In this week’s Torah portion „Lech Lecha“, Abraham is asked to leave the country where he was born and his parental home. Mostly this request is correctly understood as, „Go out, depart from the place where you have been living“. But the Hebrew wording also allows another interpretation, that is just as correct: „Go inside you! Find yourself!“ God requests Abraham: „Examine yourself again, whether you are prepared for the long trip with me.“ Is this about self-discovery? High level esotericism? Far from it. On the contrary, it is the down to earth requirement that one should pause time and again to listen to one’s inner voice, to verify whether the chosen path remains the right one.
In the following week’s Torah portion „Vayera“, we read how God tests Abraham before making a Covenant with him, who is standing in for the People of Israel as a whole. He demands that Abraham, who was 100 years old when his son was born, should sacrifice him. Abraham obeys. God of course does not really demand this sacrifice, he only wants to ascertain that Abraham’s trust and love in Him is big enough to submit to the instruction. Twice an angel calls Abraham (on behalf of God), and twice Abraham answers: Hineni Adonai! Here I am Lord!
For many years Leonard Cohen had been struggling with the issue of whether what he is doing is what he wants to do or what he must do. His paths were never linear; they were serpentine, with ascents, crashes, retreats, stumbles, falls and getting up again.
Towards the end of his life, at peace with himself and certain that he had achieved everything he had resolved to do, he named his last album „You want it darker?“ In the refrain he trustfully writes „Hineni, hineni, I’m ready my Lord“
Leonard Cohen was born on September 21, 1934 in Montreal. The last grand master of popular music died on Monday, November 7, in his adopted home of Los Angeles.
He comes from a family of merchants, rabbis and Talmud scholars, who immigrated to Canada from Lithuania. His mother Marsha, the daughter of a well known rabbi, attached great value to introducing him to music at an early age. Despite taking lessons in piano and clarinet, it was the guitar which later became the instrument supporting his songs.
It was as a poet, not a musician, that Leonard Cohen started his career. In the 1950s he was successful as a poet, but soon learned that he would not be able to make a living with this art genre. That was when he started to underlay the texts of his poems with a form of music popular in the Sixties. This project was intended to restore his finance portfolio, as he said. The short-term project became his lifework.
When a first album, „Songs of Leonard Cohen“, was released in 1967, his relatively monotonous sounding voice reached deeply into the joss stick haze of our teens‘ rooms and party basements. Caught up in the jungle of our own adolescent emotions, we were wondering who was lucky Marianne and whether Suzanne really existed. Or to whom was he complaining, That’s not the way to say goodbye. The music, characterized by melancholic elements and always with autobiographic traits, was also helpful in first allowing a tear or two, then energetically wiping them away.
In 1971 his third album appeared, „Songs of love and hate“. It is perhaps the most emotional of his albums. In a 1990s interview, Leonard Cohen ascribes the background of the famous blue raincoat to the purchase of a Burberry coat in London. The alternative he offers is his experience of a triangular relationship. Always the gentleman, he does not precise say whether the third person is a man or a woman.
For his album „Death of a Ladies‘ man“ (1977), Leonard Cohen changed his record label. Phil Spector of Warner Brothers recorded the pieces with big band accompaniment, which corresponded to the European taste of the period. This is the album that least supported his understanding of music. It was a flop. Soon thereafter it was re-orchestrated by his old record company.
„Dance me to the end of love“ (1984) and „Hallelujah“ (1984) became world hits. Hallelujah is the musical piece that got the most covers. To date, there are more than 100 recordings by other artists. Bob Dylan was the first to include it in his repertoire in 1988. Leonard Cohen was not particularly happy about it: „It is a good song, but too many people are singing it.“ And yet, at first Hallelujah was far from promising. The music publisher refused its publication with the crushing assessment: „What is this? That is no pop music. We won’t release it.“
Leonard Cohen only allowed small glimpses into his private life. The texts of his songs were mostly on the subject of his relationship with women. Suffering from deep depressions, he retired to a Zen monastery for a period of five years. The devout and practicing Jew only minimally considered this period as competing with his religion. He rather saw it as a means to reposition himself and his life.
Probably the most tragic blow in his life occurred in 2005, when he discovered that his manager of many years, Kelley Lynch, had been stealing from him over the years. The missing money had been intended for his old age, and he was left without any assets.
His reaction was not to relapse into depression, but rather to battle against destiny. The world tour that brought him to Israel again in 2009 became the highlight of his public appearances. By his performance in Ramat Gan (Tel Aviv), Leonard Cohen withstood the attempts of the BDS movement to keep artists away from Israel. In front of an ecstatic public of 50,000, he gave one of his best concerts.
It was not his first visit to Israel. In 1973, when his son Adam was just one year old, he traveled to Israel immediately after the Yom Kippur War broke out, appearing as a „troop caretaker“ in improvised concerts.
Last summer, Marianne – his life partner of many years with whom he had been living on the Greek island Hydra for six years, and whom he had left in 1972 for Suzanne, his son’s mother – passed away. In a moving letter, Leonard Cohen made his farewell from her.
“Well, Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine. And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and for your wisdom … but now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.”
In his newest and last album „You want it darker“, Leonard Cohen rounds off his creative work with the song whose refrain is „Hineni, hineni, I am ready, my Lord“. Even though in his last interview he says that he simply has an inclination towards self exaggeration and actually intends to live to the age of 120, the great artist knew that his life would soon be over. So he gave himself a last big present. He asked the cantor of Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue in Montreal to support him in recording two of the songs for his new album. Gideon Zelermyer and Leonard Cohen – they don’t know each other personally, but both know about the connection between the Shaar Hashomayim Community and the Cohen family. By this unique connection between the spiritual and the secular world in which Leonard Cohen has been moving all his life, the album becomes a testimony such as can only stand at the end of one’s life.
Leonard Cohen was buried last Thursday in the cemetery of the Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue in Montreal.
(written on Nov 11th)
©esther scheiner, israel
Translated from the German original by Translations International, Herzliya, Israel