My Life with Leonard Cohen

Friends, but never close, our paths intersected and then diverged, until this past September, when I connected with Leonard for the last time.

Leonard Cohen walking on a street near his vacation home in Hydra, Greece, October 1960. James Burke/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.

Leonard Cohen walking on a street near his vacation home in Hydra, Greece, October 1960. James Burke/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.

Observation
Nov. 30 2016
About the author

Ruth Wisse is a research professor in Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. Her books include Jews and Power, The Modern Jewish Canon, and, most recently, No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (2013).


When Leonard Cohen died in early November, the flags of Montreal, his native city, were lowered to half-mast. Friends and fans exchanged notes of condolence. Leonard was such a mournful singer that he seemed to have readied his admirers for the loss of him, supplying the words and music for their lament. Many—and his Jewish devotees most of all—continue to grieve for the man who danced them to the end of love.

Leonard’s eminence was never any mystery to me, a fellow Montrealer and fellow undergraduate (two years behind him) at McGill University. Decades later, when I set out to write a memoir of my college years, I found that I remembered him more distinctly than I remembered myself at that age. Although he was by no means the closest of my friends, not my lover or even the man I most admired among that assemblage of aspiring students, the title of my essay, “My Life without Leonard Cohen,” conveyed the realization that by organizing my memories around his singular presence, I could best reconstruct how our respective paths in life had diverged.

In college Leonard gave the impression of being a little unsure about everything—except his talent. In my essay, which was published in Commentary in 1995, I described how in his senior year and my sophomore year, our shared teacher Louis Dudek launched the McGill Poetry Series with Leonard’s first published book of verse; I helped to raise the money for that project and took part in the discussions surrounding its appearance. The title of the book, Let Us Compare Mythologies, already hinted at his idea of Judaism as but one set of beliefs among many. In a university that then included in its curriculum not a single reference to Judaism or the Jews, we who constituted about a third of the undergraduate population tended to devalue our heritage. “Culture” for us meant Matthew Arnold; “poetry” (at least for students of Dudek) meant T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Although we were never tempted to deny our Jewishness, it seemed bad form to practice it overtly or to mention it in our classes. Cosmopolitan worldliness was our watchword.

Soon after college I rebelled against this self-denigration and determined to introduce Jewish literature into the academy. In 1969 I helped to found the Jewish Studies program at McGill and taught courses in Yiddish literature. Meanwhile, Leonard for his part was launched on an exploration of spiritual experience that eventually took him to the Buddhist monastery on Mount Baldy, California. In his writing and through other forms of experimentation he was intent on finding the combination that was right for him.

 

My 1995 essay, swaddled in appreciation and love, nonetheless reflected my disappointment over Leonard’s choice. He had written that Canadians were “desperate for a Keats.” I demurred:

Not true in my case. I was desperate for a Cohen. I bet on him as on a racehorse, prayed for him as for an angel. His confidence and his talent were such that I accorded to him my highest hopes, certain that he would become the guardian truth-teller of my generation.

By “Cohen” I had in mind the Jewish high-priestly caste, a fitting association for a poet reaching for greatness. Thou shalt not flirt with other gods is the basis of the Jewish creed. I’d been writing about the two of us in parallel, but at this point in my essay I switched tracks; the man climbing Mount Baldy was not standing with me at the foot of Mount Sinai. He would follow his muse wherever she led him; if I wanted a poet or writer for the Jewish people, I would have to look elsewhere.

To my surprise, soon after the essay’s appearance I received a note from Leonard, whom I’d not seen in years. It was unmistakably distressed. “I don’t know about ‘flower-childrens’ brigades,” he wrote, referring to my description of the audiences he was attracting,

but I was with General [Ariel] Sharon a mile from Ismailia in the Sahara desert during the Yom Kippur War. I didn’t see too many secular Jewish scholars from Montreal around.

He was reminding me that in October 1973 he had flown to Israel from his home on the Greek island of Hydra to perform for the troops in a time of national crisis, while I (whom he mistakenly characterized as a secular Jew) was hunkering down in Montreal. He signed it “Yr. old friend L.” as if to charge me with a breach of friendship, and followed up with a small carton of books, saying:

I know you will want to write about me again in the near future in order to retract all your reckless evaluation of my life and work.

