The joy, and the heartbreak, of Leonard Cohen's visit to the Holy Land.
There was something uniquely poignant about Leonard Cohen's Ramat Gan concert last Thursday night. We were hearing a Jewish singer-poet, a descendant of the priestly caste, no small part of whose most resonant and beloved material derives from the Bible. He was bringing his musical offerings to the land where the audience probably appreciated them more than any other crowd could. And he knew - and we knew - that he was likely doing so for the very last time.
"I don't know if we will pass this way again," Cohen observed, a few songs into what would prove to be a ridiculously generous set-list. Indeed not.
He defied the passing years with a show that, lasting some three and a half hours, thoroughly contradicted the title of the final song he played, "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye." He delivered reams of his perceptive, beautifully constructed lyrics with passion and absolute precision. He sang, notably on the encore numbers "So Long, Marianne" and "First We Take Manhattan," with a force and a warmth that stripped the self-deprecating irony from his earlier line, in "Tower of Song," about being "born with the gift of a golden voice." He veritably skipped off-stage between encores - and in one appropriate case (after "Take This Waltz"), even solo-waltzed into the wings, his jaunty silhouette reflected larger than life on the backstage curtains.
But the man has just turned 75. Forget singing and dancing. At that age, I'll be happy to be talking and walking.
Leonard Cohen reminded us why we go to concerts. We brave the traffic and pay outrageous amounts of money to be pushed and shoved through security at the entrance gates, to stand or sit in acute discomfort, to inhale intolerant others' second-hand smoke. Sometimes, the artist deeply disappoints - appearing late or lackluster. If we're lucky, expectations are fulfilled - the music pulses like it never can through your speakers or your headphones, the audience responds, we go home enthused. But rarely, very, very rarely, something truly transcendent occurs, and the shared experience sends the heart soaring.
So it was last Thursday. The man on stage was an unremarkable, if spry, elderly figure in an unpromising dark fedora. Until he sang, in his tender, raspy, world-weary baritone. And his three female accompanying singers reached for the harmonies of angels. Then the songs - his stories, his philosophies and his prayers set to fragile, insistent melodies - rolled out in honeyed, irresistible waves from the stage to the tens of thousands of lip-synching disciples. And we, and he, were inspired.
SADLY, THOUGH, Leonard Cohen's visit is not solely a tale of inspiration. It is also a tale of stupidity and of dismal, bleak intolerance. The stupidity is marginal and Israeli. The intolerance is overwhelming and Palestinian.
Our septuagenarian balladeer had planned to perform twice in this neighborhood - for the 50,000 or so Israelis who packed the stands at Ramat Gan, and a day or two later in the West Bank, probably at the Ramallah Cultural Palace, which holds rather fewer than 1,000.
In both cases, the profits from the concerts were to have been directed toward various organizations that strive for Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, under the direction of the Parents' Circle-Family Forum group. This is a grassroots partnership of bereaved Israelis and Palestinians whose "response to human grief," as Cohen put it from the stage at Ramat Gan - whose response, that is, to their own bereavement - has been to try to bridge the chasm, "to reach across the border into the houses of the enemy," and work to halt the futile violence of our abiding conflict.
The artist had not come to preach. Tellingly, he chose not to play the seemingly apt "Story of Isaac," with its stern rebuke to fathers not to "sacrifice these children." Eschewing the Bono-Bob Geldof rock-star-changing-the-world role, Cohen explained with humility that he was not presenting himself as the facilitator of some grandiose exercise in peacemaking: "This is not about forgiving and forgetting. This is not about laying down one's arms in a time of war. This is not even about peace, although, God willing, it could be a beginning."
It was, rather, he said, that he wanted to allocate the monies earned from his visit to people who were resisting "the inclination of the heart to despair, revenge and hatred."
"Baruch Hashem," he said in Hebrew. Blessed is Thy name. "I bow my head in respect to the nobility of this enterprise."
For a small minority of Israelis to whom I've spoken in the past few days, and others that I've heard about, Cohen's insistence on supporting and funding a mission of hope trailblazed by those with the greatest cause for hatred and mistrust was, incredibly, perceived as an act of Jewish disloyalty, of betrayal, of somehow siding with the enemy. Several people told me, rather smugly, that they had boycotted the Ramat Gan concert because of the destination of the proceeds.
Words almost fail me, but I'll try: How foolish and short-sighted and self-destructive can some of us Jews be? There is no future here - no future for Jews, no future for Arabs - if both sides are not committed to finding a means by which we can live alongside each other without fear.
As regular readers of this column will know, I believe the Israeli mainstream long ago internalized the imperative for an accommodation with the Palestinians, and that the failure to achieve it stems from the abiding Palestinian refusal to acknowledge Jewish sovereign rights here and to abandon the idea of destroying our country. I yield to no one in my bitter castigation of the duplicitous, terror-fostering Yasser Arafat for refusing to meet Israel on the path to peace, and of his ostensibly better-intentioned successor, Mahmoud Abbas, for choosing not to challenge the vicious, demonizing attitude to Israel he inherited. Until all this changes, we have no choice but to defend ourselves, and so we do, sometimes at wrenching cost.
But the way forward, the only way forward, is to empower those who do seek a better future - to encourage leaders who promote moderation, and ordinary people who are prepared, most especially in the case of the Palestinians, to defy the extremists and the inciters, and reach out across the divide. Well, those are the very people Cohen was seeking to encourage - the people who have lost loved ones of their own and want to see the killing stop. Supporting them is not Jewish disloyalty; it is Jewish defense.
