Hallelujah! Leonard Cohen’s Israeli triumph

Cohen’s religious lyrics had particular resonance in Israel last week

Cohen’s religious lyrics had particular resonance in Israel last week

When Leonard Cohen drew back from the stage slightly at the end of his marathon three-and-a-half-hour set in Ramat Gan, and recited the Birkat Cohanim — the blessing of the priests — complete with outstretched arms of benediction, there was a collective sigh from the enraptured crowd.

It was a sign that Israel’s often battered sense of itself still had a moral basis. Here, after all, was one of our own, come back in triumph.

Taking to an Israeli stage for the first time in more than 20 years, Leonard Cohen, at 75, seemed to have a revitalised spring in his step. His international tour has led to worldwide praise, even by his erstwhile critics, who loved to say that Cohen’s was music to which to commit suicide.

But, having seen him twice in London, I can say with certainty that in Israel Leonard Cohen surpassed himself. So many of his lyrics have a religious, biblical resonance that hearing them in Israel lent them a new meaning. It was only days before Yom Kippur and there was Leonard Cohen singing Who by fire, taken from the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy. His back-up singers, Hattie and Charley Webb, gave a coruscating rendition of If it be thy will.

For me, probably the most hair-on-the-back of the neck moment came with his song The Partisan, written in French and English. In English, he sings “and then the soldiers came.... she died without a whisper”. In French, he sings “Les Allemands”, rather than “the soldiers”. The Germans came. And this he sang to a crowd of 55,000, in which there were almost certainly the sons and daughters of survivors — and yes, many of them were and had been soldiers.

This was billed as a Concert of Peace and Reconciliation and much of the near $2 million proceeds have gone to the Bereaved Parents Circle, a group of Israelis and Palestinians who have lost members of their families to the continuing conflict. Cohen made several references to the group from the stage and said, in yet another reference to liturgy, that theirs was a “holy, holy, holy” undertaking which should receive support.

A friend told me that in recent years, any big pop star who took the trouble to learn “Shalom, Israel” when they took to the stage has been greeted with an almost pathetic, longing, response. Gosh, the outside world isn’t all bad. They don’t all hate us. See, Madonna said “Shalom”!

But with Leonard Cohen the response was different. What might have been thought cheesy or kitsch — his declaration of “Mah tovu”, “How goodly are thy tents” — achieved a different connotation.

This, after all, was Cohen, the grandson of a major Hebrew grammarian, the child of rabbis, and a committed Jew — even though he is also a Buddhist monk. This was Cohen who asked for the words of his songs to be translated into Hebrew subtitles, so that an awed crowd watched as the words of the Psalms, all of which they knew from childhood, floated across the screens.

And when in one of his three triumphant encores, Cohen let the crowd sing First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin, there was a real sense of affirmation. We are here and we are here to stay, was the message.

And Leonard Cohen is Our Jew, and he has come home.

Jenni Frazer is Assistant Editor of the JC

    Last updated: 2:54pm, February 18 2011