Leonard Cohen: Poet, Prophet, Eternal Optimist

A famous songwriter whose novels and poems explore Jewish identity and spirituality.

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The Montreal Jewish Community has produced a plethora of Jewish writers with unique literary expressions of Jewish identity, including A.M. Klein, Irving Layton, Mordechai Richler, and Leonard Cohen. Cohen is a poet and novelist, though he is best known as a singer-songwriter, with signature songs such as "Suzanne" and "Hallelujah." Cohen grew up in a family deeply rooted in Judaism, living within a strong Jewish community, and from an early age he felt the burden of his name (kohen = priest in Hebrew).Leonard Cohen

Like a bird on a wire

Like a drunk in a midnight choir

I have tried, in my way, to be free.

("Bird on a Wire," Songs from a Room)

Jewish Foundations

Leonard Cohen, dubbed by his critics as "the poet laureate of pessimism," "the grocer of despair," and "the godfather of gloom,"was born in Montreal in 1934. His maternal grandfather, Solomon Klinitsky-Klein, was a rabbi and a scholar. His paternal grandfather, Lyon Cohen, was a central figure in Montreal Jewish life who strongly believed that knowledge of Jewish history and letters and the performance of mitzvot were essential for all Jews. Cohen's childhood home was steeped in Jewish tradition: Sabbath prayers, regular attendance at the Shaar Hashomayim synagogue (presided over by his grandfather Lyon), and observance of Jewish holidays and ceremonies.

The Favorite Game

Given Cohen's biography, his preoccupation with Jewish themes is not surprising, nor are the Judaic allusions often present in his poetry, prose, and songs. Cohen has always identified himself as a Jew, even when he became a Buddhist monk ("I'm not looking for a new religion. I'm quite happy with the old one, with Judaism," he said). He has, however, expressed concern regarding the current state of Judaism. In The Favorite Game  (1963), his first (semi-autobiographical) novel, Cohen expressed disillusionment with the superficial form of religiosity he observed through his protagonist, Lawrence Breavman:

"He had thought that his tall uncles in their dark clothes were princes of an elite brotherhood. He had thought the synagogue was their house of purification...But he had grown to understand that none of them even pretended to these things. They were proud of their financial and communal success. They liked to be first, to be respected, to sit close to the alter, to be called up to lift the scrolls. They weren't pledged to any other idea. They did not believe their blood was consecrated...They did not seem to realize how fragile the ceremony was. They participated in it blindly, as if it would last forever (pp. 123-4)."

In this novel Cohen also deplores the contemporary ignorance of "the craft of devotion," expressing his belief in the need for Jewish renewal as the only measure for survival: "Their nobility was insecure because it rested on inheritance and not moment-to-moment creation in the face of annihilation...The beautiful melody soared, which proclaimed that the Law was a tree of life and a path of peace. Couldn't they see how it had to be nourished?"

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Sharonne Cohen

Sharonne Cohen is an Israeli-Canadian writer, editor, translator, and teacher. She currently lives in Montreal.