This wasn’t quite the way I would have wished to distract us from the fuss surrounding the American elections. Leonard Cohen, one of
America’s Canada’s greatest, and most Jewish singers, (and one of my favourites) passed away late on Thursday* at the age of 82.
*UPDATE (h/t cba): In fact Leonard Cohen passed away already on Monday, but it was only announced on Thursday. He was buried in the Orthodox Jewish Shaar Ha’Shomayim cemetery in Montreal in a traditional Jewish burial.
“Hineni, hineni, My Lord” (here I am Lord in Hebrew) and other lyrics to the song “You want it Darker” from his latest album released in September were spoken in lieu of a prayer for the poet and musician during a traditional Jewish memorial service.
He was later buried at Jewish Shaar Hashomayim cemetery on the slopes of Mount Royal in his hometown of Montreal, “beside his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents,” in accordance with his wishes, rabbi Adam Scheier was quoted as saying by La Presse.
The statement went on to note that Cohen had maintained “a lifelong spiritual, musical, and familial connection to the synagogue of his youth.”
A fitting Jewish burial for a man who was proud to be Jewish and proud of his heritage.
The JTA has a short biography and obit:
Leonard Cohen, the Canadian singer-songwriter whose Jewish-infused work became a soundtrack for melancholy, has died. He was 82.
Cohen, a Montreal native born in 1934, was playing folk guitar by the time he was 15, when he learned the resistance song “The Partisan” while working at a camp from an older friend.
“We sang together every morning, going through ‘The People’s Song Book’ from cover to cover,” he recalled in his first “Best Of” compilation in 1975. “I developed the curious notion that the Nazis were overthrown by music.”
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.
Cohen 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 and 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, launching his career.
Cohen sang in his limited bass and wrote his songs so he could sing them. They would have been dirges but for their surprising lyrical turns and reckoning with joy in unexpected places.
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 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:
I love your body and your spirit and your clothes
But you see that line there moving through the station?
I told you, I told you, told you, I was one of those.
Cohen was droll, but also reverent: Each of his explanations of his songs on 1975’s “Best Of” is sardonic except for one, for “Who by Fire.”
“This is based on a prayer recited on the Day of Atonement,” was all he wrote.
Cohen, in his 70s in the late 2000s, again began 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 — Cohen 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 proceeds — much needed by him — 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 priestly blessing.
In August he wrote an emotional letter to his former girlfriend and muse Marianne Ihlen, who died in late July, suggesting he, too, was ready to embrace his death.
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 is survived by a son and a daughter.
It was Cohen’s overt Jewish identification that captivated me. In a world where it has become increasingly un-PC to identify as Jewish, Cohen not only embraced his Jewishness, but he broadcast it in his songs and poems. He also celebrated his heritage as a Cohen, from the priestly tribe of Aharon, for example when he blessed the crowd at his Israeli concert with the Priestly Blessing.
My own personal favourites were the two songs I posted above, which were also mentioned in the obit.
As the article notes, Leonard Cohen came to Israel during the Yom Kippur War, eager to volunteer for the cause. He ended up performing for the troops, not in a great concert hall, but on isolated or war-battered outposts. Israellycool has the story via Israel Hayom:
Everyone who met Cohen and spoke with him during his stay in Israel describes him as modest and gentle man who wanted to connect to and feel the audience he sang for. “On some of the bases we went to, I tried to get him preferential treatment, a room to sleep in, decent food instead of army rations. But he wouldn’t allow it,” Levi says with a smile. “The three of us slept in sleeping bags in the canteen or anywhere else we could sleep. He never complained about anything, not even once.”
Watch Leonard Cohen bless the crowd at his Israeli concert in 2009.
Bless you Leonard Cohen. May your memory be for a blessing. Your songs will edify the heavens and will remain your memory on earth.
יהי זכרו ברוך.