them was in Tokyo. One of the characters in the book who ends up taking some pretty incredible photographs of the war and of Leonard Cohen; and some of the others were in London and New York. And then they make it back. They make it back to the front and that's an incredible part of the story. I think in some strange way by the same force that calls Leonard Cohen to the war, there's this idea in Judaism that you don't stand by your brother's blood--

Russ Roberts: Stand idly by--

Matti Friedman: Yeah, that's right. If your brother's blood is being spilled, you don't stand next to it and watch. And, that was definitely part of what drew Leonard Cohen to the war. Whether he knew what he was going to do or not, the idea that this terrible thing would happen and he wouldn't be there, I mean, that idea seemed to be unbearable to him. And, it drove him to take this really strange and surprising step of inserting himself into this Middle Eastern catastrophe.

Russ Roberts: You tell about an Israeli soldier--her name was Orly--who was on a base where Cohen was going to perform. He was exhausted. He needed a place to crash before the concert. And you write,

One of the officers at the base, Tammy, came to her [Orly] that afternoon and asked where Cohen could rest before the show. "I was dying for him to sleep in my bed," Orly told me. "Not with me, but in my bed. I wasn't there." She offered her bed nonchalantly, so that the other girls wouldn't understand what it meant to her, so no one would steal Cohen and offer him their own bed. She and Tammy brought clean sheets.
She sees Leonard Cohen's head on her pillow underneath the drawing of the mother and child. Orly was 19 at the time, and a grandmother when she told the story. "I didn't want any of the other girls to know who I had in my bed," she said. "I had his songs in my ears."

This is just somebody who did appreciate who Leonard Cohen was and both his celebrity status and what he meant to her--as a poet--as a songwriter was that special that just having him sleep in her bed was enough.

Matti Friedman: That's right. I had such a great time tracking down these soldiers. Actually, Orly pretty tragic story from the war. The war opens with an Egyptian missile attack on a radar station at Sharm el-Sheikh, which is at the very Southern tip of Sinai. And, Orly is there with a group of her friends. These are very young women who are in charge of radar screens. They're in charge of watching the airspace to see any Egyptian incursion. And, of course, one of the first things you do in a war is you knock out the enemy's radar. And, they were there. And, five of the young soldiers who were at this base were killed; and it was a very rough opening to the Yom Kippur War.

After that Egyptian rocket attack on the base, because of confusion inside the army, the army dispatches an armored force to attack the radar station, which they think has been captured by the Egyptians--when in fact it has not been captured by the Egyptians. So, this armored force, just a few tanks, comes up the hill to the radar station and attacks the station and kills two more of the defenders of the radar station, who were Israeli. So, there was--you know, that phrase, 'friendly fire,' always strikes me as being absurd, but that's what it was. It was Israelis killing each other; and this all happens right at the beginning of the war.

And, Orly is there, and that's when she meets Cohen. Cohen shows up at a large airfield next to the radar station, not too long after that. So, Cohen is meeting these people who might know his songs and some of whom worship him--like Orly. But, he's meeting them minutes, days, maybe a week after really the worst moments of their lives. This is the audience for these shows and it's what makes them so unique.


Russ Roberts: So, Cohen writes a song, "Lover Lover Lover", during the tour and starts performing it. We'll talk a little bit about that song in a minute, but his plans for retirement are ended by events. And, how would you summarize the impact of the war on him? What does it do to him?

Matti Friedman: Cohen's a kind of cagey character and he doesn't like to discuss his process. So, you can never really find Leonard Cohen being very transparent about what triggered a certain work of art or what led him in one direction and not in another direction. I think he wants his work to stand alone. He wants his poems to exist independently of whatever experience triggered them. And I respect that. I respect that. And, I have a lot of respect for Leonard Cohen as an artist. But as a journalist, of course, that's what I'm looking for. I'm looking for some kind of, you know, factual explanation or factual background to the art that is produced by this great poet and great singer.

