It was announced last night that Leonard Cohen, the Jewish singer/songwriter who explored Jewish themes in modern lyrical terms throughout a career that spanned five decades, passed away on Monday at the age of 82.
The statement on his Facebook page read, “It is with profound sorrow we report that legendary poet, songwriter and artist, Leonard Cohen has passed away. We have lost one of music’s most revered and prolific visionaries.”
Cohen’s son, Adam, told Rolling Stone Magazine, “My father passed away peacefully at his home in Los Angeles with the knowledge that he had completed what he felt was one of his greatest records. He was writing up until his last moments with his unique brand of humor.“
As his name implies, Cohen was born into a family descended from Aaron the priest, and Jewish themes were often a part of his music. Cohen is probably best known for his much-covered ‘Hallelujah’, explicitly inspired by Psalms.
Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
His somber “Who by Fire” was a modern rendition of the Yom Kippur prayer, Unetanneh Tokef (ונתנה תוקף) (Let us speak of the awesomeness).
Cohen continued producing music until recently, and his final album released two months ago, You want It Darker, was widely praised by music critics as being one of Cohen’s finest. The title track was released on his birthday. It was a powerful final message pouring out from the artist’s Jewish soul.
If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame
Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the help that never came
You want it darker
He includes an unmistakable Biblical reference when he cries out, “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready, my lord”. ‘Hineni’ is Hebrew, meaning ‘here I am’, first said by Abraham when God spoke to him, telling him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Jews around the world will be echoing Cohen’s words when they read ‘Hineni’ in the weekly Torah portion.
The term was used by several Biblical characters in answer to God’s call, and was even used by God to describe himself to the prophet, Isaiah.
Therefore My people shall know My name; therefore they shall know in that day that I, even He that spoke, behold, here I am. Isaiah 52:6
Cohen was deeply connected to Judaism throughout his life. He was born on 21 September 1934 in Westmount, Quebec, to a middle-class Jewish family with religious roots. His mother, Marsha (Masha) Klonitsky, was the daughter of a Talmudic writer, Rabbi Solomon Klonitsky-Kline. His paternal grandfather, whose family had emigrated from Poland, was founding president of the Canadian Jewish Congress.
On the topic of being a Kohen (from the priestly caste), Cohen said, “I had a very Messianic childhood.” He said in 1967, “I was told I was a descendant of Aaron, the high priest.”
At the end of a performance in Ramat Gan, Israel in 2009, he blessed the crowd with the full priestly blessing in Hebrew.
He was described as being a Sabbath observant Jew, though for many years he connected to Buddhism, but he saw that as part of his Jewish observance. in aninterview in the New York Times, he explained, “Well, for one thing, in the tradition of Zen that I’ve practiced, there is no prayerful worship and there is no affirmation of a deity. So theologically there is no challenge to any Jewish belief.”
Cohen was inducted into both the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame as well as the American Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was a Companion of the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour. In 2011, Cohen received one of the Prince of Asturias Awards for literature and the ninth Glenn Gould Prize.