A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen

This is a portrait of an artist attuned to notions of justice, lust, longing, loneliness, and redemption, and possessing the sort of voice and vision commonly reserved for the prophets.

This article was originally published on May 2, 2014.

Excerpted from A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen by Liel Leibovitz (footnotes omitted). Copyright © 2014 by Liel Leibovitz. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.

Chapter One

“Looking for the Note”

Life as Leonard Norman Cohen knew it ended on January 14, 1944, the day his father died. That morning, he and his sister Esther, five years his senior, walked past the dead man’s coffin, taking one last look at his round, alabaster face. It was Esther’s birthday, and when they returned home, Leonard, now the man of the house, told his sister that a celebration was in order. A birthday was a birthday, and there was protocol to be followed. For a moment, they tried to be happy, acting as if nothing else had happened. But every thought led them back to the funeral home, to the high, cold forehead and the lifeless lips. They started sobbing. Esther was fourteen; Leonard was nine.

For a few days he did his best to carry on. The rules of the house, crafted with care by Nathan Cohen when he was alive, were still rigidly observed—the shoes lined up neatly in front of the beds each night, pressed jackets or ironed dresses worn to the dinner table every evening—carrying on the affectations of a lieutenant in the Fourth Field Company of Canadian Engineers who dreamed of one day seeing his son in uniform. But the inertia of discipline wasn’t enough to keep emotions at bay. Everything about the mourning rites of adults seemed designed to help the bereaved ease into the future, but Leonard wanted a few more moments with the past. One night he sneaked into Nathan’s room and selected his father’s favorite bow tie. With a pair of scissors he cut a slit in the fabric, then scribbled a few words on a slip of paper and inserted it into the tie. Quietly he walked down the great staircase and opened the front door of the house. He tiptoed his way to the backyard, which abutted King George Park. With the tall locust trees as his dark and silent witnesses, Leonard dug into the frozen earth, tossed the tie into the hole, and covered it with dirt. “It was the first thing I wrote,” he told People magazine many years later. “I’ve been digging in the garden for years, looking for it. Maybe that’s all I’m doing, looking for the note.”

He wasn’t speaking allegorically, or at least not entirely. That night in the garden Cohen became not just a writer, but a particular kind of writer—the kind who wrote and then destroyed his work. At nine he understood instinctively what Kafka, who ordered his manuscripts burned, or the great Jewish mystic and storyteller, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, who did the same, had labored a lifetime to learn: that sometimes, if you’re sincere about what you have to say, if you want to communicate the full force of human emotions like grief and longing and gratitude, you try writing and then realize that your words are just as transient as you are, that they always fail you when you need them most, and that if they can’t serve their purpose and convey meaning perfectly—if they can’t reach the unborn and the dead—then they’re better off buried or burned. It would take Cohen decades to learn what to do with this early, piercing insight. All he could do that night in 1944 was head back to his room and try to make sense of his world as it now stood.

It was, almost entirely, a Jewish world, its inhabitants leading the kind of life—free, ripe with rights, removed from tradition—that millennia’s worth of their ancestors could have never imagined. Like all other wealthy Jewish families in Montreal, the Cohens lived on top of the hill, in Westmount, having climbed their way up from humble beginnings in the foundries and factories and sweatshops downtown. They helped build a three-thousand-seat leviathan of a synagogue where men wore top hats to services and paid small fortunes for a premium spot in the pews. By the time Nathan Cohen and his siblings— the first generation born and raised in North America—joined the family business, wealth no longer surprised or delighted the Cohens. They lived according to the dictates of their class, with drivers and cooks and Catholic nannies for their children. And they displayed that easygoing affability that history’s winners have always affected in an effort to convince themselves and others that their good fortune wasn’t just a stroke of luck but the inevitable and natural order of things.

Except for Nathan Cohen. His body had been shattered in the First World War, and his afflictions leisurely killed him, over the course of years. In the meantime he grudgingly took his spot in the family’s back row. While his brothers lived their lives in public, in the front office of the factory and in the front seats of the synagogue, he wheezed on the production floor, overseeing machines. Remembering his father decades after his passing, Leonard recalled “the persecuted brother, the near-poet, the innocent of machine toys, the sighing judge who listens but does not sentence,” a broken man who died “spitting blood, wondering why he wasn’t president of the synagogue.”

It was from his father’s position on the totem pole, then, that teenage Leonard was invited to join the family enterprise. A summer spent hanging coats in the factory confirmed that while there was a place for him in the Cohens’ constellation of privilege, it was far from the center and exuded a self-congratulatory sense of charity, of concerned uncles rescuing their hapless brother’s helpless son. Besides, life in the textile business offered earthly rewards, but little that appealed to a young man who was growing up and discovering Byron and Blake.

