Leonard Cohen for the JC by Jenni Frazer Nov 11 2016
When I first met Leonard Cohen he was weighing up whether Manchester bagels were any match for his native Montreal offerings. And that was the thing about Cohen: he never, throughout his long life, made any attempt to be anything other than what he was: a kind, warm-hearted, Jewish man.
Even his foray into becoming a Buddhist monk never stopped Cohen thinking and exploring his Judaism, as befitted the grandson of Rabbi Solomon Klinitsky-Klein, known as the “Prince of Grammarians”. During his time on Mount Baldy, in the West Coast of America, with the monks, Cohen said: “I’m not looking for a new religion. I’m quite happy with the old one, with Judaism.”
Leonard Cohen and his two great near-contemporaries, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, were the architects of soaring poetry and ear-catching lyrics for the last half century of popular music. But Cohen alone made a point of keeping his Jewish identity to the fore in his songs, even if his fans didn’t always know what the references meant.
It was Rabbi Klinitsky-Klein, Leonard Cohen’s maternal grandfather, who wrote a thesaurus of the Talmud, while his father’s father “founded many of the institutions that defined Jewish life in Canada,” from the Montreal Anglo-Jewish Times to the Sha’ar Hashamayim synagogue in Montreal. Cohen himself was a youth leader in B’nai B’rith summer camps.
And, of course, it was to the Sha’ar Hashamayim that Cohen returned for what was to be his final — and possibly most magnificent album, You Want It Darker, released earlier this month. Its title track features the chazan and choir of his home synagogue, backing Cohen as he sings, prophetically, “Hineni, here I am, my Lord”, and then begins the well-worn translation of the Mourner’s Kaddish, “Magnified and sanctified…”
Leonard Cohen littered his songs with Jewish references, from the wistful Who By Fire, which echoes the Yom Kippur liturgy of who will live and who will die, to the towering If It Be Thy Will or the gleeful “I’m the little Jew who wrote the Bible”. In I’m Your Man, he jokes, “If you want a Jewish doctor, I’m your man”, and, of course, his quintessential Jewish song is the most-covered song of all time, Hallelujah, with its rise and fall chorus and the re-telling of the story of the “baffled king” David, who killed his rival so that he could claim his wife.
In 2009 Leonard Cohen, who had been to Israel many times before — most famously during the Yom Kippur War, when he tried to join up, but was gently persuaded by the IDF that he would be more use with a guitar than a gun — returned to the Jewish state for one magnificent concert in Tel Aviv.
It was a night of extraordinary drama as Cohen, who indeed came from the Jewish priestly caste of Cohenim, blessed the crowd as a Cohen should, and marvelled as the young soldiers in the audience sang along with all his lyrics.
But perhaps Cohen’s most singular Jewish encounter came, oddly, on top of Mount Baldy when he was striving to become a Buddhist monk. As he recounted, chuckling in charmed recall, he had been on patrolling duty outside the main prayer hall of the monks, ensuring silence on the top of the mountain.
Suddenly he heard men’s voices, and out of the mist and cold — it was December — emerged three large, bearded Chasidim, talking very loudly in Yiddish. So Cohen advanced towards them and said, in Hebrew, “Sheket, bevakasha, [quiet, please] this is a retreat.”
The Chasidim asked: “Vor es der Yiddle?” Cohen, shaven-headed, admitted that he was indeed the Yiddle in question. “And they kind of pointed to my Buddhist robes, and I pointed back, and said, well, you guys don’t look much better, to tell the truth. Check your own costumes.”
The three Chasidim — from Chabad — had heard there was a Jew on the mountain whose soul might need saving. Cohen took them to his small cabin and showed them his Chanucah menorah which he had lit that night. “And the last candle was flickering, and everyone’s heart just melted”, Cohen said. The Chabadniks broke out a bottle of Canadian rye whisky, and produced some Turkish cigarettes. “And then we sang and danced all night.”
Now the Yiddle on the mountain has gone to rest. May Leonard Cohen’s memory be for a blessing.