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

Liel Leibovitz

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.

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

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.

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