So, the Yom Kippur War, as we've said, meets Leonard Cohen at a moment that's not just a moment of personal crisis: it's a moment of professional crisis. And, it's pretty clear to me that one of the things that leads him to the war is a desire to escape his own crisis. So, Israel's crisis offers a way out of his more immediate crisis; and that's part of what's going on. And, I think we should be honest about it: it's not all pure ideology or a desire to help. The other, I think, is he has a personal motive here, which is that he feels stuck and he spies an escape. And, he ends up in a regional crisis, which takes his mind off his personal crisis.

Russ Roberts: He wouldn't be the first person to turn to the army for a way to avoid the rest of their lives.

Matti Friedman: Absolutely. I think many of us make decisions that have complex motivations and things that we like to think of as altruistic are often partly altruistic, but there's usually something else going on. And that's fine. That's very human.

And so, he comes to the war and then has these concerts, which are quite extraordinary by all accounts--concerts where no one is charging for tickets and no one is selling records and no money is changing hands. They're not filmed. No one even records them. There are a few scraps of audio, but not more than that. So, this is pure art. It's a pure artistic transmission. There's no--it's not being sullied by any of the usual aspects of the music business that Cohen hated. So it's--in some way, it restores his faith in his art. And, when he comes back, he's singing again.

And actually, in this very strange manuscript that he writes about the war, one of his hopes for the visit to Israel, he says, 'This is a place where I can sing again.' He wants to sing again. He wants some way to get back on stage and restore his faith in his music. And, that happens. It seems like an unlikely hope. Why would coming to Israel allow you to sing again? But, that actually seems to happen. And, we know that just a few months after the Yom Kippur War, not only is Leonard Cohen not retired, but he releases one of the best albums of his career, which is called New Skin for the Old Ceremony, being a kind of a wry reference to circumcision, maybe hinting at a kind of rebirth.

And, he has his album, which includes "Chelsea Hotel," and "Who by Fire," and "Lover Lover Lover," and some of his greatest songs--in some way that we can't completely define that the war restores Cohen's faith in his music and saves his career from oblivion.

And, it wouldn't have been a surprise, I think, if Cohen had retired at 39, right? When we think about rock stars, you can't think of very many who make it past 39, or even make it to 39. And, of course, in those years, many of them were dying at 27, like Hendrix, and Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison. And, 39 was pretty old.

And yet Cohen goes on to have this extraordinary career over decades, which really lasts until his early 80s. And, without the war, would we have had that later version of Cohen, the guy who writes "Hallelujah," for example? I'm not sure.


Russ Roberts:Well, it's a shocking passage--it's so politically incorrect in today's world, but it's not an uncommon theme in literature--and that's that there are things about war that are attractive. And, Cohen both writes in the journal that you had access to and he also mentions it in an interview you quote that: War is wonderful. And, at one point, he calls it 'wonderful'; another point, he says, it's 'okay'--which seems like an overstatement, but he says: 'War is people at their best.' And, he quotes a friend who said about LSD [lysergic acid diethylamide], 'They'll never stamp this out.' Meaning it's too good. Most people, at least who haven't seen war up close, would say it's people at their worst. What do you think he was thinking? What do you think he experienced that brought him there?

Matti Friedman: He has some fantastic quotes about it. He almost never speaks about the war after the war. It's one of the interesting and strange things about this story. But, immediately after the war itself, he gives an interview to a music magazine called ZigZag--which is a British magazine--and he explicitly discusses the war. And, that's where the quotes that you're referring to come from. And, he says, 'In a war, every gesture has meaning and no one is goofing off and everyone is focused on doing what needs to be done.' And, in some ways, it's people at their best and that comes with it being a matter of life and death and it's a very unique state of affairs for humans. And, I tasted it to a very small extent in my own military service and I think there's some truth to it.

And of course, it's also people at their worst, doing the absolute worst things that humanity can cook up. And, that's all going on in a war, which makes it such a potent mix of emotions, such a potent mix of events and human behaviors. So, for someone like Cohen, for someone as sensitive as Cohen, I think he couldn't help but be moved by it all. Whether he was impressed with the way people rose to the occasion and stood together and sacrificed for each other, or whether he was disgusted by the cruelty that humans demonstrate toward each other, that's all very much present in his response to the war.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. At one point, he said: Under war, quote, "you think your life has meaning for a moment or two." He doesn't say it has meaning. He says "you think."

Matti Friedman: Yeah, but not for very long.

