Home Culture Jewish Learning My list of Leonard Cohen’s most Jewish songs

My list of Leonard Cohen’s most Jewish songs

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The recent death of Leonard Cohen sparked a mass outpouring of melancholy and admiration for the troubadour-songwriter from fans around the world and across generations. Much has been written about his talent as well as about his humility, humour and generosity. And about his ties to Jewish Montreal and Judaism.

Today, I would like to offer up some of my favourite Cohen songs, which demonstrate a lifelong (albeit not exclusive) commitment to his religion.

(As with any “best-ofs,” there can be no definitive list. If you agree with mine, great. If not, that probably would have pleased Cohen. You can have your say in the comments section below.)

Let’s start at the end. The title track from Cohen’s final album is a prescient and devastating testimony from a man who knew that his days on this earth would soon come to a close.

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
Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my lord

From the early lyrics that parallel those from the Kaddish to the haunting voice of Cantor Gideon Zelermyer and Montreal’s Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir, Cohen may have been ready to meet his Lord but that doesn’t mean he is going to pull his punches on the way. As the song’s own press release states, it “delves into an unflinching exploration of the religious mind.”

The most famous poem associated with the High Holy Days must be Unetaneh Tokef. “On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die…” The poem is at-tributed to Rabbi Amnon, who lived in Mainz, Germany, about a thousand years ago and met a tragic end when he refused to convert to Christianity.

READ: LEONARD COHEN’S HEART AND SPIRIT REMAINED WITH JEWISH COMMUNITY

A version of Unetaneh Tokef entered popular culture in 1974 when Cohen re-leased Who By Fire.

…And who by brave assent, who by accident,
who in solitude, who in this mirror,
who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand,
who in mortal chains, who in power,
and who shall I say is calling?
Cohen explained that he derived his song “from the melody which I heard when I sat in a synagogue. And of course, the ending of my song is something dif-ferent. Who shall I say is calling? – This is my kind of prayer: Who is it, or what is it, which determines man’s life?”

Leonard Cohen recites the Priestly Blessing at the conclusion of his concert at Ramat-Gan Stadium:

Granted, Leonard Cohen didn’t com-pose this one. When Cohen announced plans to perform in Israel in 2009, pro-Palestinian activists called on him to cancel the visit. Cohen offered to perform in the West Bank city of Ramallah as well, but that offer was rejected. So Cohen carried on with the Israeli concert and donated funds to a joint Israeli-Palestinian support group for bereaved parents.

As he wrapped up the concert, Cohen told the audience, “I want to draw our respectful attention once again to the Israeli and Palestinian members of the Bereaved Parents for Peace. I know there were men and women, some of whom were called naïve, foolish, irrelevant, defeatist. But no, not at all, friends. They have achieved the victory, perhaps the only victory available – the victory of the heart over its own inclinations for despair, revenge and hatred.”

Cohen then stretched out his arms and intoned in Hebrew the Priestly Blessing that generations of other kohanim have uttered before him. “So dear friends,” he began:
Yevarechecha HaShem veyishmerecha” (May God bless you and keep you.)
Ya’er HaShem panav eilecha viy’chuneka (May God show you favour and be gracious to you.)
Yisa HaShem panav eilecha veyasem lecha shalom (May God show you kind-ness and grant you peace.)

Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord/
That David played, and it pleased the Lord…

READ: LEONARD COHEN RETURNS TO SYNAGOGUE OF HIS YOUTH FOR INSPIRATION

Much has been written about what may be Cohen’s most famous song. It recounts King David’s observing of Bath-sheba (“You saw her bathing on the roof”), which led to David sending Bathsheba’s husband to war and to meet his demise. (For more biblical allusions in this song, I recommend this site.)

I was surprised to learn that the song is broadcast at 2 a.m. every early Saturday morning by the Israel Defence Force’s radio channel. If you’d like to sing along, here are the lyrics in Hebrew – and for good measure, klezmer musician Daniel Kahn singing it in Yiddish.

READ: EIGHT REASONS LEONARD COHEN WILL LIVE FOREVER

Before I get to my final selection, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention The Story of Isaac (1988), which Cohen said was an anti-war protest song. And If it be Your Will (1984) – “If it be your will/ That a voice be true/ From this broken hill/ I will sing to you/ From this broken hill / All your praises they shall ring/ If it be your will/ To let me sing”

How does a beautiful, bittersweet waltz wind up on this list? According to Cohen, this song (along with its imagery of a spinning, then burning violin) was inspired by the Holocaust. I will leave the last word to Cohen, and a fascinating in-sight into his creative genius.

“It’s curious how songs begin because the origin of the song, every song, has a kind of grain or seed that somebody hands you or the world hands you and that’s why the process is so mysterious about writing a song. But that came from just hearing or reading or knowing that in the death camps, beside the crematoria, in certain of the death camps, a string quartet was pressed into performance while this horror was going on. Those were the people whose fate was this horror also. And they would be playing classical music while their fellow prisoners were being killed and burnt. So, that music, ‘Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin,’ meaning the beauty there of being the consummation of life, the end of this existence and of the passion-ate element in that consummation. But, it is the same language that we use for surrender to the beloved, so that the song — it’s not important that anybody knows the genesis of it, because if the language comes from that passionate resource, it will be able to embrace all passionate activity.”

May the memory of Eliezer ben Nissan be a blessing.

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