The Most Jewish American songwriter…
…is a Buddhist Canadian. Leonard Cohen's long songwriting career—his first album came out in 1967 and his latest, "Old Ideas," was released this year—has been more critically acclaimed than successful in the gold-record sense. Yet among his fellow artists, he is considered one of the greatest songwriters of all time. For instance, he's one of only two individuals whose song lyrics are included in " The Norton Anthology of Poetry." (The other one is W.S. Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan).
There have been dozens, if not hundreds, of great Jewish songwriters. The Songwriters Hall of Fame looks like the donor wall on a synagogue. And while some of these songwriters have written a Jewish-themed song or two, here and there, only Cohen keeps coming back to his Jewish roots for references and imagery with any regularity.
Take one of his most-covered songs, "Hallelujah." It has been done by dozens of performers and included in many TV (House) and movie (Watchmen) scores, and even in the scores of French and Spanish films. Its central image is that of King David being enthralled by Bathsheba: "You saw her bathing on the roof/ Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you." And, of course, the title is the Hebrew word, repeated throughout David's Psalms, meaning "Praise the Lord."
But this is High Holiday season, and the one appropriate for now takes the "Unitaneh Tokef" prayer, with its refrain of "Who shall live and who shall die?" and updates it. Cohen's version, "Who By Fire?" include deaths by drugs like "barbiturates" and "powder."
Another story retold at this time is the Binding of Isaac. Cohen takes the "Story of Isaac," and turns it into a plea against the suffering of children for some cause or authority: "You who build these altars now/ To sacrifice these children/ You must not do it anymore…. And mercy on our uniform/ Man of peace or man of war." In the era of child-abuse cover-ups that protect those in authority, and news of child tortures in Syria and elsewhere, Cohen's words still—unfortunately—resonate.
Cohen feels justified in reinterpreting the Torah. After all, he explains in his song " The Future,": "I'm the little Jew who wrote the Bible." By this, I believe he means that each of us interprets and applies the Torah in his or her own way as a matter of course, regardless of what we are "supposed" to think. Each of us, in effect, "writes the Bible." Not something authorities would agree with, but then Cohen has never really agreed with authorities himself.
Cohen references Jewish prayer again in " If It Be Your Will," a powerful prayer based on the common Jewish prayer opening "Yehi ratzohn," often translated "May it be Your Will." The whole song is lovely, but this verse relates to Cohen's role as a singer: "If it be Your will/ That a voice be true/ From this broken hill/ I will sing to You/ From this broken hill/ All Your praises they shall ring/ If it be Your will/ To let me sing."
Not that much of Cohen's work is famous, but one of his even-less-known works is The Book of Longing. Before he began songwriting, Cohen was an award-winning poet, and this is his most recent work of non-musical verse. Fellow Jewish composer Philip Glass, however, put to music anyway. One of the songs from this cycle is called "G-d Opened My Eyes," with the hyphen between the 'G' and 'd,'… and another is the short poem "Not a Jew." In its entirety, it reads: "Anyone who says/ I'm not a Jew/ is not a Jew/ I'm very sorry/ but this is final." (Again, Cohen acting as his own authority!)
This brings us to Cohen's new album, "Old Ideas." The Jewish song this time is called "Amen." It seems to contain a reference to the Holocaust: "Tell me again/ When the victims are singing/ And laws of remorse are restored/ Tell me again/ That you know what I'm thinking/ But vengeance belongs to the Lord (Deut. 32:35)… Tell me again/ When the rest of the culture/ Has passed through the Eye of the Camp."
In what way is Cohen's work Jewish? It is challenging in the sense of being complicated, but it also challenges "old ideas" and rote ways of thinking. He is, in the final analysis, an iconoclast, an idol-smasher. And, if he has become an icon, he is first to take a hammer to himself. He is not important, he insists, only his message is; as he writes in the song "Democracy": "I'm junk/ But I'm still holding up this little wild bouquet."