Arts & Culture


Ever since I discovered Leonard Cohen in Jerusalem in college, I associate him with Friday afternoons when, in preparation for Shabbat, my roommate Talya, and I swept and mopped our apartment overlooking the Judean Desert while "Suzanne" and "Bird on … Read More

By / May 27, 2009

Ever since I discovered Leonard Cohen in Jerusalem in college, I associate him with Friday afternoons when, in preparation for Shabbat, my roommate Talya, and I swept and mopped our apartment overlooking the Judean Desert while "Suzanne" and "Bird on the Wire" provided background music.  His explicit sexual lyrics shocked and titillated my Christian soul, while the spiritual longing touched me.  On one hand there was, "giving me head on the unmade bed,"; on the other,  "And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water…and when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him he said, ‘All men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them’."  I am embarrassed to admit that, although I’d been in Israel for a year and his last name was "Cohen," it didn’t occur to me that Leonard Cohen was Jewish, nor did I delve deeply into the meaning of some of the more inscrutable lyrics.  However, I was drawn to his somber, sonorous voice that sounded dark and filled with loss. 


Now, twenty-seven years later, I’m sitting next to my 18 year old daughter, Anna, in Radio City Music Hall and Leonard Cohen is singing "The Future."  At the lyrics "I’m the little Jew who wrote the Bible," half of the audience erupts in spontaneous applause and genial laughter.  Not only are many members of the Tribe in attendance, but from the Hebrew I overhear during intermission, there are a lot of Israelis present.  Indeed, my husband’s cousins have flown in from Israel specifically for this "little Jew", the grandson of a rabbi, a member of the priestly tribe, whose songs so often allude to the Bible.  

Anna was initially worried that this would be "Bob Dylan, Part II" – a reference to a Bob Dylan concert we attended that was, for me, painfully bad, since Dylan could barely croak the words to his songs.  Luckily, although Cohen is 74 years old, slightly stooped and grey-haired, and his voice has sunk into a lower, gravelly range, he remains contemporary and relevant, and still transmits his characteristic passion and poetry.  Along with the rest of the audience, I’m pulled into his world of love and loss that’s soaked in Biblical imagery and philosophy:  From "If it be your will,": "If it be your will… let your mercy spill."  And, "I forget to pray for the angels and then the angels forget to pray for us" ("So Long Marianne"). 

As he sings "Hallelujah!", I return to my original impression of Leonard Cohen – a guy who poetically blended the sexual and spiritual, recalling King David as both a musician whom God loved, ("Well, I heard there was a secret chord that David played and it pleased the Lord")  as well as a sinner who lusted after, then slept with, a married woman, Bathsheba ("I saw her bathing on the roof, her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you").  

In college, hearing about this kind of unabashed delight in recreational sex outside of marriage was certainly at odds with my own Christian upbringing, which preached that sex was only for someone you loved and were committed to.  Leonard Cohen managed to write about both sex and God equally naturally, as simply a part of life.   I admired his courage in writing about these subjects so honestly, something that I strived for but often wussed out and instead hid behind cleverness and irony.  

For the longest time, I didn’t know anything at all about Leonard Cohen personally, nor did I think it necessary.  But later, as I learned more here and there, I realized it wasn’t coincidental that I was drawn to him, God and sex notwithstanding.  His father died when he was 9, my sister died when I was 11, and this early awareness of mortality and of time running out can’t help but affect the themes you’re drawn to – or not.  To this day, I will not read anything at all in which a child dies and, while I rarely write about death, I often explore the idea of the afterlife and "What’s next?" 

Like Cohen, I also went on a search for spiritual truth. I journeyed from fundamentalist Christianity that claimed to own an absolute truth about God and God’s will, to Judaism, a faith in which rabbis argue and interpret and re-interpret but it somehow doesn’t change the core belief which is the Sh’ma – Listen. Cohen, unhappy with a religion experienced largely by rote and that is based on simply being inherited, left Judaism to become a Zen monk in 1996 and then returned, becoming an observant Jew today.   However far you walk away from your past, you live in these two worlds simultaneously, the past and the present.

Three hours after the concert began, he literally skips off the stage and returns with a boyish grin, for his third and final encore.  It is a half spoken "Whither Thou Goest,": "Whither thou goest, I will go; thy people will be my people, thy God my God," the famous words uttered by the Moabite Ruth to her Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi, when Ruth chooses to return with Naomi to Bethlehem and adopt Naomi’s people, her land and her God as her own.   This passage came to be understood as the basis for what it means to convert to Judaism – to embrace not only the Jewish faith but also to share a personal and a national identity with the Jewish people. 

Because of the book of Ruth’s themes – harvest, the individual’s acceptance of Judaism, and exile and return to the land – it will be read in synagogue this week on Shavuot, a holiday that celebrates the spring harvest and the giving of the Torah to the community at Mt. Sinai.  As Jews, we’re instructed on Shavuot to feel as if we were at Mt. Sinai.  For me, that means listening.  Growing up, I heard the same words from the Bible that Leonard Cohen heard, but in typical Jewish tradition, he took them and wrestled with them and ultimately transformed them into music.  So now, I can simply sit back in a concert and sh’ma to the music of past and present, of exile and return.