Russ Roberts: Right. I think it's about the heightening of emotion. As you said earlier, we're recording this on Yom HaZikaron, which is the day that Israel mourns its lost soldiers. It's the equivalent of Memorial Day in America. And, Memorial Day in America is a mattress sale and you go to a ball game. And, here, it's a much more somber day. I think about 2,500 people died in military action in the Yom Kippur War in Israel, in a country of three million at the time, as you said. So, multiply that times 100 and you get 250,000 would be the equivalent--a little more than that--deaths in an American war to give people a feel. And, that's just in the military. It doesn't include people who died in accidents and other things that surely happened or related to the war.

So, it's a horrific moment for Israel. And, in Israel, the Memorial Day is followed by Independence Day, Yom Ha'atzmaut. And, Independence Day in the United States is more hot dogs and more ball games and more sales at the local mall. And, in Israel, it's--the visceral level, the celebration is very different, very intense.

And, the irony--or maybe it's not an irony--is that when you have a lot of death in your life, life is more precious and more exuberant. For whatever reason, it has not created a somber country. It's created an exuberant country. I don't know how long you've lived here, but having lived here nine months, it's shocking to me how exuberant a people Israelis are, how much joy they have in life. And, I think that's not unrelated to what they've experienced.

Matti Friedman: Yeah, I've been here for 27 years and I agree with you. When the brink is very close, when you're standing at the edge of a cliff, then you are very aware of your senses and you're very aware of being just on the right side of the line. So, more than 24,000 Israelis have died creating and defending this country and almost everyone here knows someone, is related to someone who died in one of the wars. And, it's not that these things happened decades ago. We just lost about a dozen people in terror attacks a few weeks ago. So, it's immediate for people here. So, Memorial Day is not a holiday. It's really a somber day where people remember the people who they knew, who died in the wars.

So, we're not thinking about the Revolutionary War, or even about the Vietnam War. This is a war that's ongoing. And that, I think, prevents it from becoming too theoretical for most Israelis. And, as soon as Remembrance Day--as soon as Yom HaZikaron--ends this evening, the parties start because it's independence Day. So, there's this really jarring but kind of amazing transition from this very somber, very serious day of remembrance to concerts, fireworks, parties in the street. And, that very much sums up what this country is about.

Russ Roberts: The craziest thing for me as a newcomer is--I'm looking at the schedule for concerts tonight when Independence Day starts. And, in Independence Park, which is about a mile and a half from here, the first performer comes on at 9:30 and then somebody at 10:30, 11:30. The last performer comes on at 2:10 in the morning and I have a feeling that there'll be a few people still dancing.


Russ Roberts:Now, of course, there are two sides to a war. We haven't talked about, quote, "the other side," but Cohen thought a lot about it. After the war had ended, he--Cohen is Jewish. He came from a long line of religious Jews in Montreal. He was not religious in the common sense of the phrase himself, but it's clear he was haunted by Judaism all his life. He can't escape it. That's what I meant earlier--the pull[?] of tribe. His lyrics often resonate with Jewish themes or quotes from prayers as we've talked about.

But after the war, he's very uncomfortable being pro-Israeli. He came, quote, "for his brothers""--and we'll talk about the song "Lover Lover Lover." But after the war, he is very uncomfortable having taken a side, having chosen one side or another. And, he later elides his experience in some way by saying he came to sing for Israelis and Egyptians--which, of course, he didn't. He didn't sing for Egyptians; but of course, Egyptians died in friendly fire. Egyptians died in this war. And, so, Cohen found that, almost immediately, it seems like after the war--we call it the brotherhood or peoplehood that he felt under fire at the front--he doesn't want any part of that afterward.

Matti Friedman: Right, you really see it in his work during the war. He writes a verse of the song, "Lover Lover Lover," where he explicitly calls the soldiers his brothers. He says,

I went down to the desert to help my brothers fight.

He writes that line, but then erases that line; and you really see him erasing it in the notebook. He crosses out that line and ultimately that verse doesn't make it into the final version of "Lover Lover Lover," which comes out a few months after the war. And, as you mentioned, he presents the song afterwards as having been written--not for Israelis and Egyptians: He says, 'I wrote it for the Egyptians and the Israelis.' That's the order that he gives when he presents the song.