I no longer remember what I answered—undoubtedly something about the letters I’d received from mutual friends who used the term “loving” to describe the spirit in which I had written. But much as I regretted having caused him pain, I could not have “retracted” the essay because nothing that I’d read of him or heard in his songs contradicted my observations. “Let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone, / Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon. . . .” His lyrics were elemental, pagan, often deliberately in breach of Jewish expectations. The young poet from a Canadian outpost had struck out on an uncharted road, trying mind-altering drugs and new spiritual channels for his natural gifts.

Turning the limited range of his voice and instrumentation to greatest advantage, Leonard stepped out onto the stage solo, with an original brand of song. I admired his boldness. Writing was solitary, he worked hard at it—and he was richly rewarded by an expanding audience. In a tiny shop in Łańcut, Poland where I tried to buy film for my camera, they were playing Leonard Cohen. Ditto when I dropped in for breakfast at a Paris café. I found this enchanting but I could sympathize only so far with its corollary. To be a popular songwriter was to court the broadest possible public and to avoid giving it offense. His métier required idolization and celebrity, and he earned them both.

I happened to know what he’d jettisoned in becoming that songwriter. At McGill he was a debater as well as a poet, smart, incisive, shrewd. As between a discriminating and rooted intellectual and an ingratiating troubadour who belonged everywhere, he could not afford to appear in his music as he had appeared briefly in wartime at the Suez Canal. His lyrics treated war in the sloppy manner that appealed directly to those flower-children brigades, and to the part in all of us that would like to believe there is nothing at stake in ever waging it. In his collection of poems Book of Mercy he wrote things like:

Israel, and you who call yourself Israel, the Church that calls itself Israel, and the revolt that calls itself Israel, and every nation chosen to be a nation—none of these lands is yours, all of you are thieves of holiness, all of you are at war with Mercy.

This was penned after 1973. Alas, he was not my man. The writing I was doing about the betrayal by liberals of Israel and the Jews won me brickbats from the very people who swooned at his feet. How could he expect me to sympathize with him for feeling affronted? Besides, he could hold his own:

So you can stick your little pins in that voodoo doll
I’m very sorry, baby, doesn’t look like me at all
I’m standing by the window where the light is strong
Ah they don’t let a woman kill you
Not in the Tower of Song

If he felt aggrieved, he was cool enough to turn it to gold.

 

Leonard was given to self-irony, and so was I. As years passed, it amused me that his fame made my essay about life without him the best-known item I would ever write. But what I was slower to see was that, for his expanding audience, he was also emerging as exactly the type of archetypal Jew they required. An early record, New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974), included a eulogy for Janis Joplin, an adaptation of “Greensleeves”—and “Who by Fire,” instantaneously recognizable even to once-a-year synagogue-goers as an adaptation of the most familiar prayer of the Yom Kippur liturgy, foretelling the soon-to-be sealed fate of “who shall live and who shall die.” Fans who already liked Cohen now responded to him as their kind of Jew, while younger Jews hungry for cultural confirmation idolized him as their musical champion. I had wanted a Cohen. A hit single was more than enough to make him both priest and prophet.

Then, ten years later, came “Hallelujah.” Leonard saw King David the Psalmist not in his regal glory, certainly not as the victorious warrior over Goliath and the Philistines, and not as the matchless rhapsodist of the glory of the Lord of Hosts, but in the image of Leonard Cohen: anguished, broken, racked with pain and loss. The chord he struck with this song has never stopped reverberating. Among its myriad interpretations, its Jewishness (as opposed to its Christology, its Buddhism, and all the shape-shifting rest) comes through most clearly in the recent Yiddish rendition by Daniel Kahn where the Hebraic religious terminology is domesticated by the Yiddish idiom and the liturgical component is accentuated by, for example, the rhyming of Hallelujah with the Hebrew-derived words r’fuah (healing) and y’shuah (deliverance or salvation, also playing on the Hebrew name of Jesus). By postponing the chorus for the end, Kahn mutes what is after all mere translation from the Bible and from Leonard Cohen. Should this transposition of Leonard into Yiddish become an industry, it will have done more for that language than the “secular Jewish scholar” whom he accused of having wronged him.

