Leonard Cohen: Poet, Prophet, Eternal Optimist

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

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Contemporary Psalms

In 1984, in the midst of a successful singing career, Cohen published Book of Mercy, a book of contemporary psalms addressing God with doubt and trust, praise and anger. For Cohen, God is both present and mystifyingly silent. When asked whether the Hebrew Bible had inspired the language of these psalms, Cohen replied: "That was just the natural language of prayer for me."

The opening psalm delineates Cohen's spiritual journey and relation to God, from a sense of absence and loss ("I stopped to listen, but he did not come") to the gradual, hesitant return of God ("I heard him again...Slowly he yields. Haltingly he moves toward his throne") and the re-affirmation of Cohen's own role as a Jew, and as a poet: "In a transition so delicate it cannot be marked, the court is established on beams of golden symmetry, and once again I am a singer in the lower choirs, born fifty years ago to raise my voice this high, and no higher (p. 1)."

Cohen's departure from religious practice did not stem from his objection to tradition, but from his disapproval of the state in which he found contemporary Judaism in Montreal. In fact, when he distanced himself from the Montreal community, living on the Greek island of Hydra, and was free to forge his own Jewish identity, he chose to observe the Sabbath regularly--lighting candles, saying the blessings, and refraining from work. Commenting on the importance of ceremony in everyday life, Cohen expresses his belief in patterns that had been developed and "discerned to be extremely nourishing," as they represent a valuable reference "beyond the activity."

The ultimate expression of Cohen's Jewishness lies in the act of writing, as he expressed in a poem addressed to Irving Layton, his mentor and friend:

Layton, when we dance our freilach

under the ghostly handkerchief,

the miracle rabbis of Prague and Vilna

resume their sawdust thrones,

and angels and men, asleep so long

in the cold palaces of disbelief,

gather...

to quarrel deliciously and debate

the sound of the ineffable Name.

Layton, my friend Lazarovitch,

no Jew was ever lost

while we two dance joyously

in this French province,

cold and oceans west of the temple

. . .

I say no Jew was ever lost

while we weave and billow the handkerchief

into a burning cloud,

measuring all of heaven

with our stitching thumbs.                                   

("Last Dance at the Four Penny," The Spice-Box of Earth)

Carrying on the Tradition

In the documentary film Ladies and Gentlemen...Mr. Leonard Cohen, Cohen remembers his maternal grandfather, Rabbi Solomon Klinitsky-Klein, greeting him as a fellow-writer, recognizing in him a kindred spirit carrying on the tradition in a spiritual, creative sense. Even in the remote province of Quebec, separated from Jerusalem by vast oceans, Cohen sees himself renewing his Judaism and contributing to Jewish culture and continuity.

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Sharonne Cohen

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