So, we can look at that in two ways. One is that Cohen is a Jew, and as you say, he grew up in a very serious Jewish community in Montreal. He was a deeply religious guy. He wasn't an observant person, but he was deeply religious and is speaking more or less directly to God throughout his life, including in his songs, arguing with God in a very prophetic way that sometimes sounds like a version of some of the Books of Prophecy in Judaism--although, of course, they're written in a different language at a different time. But he is definitely someone who believes in God and thinks he has some conversation with God. Although he's not observant.

So, he comes and he asks the Israeli musicians who are touring with him--this kind of pick-up band of musicians--he wants them to call him Eliezer, not Leonard. His Hebrew name is Eliezer Cohen. And, when he's in Israel, he asks to be called Eliezer Cohen. So, he has kind of gone native.

And, if you see the photos of Cohen in Sinai, you'll see that he's wearing something that looks like a uniform. And he's sleeping on the ground, and eating combat rations, and referring to the soldiers as his brothers. And then comes a breaking point close to the end of the war. And he writes about it in quite a striking way in this manuscript. He describes a scene at an air base and a helicopter lands. There's a blast of rotors, a helicopter lands. And, the medics start unloading wounded and dead soldiers from the helicopter.

And, these are guys who've been really banged up really, really bad and it seems to have been really hard to look at. And, he was very upset by it. And, someone came up to him and said, 'Don't worry, Mr. Cohen, these are Egyptians.' And, he's relieved. He's relieved to hear that these aren't Israeli soldiers, right? They aren't from his side--and then he catches himself. And, he says, 'This relief--this relief that I just felt--I hate this relief. This is blood on your hands.' Those are his words. The fact that he was relieved that these soldiers were from his side and not from the other side--

Russ Roberts: From the other side and not from his side--

Matti Friedman: Right, exactly. This was a kind of betrayal of his most dearly, his most deeply felt beliefs.

And, from that moment in the war, I think he starts pulling back. And he remembers that he's a Jew--he's clearly here on one side of the war--but as a poet, his job is to address the universal. His subject is the human condition, and he can't be seen as being on one side of the war. In fact, he has to be seen as being bigger than any particular war. And that I think is why he obscures the context in which "Lover Lover Lover" was written and that's why he never makes explicit the connection between his song, "Who By Fire" and the Yom Kippur War.

And, that's why we meet him after the war claiming that he'd written the song for Egyptians and for Israelis. If you ask Leonard Cohen during the war, 'Who's your enemy?' he would never the Egyptians. Right? He would probably say, 'My enemy is inhumanity,' or 'My enemy is war.' Right? He had a very different idea of what he was doing. And you see that tension between his tribal allegiance and his universal leanings--you see it really play out in a very real and tangible way in his work around the Yom Kippur War.

Russ Roberts: I just want to mention, because it's so powerful. He writes a song right before he dies--he dies in 2015 or 2016?

Matti Friedman: 2016.

Russ Roberts: Right before he dies, he writes and releases a song called "You Want It Darker." And, the 'you' is God and Cohen is saying,

If you are the dealer, I'm out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I'm broken and lame
If thine is the glory, then mine must be the shame
You want it darker,
We kill the flame.

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame.
A million candles burning for the help that never came.
You want it darker.

And that's--there's a reference in there to the Jewish prayer of Kaddish and the magnified, sanctified.

But, when he shares that song with a friend, the friend says, 'That's kind of a dark view of humanity. Can't you give me something little cheerier for my children and our children and grandchildren?'

And, Cohen's answer, that you quote was: "I don't write the songs."

And, I think that's one of the deepest things, I think, that an artist can say. They come from somewhere else. They come from a source much higher--if you're a religious person, you might think they have a divine element. Or you might think they write themselves, because they're the product of all this stuff. But, I love that line: "I don't write the songs." Incredible.

Matti Friedman: Yeah, there's real honesty about Cohen. And that, I think, is what makes him much more durable than so many other artists who were more famous at the time. There are much bigger stars than Leonard Cohen throughout his career and yet it's Cohen's music that endures. And his fame has only grown in a strange way since his death, which isn't what happens to most musicians. And, it's because of his honesty, because of his facility with language, of course, because he's addressing those deep universal truths that make his songs so powerful and gives them such a long shelf life, right? Because the honesty of a guy who is 30 years old in the 1960s, if it's written right, it will ring true in 2022. And it does.


