Tel Aviv may seem like an odd place to memorialize Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. But perhaps it is fitting that this tribute is held in a museum that’s dedicated to Diaspora Judaism, particularly since Canada represents the fourth-largest Jewish community in the world.
On Feb. 16, Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People, inaugurated a special video art display in Cohen’s memory. The exhibit features a light- and sound-resistant viewing booth, in which a six-minute clip of Cohen’s final song, You Want it Darker, plays on a continuous loop, accompanied by biblical texts and images of Israeli artists and personalities.
The song, released just three weeks before Cohen’s death in 2016, includes the haunting lyrics, “Hineni – I am ready, my Lord.” The word Hineni, according to Dan Tadmor, CEO of Beit Hatfutsot, is referenced over 250 times in the Tanakh. The song includes an eerie backdrop sung by the choir at Shaar Hashomayim, the synagogue Cohen attended when he was growing up in Montreal.
You Want it Darker also won Cohen his only Grammy Award, for Best Rock Performance, which was given to him posthumously.
In the video, clips of a young and almost unknown Cohen in 1965, which were filmed for a National Film Board of Canada documentary, are interspersed with clips of Cohen more than 50 years later singing this, his final song. The video also features a number of well-known Israeli listening and responding to his music.
Visitors enter the booth, close the curtains and surround themselves with views of Cohen’s entire lifetime, as seen through Jewish and Israeli eyes.
In her speech at the inauguration, Canadian Ambassador Deborah Lyons referred to Cohen as a “philosopher king,” and said that his music “came from the wide-open spaces of Canada … from his Jewish upbringing, from his understanding of the Jewish scriptures and from those wonderful stories he heard as a boy.”
According to Tadmor, Cohen’s significance to the Jewish people as a whole is that he “took his Jewish identity very seriously, and when he drew from Jewish sources – which he often did – it was with an impressive command of Jewish text and tradition. The cultural aspect of Judaism is central to all that we do at the Museum of the Jewish People.”
He said that, “Leonard Cohen’s poetry and music are … a lasting contribution to Jewish culture.”
When the Yom Kippur War broke out in 1973, Cohen was living in Greece with his wife and son. He immediately went to Israel and toured throughout the country for three months. He played for soldiers before they headed to the front and after they returned, wounded, in Israeli hospitals. He later said that, “In any crisis in Israel, I would be there. I am committed to the survival of the Jewish people.”
Cohen never ceased visiting Israel, or caring about its people. In 2009, during the final moments of his last concert in Israel, he recited Birkat ha-Kohanim, the priestly benediction, in honour of the Israeli and Palestinian parents who had lost children to terror attacks.
The Leonard Cohen exhibit is part of a year of special programming at Beit Hatfutsot, to celebrate Israel’s 70th anniversary. The inaugural event included a performance of a number of Cohen’s songs by a young Israeli trio – made up of Ari Gorali, Sivan Talmor and Gal Nisman – who have built their reputation on sharing his songs with a new generation of music lovers.
Lyons told The CJN that this is just one of a number of cultural exchanges that’s being spearheaded by the Canadian Embassy, thanks, in part, to a new cultural fund that has brought the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to Israel and allowed Canadian filmmakers to join in Israel’s LGBT Film Festival and Children’s Film Festival, among many others.
Major events are still to come, Lyons promised, including further collaborations with Beit Hatfutsot. “Dan (Tadmor) and I are constantly conspiring for other things that we might do together,” she said. “We’re planning a big event this fall to celebrate Israel and Canada and the incredible dedication that both countries have to pluralism and diversity.”