Leonard Cohen was many things – novelist, poet, singer- songwriter – but he was also a proud Jew, a true mensch and a lover of Zion.
Not many foreign pop stars could be eulogized by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as someone who “loved the people of Israel and the State of Israel.”
But as a Jew and friend of Israel, the Canadian-born singer- songwriter conducted himself, as in most things, in his own singular way. Nowhere was this more evident than in his 2009 concert at National Stadium in Ramat Gan.
Cohen came under heavy pressure from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement to cancel his appearance. Instead, he tried to organize a second concert in Ramallah, with all the proceeds going to Amnesty International.
More BDS pressure succeeded in scuttling the Ramallah show, and even intimidated Amnesty to back away from its willingness to accept Cohen’s philanthropy.
Having already performed several times in Israel, including his famous 1973 appearance for Israeli soldiers in Sinai during the Yom Kippur War, Cohen was not so easily cowed. He found another worthy beneficiary for his largesse in the Parents Circle, a group of Israelis and Palestinians who have lost children in the conflict and now work together for peace and coexistence.
The night of the concert I spoke with Parents Circle member Ali Abu Awad, whose brother had been killed in a clash with Israeli troops, and he told me: “I was in Israeli prisons for four years and lost my brother, and am proud to have Leonard Cohen supporting us.”
Cohen’s Jewishness was deep-rooted; his father and paternal grandfather were leaders of the Montreal-Jewish community, his maternal grandfather a renowned rabbinical scholar. It was natural, he once said, for him to draw on the “biblical landscape” for much of his work, including such classic songs as “Hallelujah,” “Who By Fire,” “If It Be Your Will,” and the title song of his recent album, “You Want it Darker,” which ends with Cohen echoing the Abrahamic cry of “Hineni... I’m ready, my Lord.”
Cohen was a spiritual seeker, and his life’s journey brought him into a deep exploration of other faiths – not unlike the personal odyssey of the other truly great contemporary Jewish singer-songwriter with whom he was frequently compared, Bob Dylan.
His extensive study of Zen Buddhism, including the years spent in ascetic contemplation at a California Buddhist monastery, are all part of the Cohen lore. But he insisted that even during this period he remained true to his Jewish roots.
“In the tradition of Zen that I’ve practiced, there is no prayerful worship and there is no affirmation of a deity,” he said in 2009, “so theologically, there is no challenge to any Jewish belief.”
In contrast to Dylan, it was not in Cohen’s more modest character to play preacher. When he did assume in song the role of truth-teller, in such songs as “Everybody Knows,” it was with tongue seemingly firmly in cheek (“Everybody knows that the dice are loaded/Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed/Everybody knows the war is over/Everybody knows the good guys lost.”)
Nor, despite his feelings for Israel, could one imagine Cohen, writing such a politically direct song about the Jewish state as Dylan’s “Neighborhood Bully” (“The neighborhood bully just lives to survive/ He’s criticized and condemned for being alive”).
Cohen’s work seemed far more inward-looking than outer- directed, and he shied away from definitive pronouncements about the world.
Yet even in such an oblique work as his hit “First, We Take Manhattan,” it is not unreasonable to discern a thread of post-Holocaust Jewish triumphalism (“But you see that line there moving through the station?/I told you, I told you, told you, I was one those/Ah, you love me as a loser/but now you’re worried I just might win”).
Cohen, of course, was no saint, nor tzaddik (righteous man). His womanizing, drug use, and wayward family life are well documented, and he was the first to admit his flaws. His close friend and fellow Canadian poet, Irving Layton, once amusingly described him as “a narcissist who hates himself.” (Cohen’s response: “That’s good.”)
Yet it is still striking in the many obituaries published about him this weekend how almost nobody has a bad word to say about Cohen – he truly comes off as a genuinely decent person, which is not at all average when it comes to that rare species of humanity who can be truly labeled as “pop star.”
Nor do I think it exaggerating to regard Cohen as an exemplary contemporary Jewish artist: One who stayed committed to his roots while open to all other forms of cultural influence, utilized that heritage in a meaningful manner in his work while eschewing easy or exploitive ethnic sentiment, and appreciated the Jewish state and its people while not forsaking his own socially progressive values.
At the end of his concert in Ramat Gan, Cohen told the crowd he hoped the event, and the group that benefited it, represented a “triumph over the inclination of the heart to despair, revenge and hatred.”
He then lifted his hands in the traditional gesture that accompanies the Birkat Hakohanim, the Priestly Blessing, and intoned upon the crowd “May God lift his face upon you and give you peace.”
At that moment, the thousands of us in the stadium, no matter what our names, were all Cohens – and privileged to receive a blessing from a “kohen gadol,” a high priest of song, for our time.