Now Back in Public, Songwriting Legend Leonard Cohen Plays To a New Controversy

By J.J. Goldberg

Published May 20, 2009, issue of May 29, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Buddhist monk, Jewish poet, famed philanderer and now the subject of political protest, Leonard Cohen performed at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall on May 17. The elusive Canadian folk-rock legend, on his first major tour in 15 years, worked the capacity crowd of 6,000 fans who shouted out and sang along through three hours of his trademark songs of despair, doom and failed love. Now 74, Cohen bounced around the stage with more energy than he ever displayed as a young singer in the 1960s.

On Tour: Pro-Palestinian groups are calling on Leonard Cohen, top, to cancel his September concert in Israel.
On Tour: Pro-Palestinian groups are calling on Leonard Cohen, top, to cancel his September concert in Israel.

The excitable scene has been repeated in scores of cities, during a yearlong tour that has taken him as far afield as Moscow; Berlin; London, and Melbourne, Australia.

The New York event, however, featured one new element that reportedly had Cohen’s handlers on edge: a group of about three dozen pro-Palestinian protesters standing across the street from the theater entrance, calling on the singer to cancel a concert in Israel that is expected to take place in September.

The demonstrators, organized by local pro-Palestinian organizations and at least one left-wing Jewish group, spent an hour and a half chanting and singing improvised songs addressed to Cohen. A typical song, “Don’t Play Israel, Leonard Cohen,” was sung to the tune of “Hava Nagila.”

Protests against the Tel Aviv concert — which has yet to be scheduled, according to Cohen’s spokeswoman Tiffany Shipp — were begun in late April in Great Britain by a group called the British Committee for Universities of Palestine, which has been advocating boycotts of Israel by artists and academics for several years. Open letters to Cohen have now been issued by a Palestinian pro-boycott campaign and by a group of 110 Israeli intellectuals.

All three groups’ statements cite a poem titled “Questions for Shomrim” that Cohen is said to have written in the 1970s. The brief poem ends with the words, “And you and I/Can only cry and wonder/Must Jewish people/Build our Dachaus too?” The poem appears to have been circulating on the Internet for at least two years, provoking furious debates on numerous Web sites and chat groups.

The British pro-boycott group has posted the poem on its Web site, together with a brief statement signed by Cohen, saying he had written the poem in the 1970s and that the word “Shomrim” referred to the Hashomer Hatzair Zionist youth group, which “supported a binational state in Palestine/Israel when I was close to them.”

In fact, however, Cohen did not write the poem at all, according to Shipp. She emphasized, too, that the trip to Israel had not yet been scheduled, so any discussion of reconsidering his plans was “premature.”

Pro-boycott protesters outside Radio City said they remained hopeful that Cohen would end up staying away from Israel. Three members of their group had met on May 15 with Cohen’s manager, Robert Kory, and several other representatives, they said. “We explained to them that the situation in the region is no longer acceptable,” said an organizer, Riham Barghouti, a West Bank native. “They asked for some alternate possibilities other than cancellation. We said because we were there for the Palestinians, we could not negotiate…. It’s not an issue of coming halfway. It’s an issue of what Israel is doing in Palestine.”

One of the leading organizers of the protest is a group called Adalah-NY: The Coalition for Justice in the Middle East, which participants at the rally routinely referred to as “Adalah” — also the name of an Israeli-Arab rights group funded by the New Israel Fund. A representative from the fund said the two groups had no connection and that the NIF-funded Adalah (The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel) did not support boycotting Israel. There had been discussions about Adalah changing its name to avoid confusion, she said, but no decisions have been reached.

Inside the theater, concertgoers who were aware of the protest seemed nonplussed by the idea of canceling a concert. According to John Brett, a Dublin resident who flew to New York for the weekend to hear Cohen — “I had to, because the Dublin concert was sold out,” he said — Cohen had conclusively dealt with the matter of playing in Israel back in 1988, when he was asked the question in a Norwegian television interview. “He said he would play to both Israelis and Palestinians,” Brett said. “I have the tape.”

A glance at Cohen’s biography suggests that the idea of him canceling an Israel appearance, much less comparing Israel to Nazi Germany in a poem, is wildly implausible. In the early 1970s, when he was said to have written “Questions for Shomrim,” he was visiting Israel. He volunteered at an army base during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, at a time when his career was soaring. He has visited Israel several times since then, and performed there twice in the 1980s. In an undated interview, apparently from the mid 1980s, posted on an unofficial Cohen fan site, he called Israel “probably the most democratic country in the world. It’s alive.”

Born and raised in Montreal, where he attended Orthodox day schools through high school, Cohen is one of a trio of iconic figures in the city’s intensely ethnic Jewish culture, along with late novelist Mordecai Richler and poet A.M. Klein. All three became towering figures in Canada’s general culture through writings that were deeply suffused with their Jewish experience, in much the same way as American writers such as Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. Unlike the Americans, however, the three Canadians remained deeply engaged with Judaism and the Jewish community throughout their lives.

The religious-cultural engagement was never uncomplicated for any of them. Cohen himself has led a famously un-pious life, including a series of affairs with wives of friends, which he chronicled intimately in his songs. He was ordained as a Buddhist monk in the 1990s and spent five years in a Buddhist monastery near Los Angeles. Throughout, he has been described in repeated media profiles as a religious Jew who observes the Sabbath. He told The New York Times in an interview last February that he saw no contradiction between his Buddhism and his Judaism, because Buddhism did not involve prayer to a deity.

His current tour’s playlist, reportedly identical in every appearance, is a live psychodrama of his psycho-religious career. His love songs, mostly laments, repeatedly allude to the romantic trials of the biblical King David and Samson. One of his best-known songs, the much-recorded “Hallelujah,” is framed as a confessional by King David himself. Several of his songs draw not on the Bible, but on the prayer book. One of his most durable favorites, performed early in the current concerts, is a play on the Unetaneh Tokef prayer on Yom Kippur: “Who by fire, who by water, who by ordeal, who by common trial…. And who should I say is calling?”

The concert’s closing song, “Whither Thou Goest,” is lifted word for word from the Book of Ruth. It ends with evocative words that easily could have been his response to the protesters outside: “Thy people shall be my people.”

Contact J.J. Goldberg at

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • What would Maimonides say about Warby Parker's buy-one, give-one charity model?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.