Leonard Cohen at the Arena in Geneva, 27 October 2008
Leonard Cohen at the Arena in Geneva, Oct. 27, 2008. Courtesy of Rama/Creative Commons license.

Leonard Cohen is as Jewish as it gets

Leonard Cohen has just celebrated his 82nd birthday -- which makes him the oldest rock star in the world.

In celebration of his birthday, Cohen has released a new song, "You Want It Darker," from his forthcoming album.

The song is not only hauntingly beautiful. It is also one of the most profoundly Jewish statements in all of popular music.

(And did the New York Times really have to give Leonard Cohen a snarky birthday gift of declaring what many of us have already suspected -- that his iconic "Hallelujah" is well on its way to becoming a cliche?)

Check out the lyrics to "You Want It Darker."

 

...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

Hineni, hineni

I'm ready, my lord

There's a lover in the story

But the story's still the same

There's a lullaby for suffering

And a paradox to blame

But it's written in the scriptures

And it's not some idle claim

You want it darker

We kill the flame

They're lining up the prisoners

And the guards are taking aim

I struggled with some demons

They were middle class and tame

I didn't know I had permission to murder and to maim

If you are the dealer, let me out of the game...

Hineni, hineni

Hineni, hineni

I'm ready, my lord

That song is not only Leonard Cohen's birthday gift to himself.

It is also his gift to the Jewish world -- just in time for the Days of Awe, aka the High Holy Days, aka Rosh Ha Shanah and Yom Kippur.

First, the words to Cohen's song come straight out of Jewish liturgy. Cohen translates and mischievously re-interprets the words of Kaddish, the traditional Jewish statement of faith that has come to be associated with a prayer for the dead.

"Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name. Vilified, crucified, in the human frame."

Moreover -- he is saying something powerful. Violence to human beings "vilifies" and "crucifies" God, as well.

Why "crucifies?" This is hardly the first time that Cohen has put Jesus into one of his songs, or into his poetry. Remember his iconic song, "Suzanne"? "Jesus was a sailor, when he walked upon the water..."

For countless billions of people across the globe, "crucifies" is the most powerful evocation of human suffering. Cohen knows that.

Second, he adds the word Hineni -- one of the most powerful and evocative words in the entire Bible.

It serves as Abraham's response to God's demand that he sacrifice his son, Isaac -- which Jews hear during theological "prime time" on Rosh Ha Shanah -- and which Cohen has already "covered" in his song "Story of Isaac."

Hineni means: I am here, I am ready.

Third, his backup singers are the choir of Shaar Hoshamayim in Montreal -- the Orthodox synagogue where he grew up, and the synagogue where his father and uncles had been lay leaders. The cantor of that synagogue, Gideon Zelermyer, is a featured singer on the song.

So, Cohen is not only writing a piece of liturgical music.

He is nodding, lovingly, to the Jewish roots of his Montreal childhood -- roots that have always sustained him, despite his various spiritual wanderings.

Ask yourself: when was the last time that a pop singer -- or, almost anyone in popular culture -- paid such humble homage to his or her childhood Jewish roots?

To feature the choir and cantor of the synagogue where you grew up?

Face it. Most of American popular culture long ago decreed that it was too cool for shul.

Not Leonard Cohen. Much of his music evokes the Jewish spiritual experience -- especially that of the Days of Awe.

Consider "Who By Fire" and "If It Be Your Will."

But Leonard Cohen does not stop there.

No. Recently, Cohen's old lover-muse, Marianne Ihlen, died. She was the subject and inspiration of the classic Cohen song "So Long, Marianne."

So, how did Cohen choose to say, well, so long, Marianne?

In a letter to her, written shortly before her death, Cohen writes:

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 your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.

And now we know why Cohen sang: "Hineni. I'm ready, my lord."

As he reaches the age of 82 (more than triple the age of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse, and Kurt Cobain at the time of the deaths; it's called, grimly, the "27 Club"), Cohen is thinking about his own mortality.

And he is saying that he is ready. Like Moses at the end of Deuteronomy, he is ready to surrender to the Divine Decree -- whenever it might come.

Hineni, Lord.

It is the ultimate message for the Days of Awe.

May you live to be 120, Leonard Cohen.

Comments

  1. Abraham actually says “Hineni” in response to God calling his name at the beginning of the story, before God makes the demand. Abraham’s first response is to return to his lawyerly roots and try to stall by asking which son God means, as he has two sons, he loves them both, and both are their mothers’ only sons. Finally God has to specify Isaac. ..This at least is according to Midrash on Gen. 22:2.

  2. Actually the words are not “hineni hineni” but rather “hineni heayni”… הנני העני
    הִנְנִי הֶעָנִי מִמַּעַשׂ
    נִרְעַשׁ וְנִפְחַד מִפַּחַד יוֹשֵׁב תְּהִלּוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל
    בָּאתִי לַעֲמֹד וּלְהִתְחַנֵּן לְפָנֶיךָ
    The prayer is said before Mussaf in Ashkenazi Siddur. And it’s words make clear that this is a totally Jewish song, in which Cohen submits totally to his G-d:
    Here I stand, impoverished of deeds, trembling and frightened with the dread of He Who is enthroned upon the praises of Israel.

    I have come to stand and supplicate before You for Your people Israel, who have sent me although I am unworthy and unqualified to do so.

    Therefore, I beg of you, O G-d of Abraham, G-d of Isaac, and G-d of Jacob, HaShem, HaShem, G-d, Compassionate and Gracious, G-d of Israel, Frightening and Awesome One, grant success to the way upon which I travel, standing to plead for mercy upon myself and upon those who sent me.

    Please do not hold them to blame for my sins and do not find them guilty of my iniquities, for I am a careless and willful sinner. Let them not feel humiliated by my willful sins. Let them not be ashamed of me and let me not be ashamed of them. Accept my prayer like the prayers of an experienced elder whose lifetime has been well spent, whose beard is fully grown, whose voice is sweet, and who is friendly with other people.

    May you denounce the Satan, that he not impede me. May You regard our omissions with love, and obscure our willful sins with love. May You transform all travail and evil to joy and gladness, to life and peace, for us and for all Israel, who love truth and peace. And may there be no stumbling block in my prayer.

    May it be Your will, HaShem, the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the great, mighty, and awesome G-d, “I Am That I Am,” that all the angels who bring up prayers may present my prayer before Your Throne of Glory; may they spread it out before You for the sake of all the righteous, devout, wholesome, and upright people, and for the sake of the glory of Your great and awesome Name, for You hear the prayer of Your people Israel with compassion.

    Blessed are You, who hears prayer.

  3. Leonard Cohen is a powerful songwriter, one of the best ever. I’ve you’ve never heard k.d. lang sing “Hallelujah” you’re missing out. It’s magnificent. You’ll find it on YouTube.

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