Russ Roberts:You spoke about how, in the early days of the war, Israel is overrun--takes a lot of losses early on. But they hold. The line eventually holds. And Israel ends up, quote, "winning" the war. And, in the aftermath of the war, Israel makes peace with Egypt; eventually makes a peace of some kind with Jordan. They're not the best peaces, but they're much better than the past. Syria is still not a peaceful partner.

So, it's a victory. And yet--I don't think there's ever been a war that felt like more of a defeat--as you write about it. Why is that and what did it do to Israel psychologically? to the Israeli people?

Matti Friedman: Israel does win the war and the war ends with the Israeli army on the Egyptian side of the Suez Canal. And, Israel encircles the Egyptian Third Army and has the Egyptians basically begging for a peace settlement by the end.

Russ Roberts: How long does that take--go--the war?

Matti Friedman: It takes three weeks. And then there's this prolonged process of disengagement and disentanglement. And, Henry Kissinger is running back and forth, doing shuttle diplomacy. And, eventually, there's a disengagement agreement that ultimately leads to a peace agreement, which is quite dramatic as you mentioned. But, as soon as the army has fended off the enemy and won the war, that's when the recriminations really start.

And, that's when Israeli start asking really hard questions about how we were caught off guard. How is it possible that a few hundred soldiers were supposed to hold the entire Egyptian border? Why was the army so disorganized? Why did we not have intelligence about the anti-aircraft missiles that both Arab armies had been given by the Soviets, which really cripple the Israeli air force in the opening stage of the war?

And, people get very, very angry. And it starts with a small protest. It actually starts with one soldier who had been abandoned with his friends at an outpost in Sinai and he is just standing with a sign outside one of the government offices in Jerusalem.

And, Golda Meir is the Prime Minister at the time; and it's still the same leadership that had founded the country 25 years earlier. It was the founding generation. It was the Labor Party. And, this one guy with a sign kind of snowballs into a major protest and there's a lot of fury about the way the war was handled. And, 2,600 fatalities in a country this small is an incredible blow and someone needed to pay the price for it.

And, initially, the government resists the calls to resign, but they have no choice. And, eventually, the government falls. And, ultimately, at four years after the war, the Labor Party loses power for the first time. They lose an election for the first time and it's directly related to the war. The Likud comes to power under Menachem Begin.

But it's not just the Labor Party that loses power. It's really the culture of the founding generation, that kind of optimistic kibbutz culture. The kind of music that was popular in Israel until 1973 is no longer popular after 1973--this kind of upbeat, Zionist-type music, which is very on-message and often performed by military entertainment troops. That whole style really goes out after 1973.

And, what rises instead is a more introspective country, a country that's less concerned with we and more concerned with I. It's really, I guess, the beginning of the Israel that we have today, which is a very successful place in many ways, but less communal than it was, less utopian than it was, less optimistic than it was.

And, there are many reasons for that, of course; but the breaking point is really the Yom Kippur War, which for many Israelis has never ended. I mean, the trauma of the Yom Kippur War persists in the country to this day and it pops up every year before Yom Kippur in the fall when more and more articles are published about the war, more books come out about the war. And, you understand that for a big part of this country, October 6th, 1973 is still going on.


Russ Roberts:Why do you think this move away from collective idealism and toward a more individualistic culture--why was that one of the responses? And, I ask that partly as someone, again, as a newcomer who feels that this is a remarkably communal place relative to the United States I left less than a year ago. There is so much camaraderie on the streets. Israelis are famous for being brusque. Some would say rude, direct. They don't beat around the bush.

And the metaphor I like is they're like family. Families yell at each other. They can even hurt each other, but there's an underlying connection that I feel here as a newcomer. And yet you're suggesting that that was--something was lost in 1973 that still isn't where it used to be. What is that, if you can explain it more thoroughly, or why do you think it happened?

