If there is one place along the notoriously hedonistic Coastal Plain that is even less spiritual than the rest of that restless urban sprawl, it is Ramat Gan. The city to Tel Aviv's east prides itself on assorted claims to fame, from the country's first mall, tallest building and largest stadium to the world's leading diamond exchange.
Inspiration and introspection, however, let alone repentance, were hardly on the minds of this town's builders - a set of liberals who were even more secular than Israel's socialist founders.
That alone, therefore, made last week's encounter in Ramat Gan Stadium between 50,000 mostly secular Israelis and the lone, frail, contemplative and unfashionably capped Leonard Cohen - seem like the unarmed Jonah's improbable conquest of sinful Nineveh.
Cohen the singer, poet and novelist needs no introduction to most Middle Israelis; and those who hadn't known of this graduate of Montreal's Herzliya High School who became Canada's leading poet could have learned all about him through the extensive coverage that preceded and followed his concert, a moving event that put to shame recent musical attempts by Madonna and Depeche Mode to sweep the country off its feet.
The question, therefore, is not what Leonard Cohen was trying to say here - unique though his inspiring lyrics and caressing tunes are, they have been with us for decades - but what his audience was voting for with its feet, artistically, politically and religiously.
ARTISTICALLY, Cohen defies two traits that frequently plague the popular genres to which his music partly belongs: noise and shallowness.
The thousands of Americans and Europeans who crowd this septuagenarian's concerts don't just tolerate the minimalism of his tunes, the near-silence of his tone and the quest for meaning that runs through his lines, they crave them. We Jews are passively reminded every fall that for centuries most people ordinarily heard hardly any artificial noise, even that of a shofar, let alone a musical orchestra, not to mention factories, highways, locomotives or jets. Now we have come full circle; modern man's ears are so infused and invaded by cacophony, blabber and clamor that he has come to thirst for the velvet touch of a whisper, the very kind that is Cohen's hallmark. That is why his music has won an estimated 2,000 different renditions over the years.
In yearning for this departure from contemporary musical routine, Cohen's Israeli following is no different than others. Moreover, some in the audience that packed Ramat Gan Stadium were there because everyone else was there, or because they wanted to be seen, or just for the heck of it. And yet, the critical mass was there for very Israeli reasons.
For Israelis, the sight of a successful man tenderly searching his soul and at the same time worshiping God in quest of repentance is rare.
When hearing words like "they sentenced me to 20 years," Israelis don't think of larger-than-life revolutionaries accused of "trying to change the system" but of smalltime politicians charged with wheeling, dealing, embezzling, skimming and double billing, too. When, they ask, will one, just one, of this snaking line of disgraced notables emerge from his jail term and confess, "I did my best, it wasn't much, I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch," and how many of these can credibly say, "I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you," or at the very least concede, as Cohen has to the crowd's delight, "And even though it all went wrong, I'll stand before the Lord of Song, with nothing on my lips but Hallelujah?"
Now this is not to say that the large audience in Ramat Gan was really captured by, or even aware of the irony, from our Israeli viewpoint, in Cohen's follow-up on David's surrender to temptation. This context was there, at best, subconsciously. What was not subconscious was Cohen's kind of religiosity.
HAVING LOST his father as a child, Cohen was deeply influenced by his grandfather, Rabbi Shlomo Klinitski, who taught him Bible, Talmud and mysticism, and inspired Cohen's The Spice-Box of the Earth, the book that made him famous back in 1961. There, in "Lines from My Grandfather's Journal," Cohen brought together King David and 16th-century sage Rabbi Judah Loew, the Maharal of Prague, for a kind of dialogue that can only be imagined by someone who is intimately familiar with Judaism's sources and attached to its traditions.
Though a growing number of Israeli performers, from Shlomo Gronich to Meir Banai, are seeking their Jewish roots, there are very few in the country's cultural scene today, from novelists and painters to academics and rabbis, not to mention singers, who are capable of this sort of creativity.
That is why Cohen is an inspiration here. His is a kind of Judaism that has yet to emerge here in full force. That is why 50,000 Israelis joined Cohen in singing "Who by Fire," his version of the 12th-century prayer about the judgment on Yom Kippur of all people, some to life and some to death, and of all states, some to the sword and some to peace - a song he wrote after journeying to the charred battlefields of the Yom Kippur War.
Last week, so close to and yet so far from the Diamond Exchange, the Ayalon Mall and the Aviv Tower, and so deep within yet so well above the stadium that ordinarily hears the curses of Israeli soccer fans, a multitude of Middle Israelis swayed as this Diaspora Jew named Cohen, in what may have been his last appearance here, lifted his hands and blessed all at hand in the traditional blessing of the priests.
Yet this Cohen is a priest only by name.
In practice, he is the antithesis of the caste that cultivated ritual, frosted faith and suppressed spiritual spontaneity, let alone dissent. A man like Leonard Cohen - who in a 1964 conference of Canadian Jewish leaders said money had replaced for them the values of the prophets, and that the very term "Jewish establishment" was an oxymoron - is in his substance more prophet than priest.
And that's what is so unique in him to secular Israelis.
Here and now, Judaism is also often held hostage by an establishment that cares more for faith's legislation and imposition than for the souls of the people it is meant to inspire. That at least is what 50,000 Israelis voted last week by their feet as they flocked to Ramat Gan Stadium where they joined a distant cousin's prayer, some waving candlesticks, some moving lips and some wiping tears.