Such closed-mindedness, however, was fairly marginal among Israelis, and demonstrably had no impact on the Ramat Gan performance: The show sold out overnight.
A short drive away in Ramallah, however, the hostility was decisive. The idea of the second concert, the West Bank concert, had barely begun to crystallize before it was shot down by the Israel-haters, the peace-haters, the boycotters.
So consumed by its hatred for Israel is the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel that it has forgotten to love Palestine. So determined was this Ramallah-based group, and a great toxic mass of similarly hysterical agitators worldwide, notably British academics, to register their revulsion with Cohen for his crime of entertaining the citizens of "Israel's colonial apartheid regime," as PACBI described us in a statement in July, that his modest attempt at nurturing humanity through melody in Ramallah was discordantly stillborn. So feeble was the voice of Palestinian reason, it was drowned out before it could begin to sing its first verse.
What are we to make of the nascent nation alongside us when it slams the door, or allows the door to be slammed, on a troubadour who sought only to raise spirits and stir compassion? "There's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in," Cohen sang, so wisely, in "Anthem." Not everything, it turns out. Some hatreds are hermetic.
TRULY OUR neighbors' loss - and in so many ways. A lost opportunity. A lost bridge. A lost symbol of something better. Oh, and a lost evening of glorious music.
Many of Cohen's songs are explicitly personal - dissections of failed relationships, self-deprecating reflections on his own fading light - but many more are universal musings on the human spirit, and some, last Thursday night, seemed unerringly particular to us.
The friend sitting alongside me was adamant that one of Cohen's most moving compositions, "Famous Blue Raincoat," was written about Israel, soon after he came here to play for our soldiers in the Yom Kippur War. "I hear that you're building your little house, deep in the desert. You're living for nothing now..." This could only be a reference to the kibbutz life. Perhaps the "Famous Blue Raincoat" itself was a metaphor for Israel - the Jewish people's layer of protection, nowadays a little "torn at the shoulder"?
But no, the song was written, and released, before that war - and is merely an imperfect account, in Cohen's overly critical self-assessment, of a doomed romance.
"Hallelujah," though, far and away his best-known song thanks to its association with John Cale, Jeff Buckley and a certain green, Scottish-brogued ogre, was reclaimed in Ramat Gan as our psalm. The singer's voice, truly a blaze of light in every word, was echoed by tens of thousands more. A standing ovation followed.
"Who By Fire," its lyrics inspired by the High Holy Days' "Unetaneh Tokef" prayer, was mesmerizing, too - its probing questions on the unknowable nature of death, and our helplessness before it, challenging our consciences, so appropriately, in the midst of the Days of Penitence. In its recorded version, the song's relentless rhythm and bleak vocals veer close to the funereal; hearing it rejuvenated now, with his wonderful band's lush propulsion, it was as though we had gathered to celebrate and to surrender, under the warm open skies of the Holy Land, to the impending annual Divine accounting.
And most affecting of all, with "If It Be Your Will," Cohen, like no other artist could, seemed to shepherd us back through the millennia, to the time, in these very lands, when our ancestors spoke and sang their prayers of fealty and supplication in absolute certainty that they were communicating with the Lord.
First, alone at center stage, with that perfect orator's diction, he uttered his plea to the Creator: "If it be your will, if there is a choice, let the rivers fill, let the hills rejoice. Let your mercy spill, on all these burning hearts in hell, if it be your will, to make us well."
Then two of his musicians, sisters Charley and Hattie Webb, took his words and flew with them, their voices swirling, dancing and triumphantly meeting in harmonies that rang out, crystal clear, across a hushed, awed stadium: "And draw us near, and bind us tight, all your children here, in their rags of light."
Here was the concert's most uplifting moment. Here, in a soulless concrete sports arena, in the neon shadow of signs from the adjacent shopping mall and furniture stores, an undeniably holy experience unfolded - the purest of voices rising to the heavens, carried by the collective will of 50,000 aching souls. This, surely, was how it was in Temple times.
THE SONGS, many of them, are four decades old. He's been playing them on this improbable late-life world tour, his first for 15 years, for the past 18 months. But as the concert went on, you sensed that the performer, too, his eyes closed often in concentration, was finding fresh nuances in his lyrics.
Sometimes he changed a word or two to raise an easy laugh. "I didn't come to Tel Aviv to fool you," is emphatically not in the "Hallelujah" original. Nor does "I'm Your Man" usually reference his "old man's mask."
But more often, it was the original, sacrosanct words that brought stadium-wide responses. "I bid you farewell, I don't know when I'll be back," he sang in "Tower of Song," to sorrowful applause. "Here's a man still working for your smile" prompted ecstatic cheers near the end. The very title of the song from which that line comes, "I Tried to Leave You," found Cohen grinning wryly, and the audience with him.
When he did finally leave us, it was after pledging his solidarity by quoting from Ruth - "Thy people shall be my people. Whither thou goest, I will go." And it was after emphasizing his shared identity by bestowing the priestly blessing upon us - "Yevarechecha Hashem Veyishmerecha..." May the Lord bless and protect you... - in confident Ashkenazi Hebrew.
No, we don't know when, or even if, Leonard Cohen will be back. But he'd promised that "you'll be hearing from me baby, long after I'm gone. I'll be speaking to you sweetly from a window in the Tower of Song."
Hey, that's the way to say goodbye.