And the prophets: Several years after his father’s death Leonard’s maternal grandfather moved into the spacious home on Belmont Avenue, staying for a spell and occupying the room down the hall from Leonard. Rabbi Solomon Klinitsky-Klein was a celebrated scholar who was known as Sar haDikdook, or the Prince of Grammarians. He was the author of fastidious works like A Treasury of Rabbinic Interpretations and Lexicon of Hebrew Homonyms, which he was rumored to have written without once consulting reference books. To his young grandson, however, he offered more fiery stuff—with intense concentration, he would read out loud lines like the one from Isaiah about how the Lord “shall smite the earth: with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.” This was a vision of Judaism radically different from the polite theology on offer at the Cohens’ Conservative synagogue; its language of punishment and justice, of damnation and salvation, was not the sort that the gentlemen in the top hats spoke fluently.

The divide between the Cohens and Klinistsky-Klein had not always been so stark. The renowned rabbi and Lazarus Cohen, Leonard’s great-grandfather, were both born in Lithuania, both considered promising Talmudic scholars, and both selected to teach at the finest Hebrew schools. Poverty and the pogroms propelled both men to emigrate, first to England and then to Canada. Klinitsky-Klein kept up with his spiritual pursuits, establishing himself as a rabbi. Lazarus Cohen had earthlier aspirations, starting off as a clerk at a lumberyard and struggling through a succession of businesses built on brawn, from a foundry to a dredging company, until he’d amassed enough wealth to take his place among Montreal’s mightiest.

With his long white beard and stricken look, Lazarus bore an uncanny resemblance to El Greco’s portrait of Saint Jerome—both come off as men who reserve their best conversations for the angels. The synagogue he helped build quickly became Montreal’s most vaunted. The name Cohen and his cofounders chose for their congregation said everything about their aspirations: Shaar Hashomayim, the Gate of Heaven. Its founders, strongly affiliated with their city’s well-off English-speaking Episcopalians, gleefully embraced the British mannerisms of their neighbors and designed a crest for their shul, a blue-and-gold ornament topped by a winged Torah scroll and emblazoned with the synagogue’s motto—“This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

Such grandeur placed a significant burden on the next generation of Cohens, and Lazarus’s son, Lyon, did not disappoint. He had his father’s gift for commerce, and started the clothing business that would soon make the Cohen clan an even greater fortune. A friend of Klinitsky-Klein’s from back in Lithuania, Lyon was happy to see the rabbi’s daughter, Masha, marry his son Nathan. It was not uncommon for Jewish families thriving in the new world to think sentimentally about the old one they had left behind, and welcoming the renowned rabbi into their extended family must have pleased the Cohens, injecting their increasingly assimilated lives with a core of traditional values and beliefs.

And so it was on the cusp of old and new, between ancient texts and modern buildings, with one grandfather looking heavenward and the other toiling here on earth, that Leonard Cohen grew up. But without a strong parental figure to guide him firmly in either direction, the young boy was left to seek answers on his own. And the question that consumed him—the one he could not, as a boy, eloquently express but that went on to guide his career and inform his art and forge his world-view—was the same one that shaped the course of Judaism in the twentieth century, namely how, with the old religious ties loosened and the ancient communal bonds unmade, one was to find any meaning in life.

To the extent that this question has distinct origins, they belong not in the dense and scholarly pages of history but on the hazier horizon of biblical accounts, at the moment when the Israelites, freshly out of Egypt, gather at the foothills of Mount Sinai to await word from Moses, their leader, who has traveled up the mountain to meet his God. But God is gnomic. “And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests,” he says, “and an holy nation.” And with that, he sends the newly chosen people on their way. Queries, of course, abound: Why, the dust-covered nomads, huddled in anticipation, might be forgiven for asking, were we the ones chosen, and not, say, a mighty empire like Egypt? Might we one day become unchosen, and, if so, for which transgressions? Does the compact hold with our children after us? Does it hold in perpetuity? And, most important, having been chosen, what is it that we were chosen to do? God never says. To have been chosen means having to spend eternity wondering what it means to have been chosen.

