Leonard Cohen Dies, But He Lives – OpEd


It’s been a horrible week.  No question about it.  Leonard Cohen has died at age 82.  Words cannot express the feelings of gratitude I have for his life and his achievement.  From his first album in 1967 he accompanied me through my youth and into later days.  All the way through.

Cohen could only have arisen in the heart of the 1960s.  He was an esoteric poet whose haunting, elliptical lyrics captured a young generation.  His voice was unlike any heard up to that day, except for perhaps Dylan’s.  It was dark and deep, warm yet chilling.  It was not sweet or charming or melodious, or any of the qualities associated with pop singers.

He was a bard, a Homer for our generation.  He took poetry and brought it to the people.  But it wasn’t a poetry packaged for popular consumption.  You listened to Cohen on his terms.  You entered his world.  And what a world it was!  Populated with fierce, ineffable beauty, with heroes who could also be villains.  He spoke of love, but never denied its opposite.  Who spoke of good, but acknowledged the human propensity toward evil.

Leonard Cohen was not a popularizer.  He didn’t pander to popular taste.  He didn’t get down on your level.  You came to him.  Sometimes his songs and concerts were like being a member  of a secret cult or society.  That could offer rich rewards if you were willing to spend the time to listen and absorb his allusive and ethereal poems.  But that was Cohen’s Achilles Heel as well.  You could not delve into Cohen like he was a pop musician.  You had to work for your pleasure.  And what pleasures there were.

While Cohen could be a demanding otherworldly aesthete, he never denied the harsh, gritty world around him.  Unlike Dylan, one could never call Cohen a writer with a political consciousness or a deep commitment to social justice.  But a song like Democracy is Coming to the USA should be a rallying cry for those already commencing to unseat Donald Trump in four years.

Another crucial element of Cohen’s oeuvre is his Jewish consciousness.  The songs are shot through with Jewish heart including references to Biblical stories and liturgical prayers.  Everyone knows songs like Hallelujah, which not only draws its name from the Book of Psalms, but includes references to David’s first glance at Bathsheba bathing on the roof, which leads him to send her husband, Uriah to the frontlines of battle where he is conveniently killed.  Whereupon David takes her as one of his wives.  This is a mortal sin which the Bible tells us prevented God from offering David the honor of building the First Temple in Jerusalem.  An honor bestowed on David’s son and successor, Solomon.

The song also weaves another Biblical story into the lyrics as David morphs into Samson in this stanza:

Well your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya
She tied you to her kitchen chair
And she broke your throne and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

It’s a bold poetic stroke to meld the stories.  Cohen likes the Samson story so much he appropriates it as if David and Samson are almost the same character.  They are two powerful men of overweening pride who were each brought low by their love for a woman.  In David’s case, his own lust brought about the death of another man.  In Samson’s case, despite his betrayal he was able to exact revenge on his tormentors.  Both men came to tragic ends due to their hubris.

This is a rendering of the song into Yiddish by a performer who offers a translation that is freely adapted from the original into a beautiful, fluid Yiddish.

There are a number of lesser known songs which are freighted with Jewish references.  They include Who by Fire, whose lyrics are a beautiful adaptation of the High Holiday prayer, U’netaneh Tokef.  Compare the original prayer with Cohen’s later adaptation to see what a graceful and elegant job he’s done of rendering it into the modern era:

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 May
Who by very slow decay
And who shall I say is calling?

And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate
Who in these realms of love, who by something blunt
And who by avalanche, who by powder
Who for his greed, who for his hunger
And who shall I say is calling?

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?
And who shall I say is calling?

This is the original prayer:

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed
How many shall die and how many shall be born
Who shall live and who shall die
Who at the measure of days and who before
Who by fire and who by water
Who by the sword and who by wild beasts
Who by hunger and who by thirst
Who by earthquake and who by plague
Who by strangling and who by stoning
Who shall have rest and who shall go wandering
Who will be tranquil and who shall be harassed
Who shall be at ease and who shall be afflicted
Who shall become poor and who shall become rich
Who shall be brought low and who shall be raised high.

Another lesser known song is the Song for Isaac (an early 1966 performance), Cohen’s retelling of the story of the Akedah, the sacrifice of Issac.  The lyrics end with a dramatic and compelling attack on human warfare.  If only we’d learned the lesson he tried to teach back in 1968 when he wrote this:

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.
When it all comes down to dust
I will help you if I must,
I will kill you if I can.
And mercy on our uniform,
man of peace or man of war,
the peacock spreads his fan.

If you are too young to know about Leonard Cohen, you have a great joy in store.  Go watch videos of him singing the songs and some of the great covers like Jeff Buckley’s soaring cover of Hallelujah.  Then watch the Pentatonix’s equally entrancing cover of the same song.

Curiously, Israel never played any role in his music.  He never wrote a song, as far as I know, that referred to Israel.  That may reflect his sense of ambivalence about what Israel meant to the Jewish people and the Diaspora.  Cohen was clearly and decidedly a Diaspora Jew.  He was perhaps a spiritual Jew, but never a traditional one.

Many off us know that on his last world tour Cohen played Israel.  After controversy erupted, he tried to add a concert in Palestine in an awkward attempt to “balance” the Tel Aviv gig.  He believed that he could somehow forge a compromise if he played to both communities.  But it was a hopelessly out of touch response to a profoundly complex political conflict.  While his poetry could navigate such human complexities, his grasp of the politics of the conflict was not equally nuanced.

He was also a Buddhist.  I can remember as a UCLA graduate student conceiving of the idea of inviting Cohen to perform a concert for an all-day celebration of Jewish culture hosted by the campus Hillel.  When I finally reached his agent, he liked the idea but said Cohen couldn’t perform because he was spending a half-year at a monastery in Greece.

Cohen was a Jew who would cause consternation among today’s Zionists and communal leaders seeking monomaniacal clarity around questions of Jewish identity and definitions of who and what is a Jew.  Cohen’s identity was fluid.  He could be David one day and latter-day Sybarite another.

There are only a few singer-songwriters whose legacies will long outlive their lives.  Leonard Cohen is one of them.  We must cherish what he brought to us.  Keep alive his legacy.

Compare the gifts he offered with those of Donald Trump (he’s the other reason this has been an awful week).  The latter will be with us for four years before we consign him to the dustbin of history.  He will mean nothing in the long run except as a punchline or an exemplar of the worst we have to offer ourselves and the world.

But Cohen will stand the test of time.  His words, his beliefs, his life will last.

This article was published at Tikun Olam

Richard Silverstein

Richard Silverstein is an author, journalist and blogger, with articles appearing in Haaretz, the Jewish Forward, Los Angeles Times, the Guardian’s Comment Is Free, Al Jazeera English, and Alternet. His work has also been in the Seattle Times, American Conservative Magazine, Beliefnet and Tikkun Magazine, where he is on the advisory board. Check out Silverstein's blog at Tikun Olam, one of the earliest liberal Jewish blogs, which he has maintained since February, 2003.

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