The les­son of Leonard Co­hen’s Jewish iden­tity

The Canadian Jewish News (Montreal) - - Comment - Rabbi Avi Fine­gold

Be­fore I left Mon­treal in 2004, I was dimly aware of Leonard Co­hen as one of ours. He was around, but I prob­a­bly knew more cov­ers of his songs by other­artists(jen­nifer­warnes’ethe­real al­bum Fa­mous Blue Rain­coat comes to mind), than about his own im­pact on the Cana­dian lit­er­ary scene, or his deep con­nec­tion to Mon­treal Jewry.

To be fair, by then he had been gen­er­ally ab­sent from Mon­treal, and pub­lic con­scious­ness in gen­eral, for al­most a decade. At some point, I re­call quot­ing Who By Fire in my High Hol­i­day classes to il­lus­trate the pos­si­bil­ity of modern com­men­taries on me­dieval li­turgy. But aside from that, Co­hen was not on my radar.

I re­turned to Mon­treal in 2013, just as Co­hen was em­bark­ing on a late ca­reer resur­gence, and be­gan to pray at the Shaar Hashomayim, his child­hood con­gre­ga­tion. Por­traits of his grand­fa­thers, past pres­i­dents of the syn­a­gogue, hung proudly on the walls, and I could see his own name among the other con­gre­gants who were re­cip­i­ents of the Or­der of Canada. And that was when I be­gan to re­ally con­tend with his iden­tity as a Mon­trealer and as a Jew.

After hav­ing been away, I be­came more aware of the way Mon­treal­ers speak, and I was struck by how much those unique ca­dences and phrases abound in Co­hen’s writ­ing and singing. Lis­ten­ing to his mu­sic, I no­ticed how sim­i­lar it was to the way peo­ple – es­pe­cially peo­ple at the Shaar – talked.

I shouldn’t have been sur­prised. After all, Co­hen was un­apolo­getic about his Ju­daism and supremely con­fi­dent in his Jewish iden­tity. Take, for ex­am­ple, his poem Not a Jew from 2006’s Book of Long­ing: “Anyone who says/ I’m not a Jew/ is not a Jew/ I’m very sorry/ but this de­ci­sion/ is fi­nal”

Co­hen’s sure­footed Jewish­ness was a head-scratcher for many peo­ple. Did he be­lieve in God? Why was he spend­ing all that time at a Zen re­treat? Not a Jew is Co­hen’s re­sponse, but it is also much more, a pro­found en­cap­su­la­tion of Jewish the­ol­ogy. What­ever I am, he was say­ing, how­ever you de­fine your­self, which­ever way a per­son chooses to live, it is not for a Jew to judge an­other Jew.

Co­hen was al­ready a ris­ing star in the lit­er­ary scene in 1964 when he de­liv­ered a speech at Mon­treal’s Jewish Pub­lic Li­brary. As Liel Liebovitz de­scribes in A Bro­ken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemp­tion, and the Life of Leonard Co­hen, the speech was de­voted to his teacher A.M. Klein and how the lo­cus of in­flu­ence in the city’s Jewish com­mu­nity had moved from men of words, like Klein, to the men of in­dus­try, like the Bronf­man fam­ily. In Co­hen’s for­mu­la­tion, the keeper of ideas in to­day’s so­ci­ety was a priest tend­ing an empty tem­ple – what was needed was a prophet who could viv­ify ideas and make them vi­brate with truth. This was go­ing to be his role.

My favourite part of that speech comes at the very be­gin­ning. “I am afraid I am go­ing to talk about my­self,” Co­hen said. “All my best friends are Jews, but I am the only Jew I know re­ally well.” He deeply re­spected the men of words. But his job was go­ing to be to bring the ideas to the peo­ple. In other words, if the role of the scholar was to con­ceive of new ideas with which to ed­u­cate the peo­ple, the role of the poet or artist was sim­ply to be the every­man, only more so.

Co­hen em­bod­ied this ethos, a dis­til­late of who we are ex­pressed back to our­selves in a man­ner that we can re­late to and that helps us make sense of life and Ju­daism. The mag­i­cal part was that he found it all in him­self. And when one is that self-as­sured in their re­la­tion­ship to their faith, the only re­sponse to God is: Hineini.

Co­hen was un­apolo­getic about his Ju­daism and supremely con­fi­dent in his Jewish iden­tity

Rabbi Avi Fine­gold is the founder of The Jewish Learn­ing Lab.

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