It’s a terrific cosmic joke, but it makes for great theology, too. Exiled for millennia, scattered across all corners of the world, the Jews have survived as a nation, outliving so many of antiquity’s proudest peoples, because they had these strange questions to ponder: Why us? And what now? These questions fashioned a religion that gave them the license to mix with their neighbors—after all, whatever the chosen ones’ mission may be, it probably had to do with humanity at large—but also compelled them to remain somewhat exclusively ingathered, as the chosen people would not remain a distinct people for long if they wholeheartedly adopted the customs of the gentiles, ate their dishes, and married their daughters and sons. One day, the rabbis promised, it would all become clear: One day the messiah will come, and the Jews will return to the Promised Land. One day, but not yet. In the meantime, they warned their flock against taking matters into their own hands and trying to pave their own path to redemption. There was nothing the Jews could do but wait, the rabbis advised, but while they waited, there were plenty of things they could do, from the ethical treatment of animals to the establishment of just courts, all detailed in the Torah and all designed to make life on earth a bit more heavenly. With time, the Jewish messiah, too, emerged as another cosmic joke: He will only arrive, Jewish theology insists, when all Jews are pious and compassionate and ready to receive him, but when all Jews are pious and compassionate and kind to one another, there will be no need for a messiah.

Humankind’s Spiritual and Sexual Yearnings Were Intertwined

With few exceptions, this holding pattern worked well for the Jews. At points some turned to self-proclaimed prophets, and others abandoned the faith altogether. When things got very tough—as they did in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with one pogrom after another claiming lives and shaking communities—Hasidism arose and offered its adherents a direct and ecstatic channel to God through prayer and meditation, as well as the benefits of powerful rabbis to follow and consult. But the principles of the religion remained more or less unchanged. And then came the Emancipation.

Beginning in 1791 in France and quickly spreading across Europe, Jews were relieved of the old edicts that kept them from being recognized as equal citizens in their countries of residence. In rapid succession, nation after nation afforded its Jews the right to vote and run for office, allowed them new freedoms of occupation, and welcomed them into new and previously inaccessible circles. In return the Jews were expected to assimilate, to shed their old-world religion and become modern. As the princess Halm-Eberstein observed of the young and ambitious Jews coming out from under tradition’s yoke in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, the newly emancipated “wanted to live a large life, with freedom to do what every one else did.”

But the old spiritual skin was impossible to shed. Millennia’s worth of convictions and rituals don’t just disappear. They linger and lurk, seeking a crack through which they can once again slip into consciousness. Freud, a second-generation emancipated Jew, had something similar in mind when he spoke of the return of the repressed. Many of the newly emancipated found refuge in Zionism, a movement that wrapped the luminous and ancient messianic expectations in the plain brown paper of nationalism. Marxists and militarists, rabbis and fierce secularists, men who defined Judaism as a culture and men who were convinced it was an ethnicity—all gathered under Zionism’s banner. They yearned to fulfill the prophecy of resettling the Promised Land, even if they couldn’t agree on what kind of polity might emerge once the Jews returned and established a modern nation-state of their own. In their zeal they cast aside the old rabbinical exhortations to do nothing but wait. The messiah, they scoffed, could come whenever he so wished, but in the meantime there was no reason not to act, to work the land, to revive the ancient language heretofore used only in prayer. All of Zionism’s internal contradictions, all the divisions that set one faction apart from another, were erased by the enthusiasm generated by the faint promise that the Jews could finally come back home.

That enthusiasm moved the Cohens: Four years before the First Zionist Congress convened in Basel in 1897 and declared as its aim “establishing for the Jewish people a publicly and legally assured home in Palestine,” Lazarus Cohen had already visited the land and purchased parts of it in the hope of future settlement. His son, Lyon, inherited his father’s passions; the door of his mansion in Westmount—where interior lives were kept hidden by stone walls and muted sensibilities—was carved with a large Star of David. In 1919, Lyon became a founding member and the first president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, uniting Canada’s disparate Jewish organizations. The inaugural conference, held at Montreal’s City Hall, was addressed by the nation’s solicitor general. In a bit of ceremony, Cohen produced a large flag with the Star of David emblazoned on it, and used it to cover the mayor’s chair. It was a perfect metaphor for the new organization’s dual intentions—the conference’s two major decisions addressed the need to settle newly arrived Jewish immigrants to Canada, mainly by setting up communities in the western parts of the country, as well as the importance of following up on the Balfour Declaration and pursuing a Jewish homeland in Palestine. With one eye trained on affairs at home and another looking east, to Zion, the Cohens thrived.

