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.