Hebrew is a very logical, systematic language. Once you know a root, you have a whole vocabulary arena open to you. This week’s root is זכר (z.k.r), which is the root for “to remember.”
The Yiddish word for the annual remembrance of the death of a loved one is called a yahrzeit, the time of the year. In Hebrew it is more often called an azkara, a memorial. I like that one better. I want to remember my dad, not just mark time. The prayer that is said is called yizkor.
This week completed the year of firsts without my dad. Living so far away from him, our relationship was built on phone calls, so even though he wasn’t actually here, he was as close as a phone call. Now if I want to share something with him, I have to remind myself that he’s in a place without cell service.
Dad loved to eat at diners, so my brothers in the US took time off and went to a diner. I was so glad that they called me so I could join them virtually. It was good for us to share memories and tell funny stories about Dad.
Now we begin the year of seconds without Dad. But no matter how many years pass, we have our memories, we remember, and usually we laugh. May his memory always be a blessing to us.
Leonard Cohen died last week at the age of 82. He had a lot of Israeli fans and so it’s been big news around here. (Yes, there is news about the other guy, but it seems to be a “wait and see” situation.) Leonard Cohen gave a concert in Israel in 2009 and my colleagues at the office talked about it like it was yesterday. Another colleague let me listen to his newly purchased Leonard Cohen CD, his very last studio album, released on Cohen’s birthday September 22, 2016.
Israelis like Leonard Cohen because he speaks their language. I don’t mean Hebrew exactly. I mean a cultural language that may not speak to other audiences the same way. One of his most famous songs, “Hallelujah,” can be admired by anyone. But the stories within it of David and Bathsheba and Samson and Delilah and their tortured love stories speak to those who know the stories and who are philosophers and questioners deep in their hearts. Like Leonard Cohen. And like my dad.
Leonard Cohen may have dabbled in Zen Buddhism, but he was a Jew through and through, and I think that’s what Israelis like the most about him. No matter his journey, he’s still one of us.
The first song on the new album is called “You Want it Darker.” Everyone is talking about it now because in it he essentially tells God that he is ready to die using the biblical phrase “heneni” – here I am (here’s a great article about it from September). I happened upon an 11-minute video published this week by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (former chief rabbi in the UK) linking Leonard Cohen’s song to the Torah portion this week. It’s excellent and worth your time.
Rabbi Sacks explores the fact that Leonard Cohen uses the chorus “heneni” in the same way that Abraham does in the Torah. This week’s portion is the story of Abraham taking Isaac to be sacrificed. When God calls to Abraham, Abraham answers “heneni.” He also points out that the lyrics echo the prayer for the deceased that mourners say (called Kaddish) and that Cohen is saying Kaddish for himself. Cohen noted in his last interview that he was ready to go. He had his house in order and said: “Spiritual things, baruch Hashem”—thank God—“have fallen into place, for which I am deeply grateful.” (Audio here.)
I mentioned last week that Dad regretted not being able to be here to see the results of the election. Now I wonder what he would have made of Leonard Cohen’s last song. Dad was angry at God at the end – it’s still a little unclear to me exactly why, but he said it a lot. I don’t think he meant it in a personal way. I don’t think he was angry at God for giving him cancer, but he was angry in a larger sense. The world is pretty crazy right now and I think Dad blamed God for making people this way (it’s also possible that he blamed people for making God this way, but that would be at least a two-hour tangent in a conversation with Dad).
And here we have Leonard Cohen saying, yes, the world is pretty crummy and I’m ready to check out of the Chelsea Hotel permanently. Here I am, Lord. I wonder if that thought would have given Dad some peace. The first verse would have spoken directly to Dad, I think, and he might have felt that the rest of the song was worth listening to and thinking about.
If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame
As far as I know, Dad was not a fan of Leonard Cohen, but Dad was a questioner and a philosopher at heart. He was curious and from time to time deeply spiritual. I hope that Dad and Leonard will get a chance to meet wherever they are and talk about these big ideas. I imagine that they’re probably smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, and talking late into the night. I’m sure there will be plenty of circular tangents and maybe even a few answers to their long-held questions.
Cover of the album
Dad and Leonard Cohen didn’t look alike, but the echoes are there.
As I was thinking about what to write this week, I was thinking a lot about David Bowie, and then I heard the news about Alan Rickman. Both aged 69. Both died of cancer. Both chose to keep their illness secret. The news of both their deaths shocked their fans to their cores. Both did the work that they loved until their last minute on this Earth.
David Bowie’s music is part of the soundtrack of my youth. Alan Rickman played roles that will forever be his, marking them with his unique style. I admire both their bodies of work and I am saddened by the news. The arts truly suffered a significant loss this week.
But this is where things get interesting.
“Music hath charms to soothe a savage beast”
When the news of David Bowie’s passing was publicized my Facebook news feed had almost no other news. Everyone I knew and everyone they knew seemed to post sad thoughts, memories, favorite songs, favorite movie scenes, how David Bowie influenced their lives, tributes, and anything else connected to David Bowie.
In Israel this week, the political left and right are pretty much at each other’s throats right now. But all of their noise was drowned out by David Bowie. People who normally don’t post on Facebook posted tributes. People from every political viewpoint posted about David Bowie. Video of David Bowie coming to Israel in 1996 found its way online within a few hours. Stories of David Bowie’s connection to Kabbalah made their way online.
Over the next days, I saw even more stories connecting David Bowie to everything. Society. Change. Accepting oneself. Reinventing oneself. Fashion. Music. Art. Film. And cancer, of course. The most unusual link was Could Big Data have saved David Bowie?
Here is my Facebook post about David Bowie. And that’s the point of this essay. David Bowie transcended everything. I even mentioned him in my recent Christmas post. His rendition of Drummer Boy / Peace on Earth with Bing Crosby is really the story of his legacy. The musician presented his passion and music as a gift and with that perhaps we might eventually have peace on Earth.
He played Nikola Tesla in The Prestige. Other actors could have played Tesla, of course, but with his eyes of different colors; his forward thinking; his constant striving to reinvent himself, his music, his life; no one else should have played him except David Bowie.
In the Jewish tradition, when someone dies, we say “may his [or her] memory be a blessing.” I think David Bowie’s memory will be a blessing for many, many people all around the world. And at least for a few days, the world put aside their differences and united in remembering his music and art. That sounds like a blessing to me.