 

I knew that sooner or later I had to contact Leonard again to share with him what life had wrought. In 2014 I was at a Jewish conference at a mountain resort near Munich originally built by and for members of the Nazi elite. The ironies of history aside, it was a special pleasure to meet there Howard Jacobson, the contemporary British writer I most enjoy, and his splendid wife Jenny. On the evening we dined together they described attending Leonard’s recent performance in London, Jenny because she loved his music and Howard because Jenny had wanted her husband’s company. Howard had gone as a skeptic and emerged a fan, thereby turning Leonard into the admired writer of my admired writer. Because it was a Friday, we had first attended Sabbath evening services, passionately led by a rabbi who sang some of the liturgy to the music of . . . Leonard Cohen. Once more, I who had set up a dichotomy on the basis of how each of us served the Jewish people had to acknowledge which of us was the anointed one. The world might claim him, but Jews had made Leonard Cohen their own.

Although I no longer had a usable address or phone number for Leonard, I was able to locate the name of his agent; but the gentleman never responded to my request. One day this past August, feeling no urgency, I happened to mention my interest during the lunch break in a seminar I was teaching, and one of the participants spoke up: “He’s a member of my Los Angeles congregation and he’s good friends with Rabbi Mordecai Finley. Would you like me to get you his email?” It seems that once Leonard finished comparing mythologies, he had begun to pray from the siddur. Rabbi Finley kindly supplied me with the email address and I wrote him just before Rosh Hashanah, describing how it had felt to usher in the Sabbath to his melodies:

You may remember the essay I wrote about the way our lives went different ways, the point of which was that you went out into the world and I stayed on the Jewish street. I wrote it with all the love I felt for you, . . . but I was sad that you had left those who could have used you and sad for you because I thought you did not sufficiently appreciate what you’d been blessed with. And now—there it was—the turnabout. The Jewish people had found in YOU what it was looking for. . . . You for the communal Sabbath and you for their private pleasures. You know the “Dudeleh” that Rabbi Levi Yitzḥak of Berdichev is said to have sung to God—Du, du, You and always You. I felt like composing something like that for you, the irony of course at my expense.

He wrote back with sweetness:

I was so happy to hear your voice. The years collapsed, the questions evaporated, and once again we were friends walking down the campus to the streets of the city of Montreal, that curious incubator of faith and longing.

Thank you for your work in the world on behalf of our people, now as before, under siege. You have always been on the front line.

And before signing off he included, in Hebrew type, with the name of God replaced by his trademark logo of two superimposed hearts forming a star of David, the priestly benediction from the book of Numbers:

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It was as though he had assumed the priestly role I had once tried to assign him. Or maybe he knew he was saying his goodbyes and that is how he signed off to everyone.

My eulogy joins the stream that has never stopped since his death on November 7. I wish he could have seen the tributes by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin. The man who wrote, “Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye,” was taken leave of by his immediate family in a manner that he presumably chose and that became him. He was buried privately in the Montreal cemetery of the Shaar Hashomayim synagogue where he had once davened with his family: the leading family of that imposing congregation. Nearby in the same cemetery rest my aunts and uncles, fellow members.

My parents were the only ones in our family who had moved to another part of the city; they are buried in the much more crowded Jewish cemetery on Rue de la Savane. There my brother Benjamin lies beside the sister of Elie Wiesel, forging another, accidental kind of indissoluble bond. Mother’s tombstone lists all of her siblings who have no graves. It was our great privilege growing up in Montreal to know that we could be brought to Jewish burial among our immediate ancestors. That Leonard came to rejoin his family is a wondrous thing, for him and for them. Despite my unretracted strictures, I, who will likely not be buried in Montreal, am still more sentimental about him than I can be about myself.

More about: Arts & Culture, Leonard Cohen, Music, Poetry