Zionism, however, was not the only contender for the passions of Jews unmoored by the Emancipation. Jewish mysticism beckoned, too: As Gershom Scholem, probably its greatest scholar, argued, mysticism has always fought an uphill battle against the steely rationality of the halacha, or Jewish law. Scholem traced the origins of the kabbalah, the Jewish mystical school of thought, to the same medieval period that also witnessed the rise of great and astute scholars who spent lifetimes parsing the letter of the law, like Moses Maimonides. The twelfth-century rabbi’s best-known work, The Guide for the Perplexed, is meticulous, combining textual analysis, Aristotelian cosmology, and rational philosophy. At its core is staunch adherence to negative theology, or the idea that there are no positive and definitive statements we can make about God. Can we say God exists? Maimonides argues that the best we can do is say that he doesn’t not exist. Can we say that he is omniscient? No, but we can argue that he’s not ignorant. He’s not ours to know, and certainly not for us to see: He’s an abstraction. Which, of course, makes for tremendous intellectual fun—Maimonides greatly influenced Thomas Aquinas— but is not a great way to move the spirit. Human beings, the earliest mystics understood, worship with their hearts just as much as with their minds. They frequently feel the need to abandon reason and revel in the mysterious and the ecstatic and the obscure. That, in part, was the appeal of the Hebrew prophets: More than just advocating for social justice, they offered a stark alternative to the cool and critical strand of scholarship Judaism has always championed. They were poets, and none more than Isaiah, with his vision of swords turning into plowshares. The prophets shouted. They trembled. They felt with all their hearts.

Maimonides found such intensity detrimental. He could not ignore the role prophecy had played in the Jewish tradition, but he did attempt to radically redefine it. “It is one of the basic principles of religion that God inspires men with the prophetic gift,” he wrote. “But the spirit of prophecy only rests upon the wise man who is distinguished by great wisdom and strong moral character, whose passions never overcome him in anything whatsoever, but who by his rational faculty always has his passions under control, and possesses a broad and sedate mind.” The prophet, the great scholar added, must also be “physically sound.”

Strength, discipline, industriousness—these were the virtues the Cohens had always promoted, the character traits that had made them great merchants and good soldiers. Young Leonard was expected to follow suit, expected not only to join the family business but also to adopt the kind of dispassionate Maimonidean approach that was all the rage at Shaar Hashomayim, an approach that believed a man was measured by his deeds alone, not by his thoughts. But there was something about Klinitsky-Klein’s readings of Isaiah that Leonard couldn’t shake off. He understood them, he told a biographer decades later, to be a manifestation of his grandfather’s “confrontational, belligerent stance” against Judaism’s polite rationality. The old man read and reread the prophet’s stirring passages rather than worship with the dull and the flightless who made up so much of the Jewish community around him.

Even though he lived with his daughter and her children for less than a year, Klinitsky-Klein gave his grandson the gift of an alternative, and far more stirring, vision of Jewish life. It was spiritual but also deeply erotic: Isaiah’s soul may have pointed heavenward, but his tongue was earthy, speaking of sinners as “the seed of the adulterer and the whore” and equating those who had strayed off the righteous path with a woman who has “uncovered” herself “to another than me.” The prophet understood that humankind’s spiritual and sexual yearnings were intertwined. It was an insight that found a ready listener in the adolescent Cohen, himself discovering both yearnings at the same time.

But what was an adolescent—his father dead, his mother gnawed by grief and anxiety, his own future unclear—to do with such an insight? The only way to quiet the chorus of demons that rattled Cohen with emotions too great for him to handle was to engage in the teenage tradition of excessive distraction: He ran for student government, mastered public speaking, learned to play a host of instruments passably, rode his bicycle, played sports, toyed with hypnosis, pursued women, served as a summer camp counselor, and organized events and activities wherever he went. Observed from afar, Cohen gave off such an affable and adroit air that some of those who knew him during this period could be forgiven for thinking, as they did, that he had willed himself into erasing whatever traumatic marks his father’s passing might have left on his psyche and emerged a new and whole man. He did no such thing. At home he would spend most of his time locked in his room, hiding, reading. And he developed a lifelong habit of wandering, setting out on hours-long excursions that led him to the gritty parts of town that most of his fellow young Westmount Jews had no idea existed. It was freedom, but it came at a cost. While his friends took hesitant steps into maturity, buttressed by families and a sense of security, Cohen had few boundaries to impede or shape his explorations. He could walk downtown. He could hypnotize the young housekeeper into removing her underwear. He could stay up past dawn. As long as his grades were good, as long as he kept up appearances, he could run wild. He wasn’t particularly close to his sister, and his mother had remarried and then divorced; she comes off in her son’s recollections as doting and emotional, caring but quick to lay on the guilt. Often she would stay up all night worrying about Leonard, and then, when he came back from his strolls, yell at him, hug him, and offer to cook him some eggs. She didn’t know how to guide him to comfort. He had to find his own way.


Photo by Len Small

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet magazine and teaches at New York University. He is the coauthor of Fortunate Sons, Lili Marlene, and The Chosen Peoples. He lives in New York City.