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Leonard Cohen’s Jewish-infused poetry, songs inspired generations

By Ron Kampeas

(JTA) — Leonard Cohen, the Canadian singer-songwriter whose Jewish-infused work became a soundtrack for melancholy, died Monday, Nov. 7 at the age of 82. Cohen died in Los Angeles and was buried in Montreal in the family plot hours before his death was made public.

Cohen, born in 1934 in Montreal, was playing folk guitar by the time he was 15, when he learned the resistance song, “The Partisan,” working at a camp, from an older friend.

As a student at McGill University, he became part of Montreal’s burgeoning alternative art scene, one bursting with nervous energy at a time that tensions between Quebec’s French and English speakers were coming to the fore.

His influences included Irving Layton, the seminal Canadian Jewish poet who taught at McGill, and like Cohen, grappled with the tensions between the secular world and the temptations of faith.

He began to publish poetry and then novels, and was noticed by the national Canadian press. Moving to New York in the late 1960s (his song, “Chelsea Hotel,” is about his stay at that notorious refuge for the inspired, the insane and the indigent), he began to put his words to music.

“Suzanne,” about the devastating platonic affair with a friend’s wife that was a factor in his leaving Montreal, was recorded by Judy Collins and became a hit; his career was launched.

Cohen embraced Buddhism, but never stopped saying he was Jewish. His music more often than not dealt directly not just with his faith, but with his Jewish people’s story. His most famous song, covered hundreds of times, is “Hallelujah” – he has said its unpublished verses are endless, but in its recorded version it is about the sacred anguish felt by King David as he contemplates the beauty of the forbidden Bathsheba.

“First We Take Manhattan,” recorded in the late 1980s when Cohen was living much of his time in Europe, plumbs the anger of a modern Jew traveling through a postwar consumerist Europe that has become adept at ignoring its Jewish ghosts.

Cohen, in his 70s in the late 2000s, began once again to tour and record; a manager had bilked him of much of his fortune. He released his final album, “You Want It Darker,” last month.

He often toured Israel, and he expressed his love for the country – he toured for troops in the 1973 Yom Kippur War – but he also expressed sadness at the militarism he encountered there. Under pressure from the boycott Israel movement to cancel a 2009 concert, he instead donated its (much needed by him) proceeds to a group that advances dialogue between Palestinians and Jews. Tickets to the stadium at Ramat Gan sold out in minutes. His Israeli fans embraced him that September night, and he returned the love, sprinkling the concert with Hebrew and readings from scripture and ending it with the blessing of the Kohens.

On Friday, Nov. 11, following the announcement of Cohen’s death, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Cohen as “a talented artist and warmhearted Jew who loved the people of Israel and the state of Israel.”

“I will never forget how he came during the Yom Kippur War to sing to our troops because he felt he was a partner,” tweeted Netanyahu, who was a soldier in that war in 1973.

President Reuven Rivlin also took to Facebook Friday, writing about himself and his wife, Nechama: “This morning we looked at each other and thought the same thoughts: ‘Dance Me to the End of Love’ was the soundtrack to so many moments in our life as a couple and as a family. It added, like so many of his songs, a spirit and depth of emotion into our everyday lives. … How sad to part from this man whose voice and face accompanied us for so many years. A giant of a creator, open to all people, who also knew how to accompany the State of Israel in the fields of battle and in times of growth.”

Last month, in a profile of Cohen in The New Yorker, Bob Dylan compared his fellow singer-songwriter to Irving Berlin – linking three iconic Jewish musicians in one poignant assessment.

Cohen was buried at the Shaar Hashomayim cemetery in Montreal, his hometown, according to reports citing a statement from Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, an Orthodox synagogue in the Westmount neighborhood of Montreal.

“Leonard’s wish was to be laid to rest in a traditional Jewish rite beside his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents,” the statement said. He maintained “a lifelong spiritual, musical, and familial connection to the synagogue of his youth.”

Cohen is survived by a daughter and a son.


Five of Leonard Cohen’s Most Jewish Songs

By Ben Sales (JTA) – Leonard Cohen was one of the most explicitly Jewish popular songwriters since the ancient King David, whose Psalms he expertly imitated over a five-decade career.

Cohen was the grandson of two distinguished Canadian rabbis, one of whom helped found many of Montreal’s central Jewish and Zionist institutions. The other, who wrote a thesaurus of the Talmud, was known as “Sar HaDikdukim,” the Prince of Grammarians.

Cohen, himself a master of language, saturated his lyrics with the Biblical imagery and Jewish liturgy he knew intimately. His songs adapted well known Jewish prayers and retold Judaism’s central stories.


Here are five of his most Jewish songs:


Cohen’s most famous song, covered dozens of times, is an explicit allusion to the Psalms and stories from the Jewish prophets, from King David to Samson. The song opens:

Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?

The second verse melds two Biblical stories. It opens telling the story of David seeing Batsheva, his future wife, bathing on a rooftop, and ends with imagery of her tying him down and cutting his hair – an allusion to Samson and Delilah.


Who By Fire

Another of Cohen’s most well-known songs, “Who By Fire” is an adaptation of “Unetaneh Tokef,” the central High Holiday prayer. The prayer’s verses narrate the Day of Judgment, describing the various ways people will live, die, succeed and suffer over the coming year. Cohen adapts the language almost word-for-word:

And who by fire, who by water
who in the sunshine, who in the night time
who by high ordeal, who by common trial
who in your merry, merry month of Maywho by very slow decay
and who shall I say is calling?

You Want It Darker

One of Cohen’s last songs, “You Want It Darker,” was released two months ago, and in it, Cohen talks about preparing for death. The very Jewish lyrics include a chorus where Cohen says, “Hineni, I’m ready my Lord.”  Hineni, Hebrew for “here I am,” is the word Abraham uses to respond to God when called to sacrifice Isaac, as well as the name of a prayer of preparation and humility, addressed to God, chanted by the cantor on Rosh Hashanah. And a recurring verse echoes the language of the Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer.

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


The Story of Isaac

One of Cohen’s more obscure songs is a retelling of the sacrifice of Isaac. Speaking from Isaac’s perspective, the song questions the morality of the story:

You who stand above them now
Your hatchets blunt and bloody
You were not there before
When I lay upon a mountain
And my father’s hand was trembling
With the beauty of the word.
And if you call me brother now
Forgive me if I inquire
Just according to whose plan
When it all comes down to dust
I will kill you if I must
I will help you if I can.


If It Be Your Will

This song’s title is a translation of “Ken Yehi Ratzon,” a Hebrew liturgical phrase directed to God. The song is also addressed to God, and includes lyrics evoking imagery from Kabbalat Shabbat, the Friday evening prayer service welcoming Shabbat, of nature rejoicing:

If it be your will
If there is a choice
Let the rivers fill
Let the hills rejoice.

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