Matti Friedman: Well, part of it is the eclipse of the kibbutz movement. So, at the heart of the ethos of Israel in its first decades is this idea of the kibbutz, which is a communal farm. It's basically a communist experiment in radical equality and egalitarianism.

And, even though the majority of Israelis never lived on a kibbutz, that ideal was at the heart of the country; and many of the country's leaders came from kibbutzim [plural of kibbutz--Econlib Ed.]. And, that really carries the country through its first decades. And, that kibbutz leadership, the founding leadership of the country, is discredited by the Yom Kippur War because they mishandled the war and they mishandled the surprise attack and they were shown to be blind and misguided.

And, it really undermined the confidence that people had in these pioneers who'd really wrought a miracle in Jewish history. I mean, 25 years before the Yom Kippur War, they created a state that went against the entire course of history and revolutionized Jewish life forever. And, they had a lot of credibility, of course, thanks to that. And, the Yom Kippur War really ends that period of grace, and a different kind of leadership arises.

Although, it doesn't happen all at once and the kibbutz doesn't die all at once; and the kibbutz idea remains; and certainly the Zionist Left remains influential through the 1990s. But, the Yom Kippur War is really the beginning of the end of it.

Part of it is that the world changed. So, the communal ideals of communism--or, even the 1960s had a communal feel to them--and that ends in the 1970s. And, even in America, they talk about the Me Generation; and people worried less about the collective and more about themselves. And, the idea of communal sacrifice takes a blow, maybe with Vietnam. And the world kind of shifts more toward the individual and less toward the great collectivist ideals of the early part of the 20th century.

What's also happened here over the past 20, 30 years--and this is more in your line of business than mine, Russ--is capitalism. Right? Israel abandons its kind of socialist-leaning economy. Although we never had a command economy here or anything like that; but it was a very government-heavy economy and the country was founded by radical socialists. So, the DNA [deoxyribonucleic acid] of the country remained red--red like socialist red, not like Republican red--for many, many years.

And, that changes 20, 30 years ago. Israel really goes capitalist. And, Israelis turn out to be really good at capitalism. And, that changes a lot, obviously, not just economically, but socially--

Russ Roberts: Culturally--

Matti Friedman: You start seeing greater inequality, less social solidarity, much greater prosperity. And, all of those things kind of happen at the same time.

But, I agree that this is still a much more communal place than the United States. So, it feels much more tribal--whether you think that's a good thing or a bad thing--and more familial, and people feel more connected to each other for better and worse, right?

People here will ask you, without thinking twice, how much you make, what you pay for rent--

Russ Roberts: 'Are you religious?'--

Matti Friedman: 'Are you religious? Why not?'

Russ Roberts: 'Why did you buy that pineapple in your card?' My wife's shopping and tells me somebody's complaining to her: 'That's overpriced. Why would you buy that? It's not that good.' A stranger.

Matti Friedman: Exactly. 'You pay that much in rent? You're paying too much. You got to bargain.' I mean, we had twins. I have twins sons who were born 15 years ago, and people just stop us on the street in Jerusalem and ask us if they were natural or if it was in-vitro fertilization. It happened all the time.

So, that can kind of be great, but it's because of that familial feeling. So, it's still much greater than it is in the United States, but it's much less than it was even in 1995 when I moved to the country.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. One of the great things about Israel--one of the bad things about Israel is the very different notion of privacy. In every dimension. So, they'll pick on you for what you ordered at the restaurant or at the grocery. They'll ask you about your kids. They'll pry into your private life--and they'll not just pry into it: they will editorialize about it afterward.

And, one of the great things about Israel is that privacy is really different. So, my health app works: My health provider's app on my phone is so much better than what I experienced in the United States, because everything's connected without my permission.

You go to pump gas here--one of the strangest things for an American: they want the equivalent of your social security number and they want you to enter it on the screen. First time I did that, when I'd rented a car, I thought, 'Well, this must be wrong. They obviously aren't asking for my Teudat Zehut--my identity number--and I must be misreading this acronym for Teudat Zehut.' But no: that's what they want.

And, I sign up for my lease and the insurer wants to know my landlord's social security number equivalent. I said, 'Why would I know that?' So, I write him, 'What is it?' He sends it right back to me.

These things would never ever happen in America; and it makes life a lot easier. I'm sure there's some costs to it that are not good, but it's very, very different, very, very different here.

Matti Friedman: It is very different.

Also, by the way, that's a problem that some people run into when they try to transplant American political terminology to Israel. So, when we use terms like Left and Right--Israelis also use terms like Left and Right. And, to an American, that means something. So, when we talk about the Israeli Right, Americans might be imagining that it's like the American Right in terms of individual rights and abortion and things like that. And, in fact, almost the entire Israeli Right, were it transplanted to the United States, would be in the Democratic Party--in terms of all the issues that Americans care about. We don't have the same idea of privacy, as you mentioned. Abortion is not controversial in Israel. Gun control is very, very tight in Israel, beyond the most fervent dreams of gun control advocates in the United States. Gay rights are not very controversial here. In fact, the most prominent gay politician in Knesset--

Russ Roberts: the Parliament--

Matti Friedman: was one of Netanyahu's most hawkish lieutenants, a guy named Amir Ohana who is the minister of police.

So, the Left/Right division doesn't really track. It's not the same, if you're an American looking at this place. And, what you mentioned about the ID number [Identification number] is a great example of something that Israelis don't even think about. Or, like, socialized medicine, right? Everyone here has healthcare, single payer. It's state healthcare. That's not controversial. No one would imagine that anything else was possible.

Russ Roberts: There are a few people--

Matti Friedman: There are major differences.

Russ Roberts: There are a few people who would imagine it. But yeah: it's not on the table here in any real way.

I want to mention we have an episode with Ran Abramitzky on the kibbutz experience. I also want to recommend the book, We Were The Future, by Yael Neeman--I don't know if I'm saying her last name correctly--but it's a memoir about growing up on a very, very egalitarian kibbutz and how strange it was. Very strange, not so healthy, it would seem to me, but some people chose it and still would like to choose it.


Russ Roberts:Let's close and talk a little bit about this transition that we mentioned earlier between Memorial Day and Independence Day. So, I'm President of Shalem College. Last night, there was a circle of students singing sad songs for Yom HaZikaron--for Remembrance Day.

And, I wanted to be part of it, but I can't be, really. I don't know the songs. I don't know what the words mean in any real sense. And they asked me if I wanted to join the circle. And, I think I said, 'I can't,' and I meant: I don't belong. I haven't served in the army. Every one of them has. I haven't lost a relative here in a war or a friend and probably many of them have.

So, I'm an outsider who made Aliyah, what's called Aliyah. I joined the country. I'm an Israeli citizen. I still have an American passport. I'm still an American citizen, but I'm an Israeli citizen who, quote, "doesn't belong." You've been here 27 years. You served in Lebanon. Do you feel you belong? Is your experience tonight, today, and last night and tomorrow--I'm sure it's different from mine, but what's it like? Can you talk about it?

Matti Friedman: Yeah, I feel like I do belong. I mean, when I came, I was 17 years old; and I thought I was an adult. So, for many, many years, I thought of myself as someone who had come here as an adult. And then, five years ago or so, someone introduced me at a party or something, and someone said, 'This is Matti. He's been here since he was a kid.' And, that was the first time I ever realized that I really came here when I was a kid.

You know, I thought of myself as an adult at 17, but I was young and I caught the end of an Israeli childhood on this kibbutz where I ended up. And then went into the army with kids my age and had that very intense, I guess, Israelization process of the military--of three years spent in an infantry unit, speaking Hebrew, doing what everyone else had to do, which in those years was this guerilla work in [?] South Lebanon. And, by the time I came out, I was local. I could look at anyone in the eyes and my contribution to the country isn't any less than anyone else's. And I married an Israeli, and my kids have actually never been to North America. So, I do feel like I fit in here at this point more than I fit in anywhere else, right? I only lived in Canada for 17 years and I've been here for 27. So, my entire life has been lived here.

And I still have the eyes of an outsider, which helps me as a journalist. And, sometimes I find myself wondering where I am and what this place is. That does happen to me on occasion. But yeah, at this point, I've lived here most of my life.

Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Matti Friedman. His book is Who by Fire. Matti, thanks for being part of EconTalk.

Matti Friedman: Thanks so much for having me on the show.

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