'Hallelujah' in Tel Aviv: Leonard Cohen Energizes Diverse Crowd

By Nathan Jeffay

Published September 25, 2009.
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Despite the row ahead of his performance, when Leonard Cohen began his sell-out Tel Aviv concert Thursday, September 24, there wasn’t a hint of awkwardness about coming to Israel.

Pro-Palestinian activists called on him to boycott Israel, but he came anyway and was brimming with enthusiasm about his host country. “How goodly are your tents Jacob, your dwellings Israel,” he declared, using the original Hebrew from the Biblical book of Numbers.

Almost 50,000 people crammed in to Ramat Gan Stadium — a far bigger crowd than Cohen is used to. Judging by the numbers mouthing along to each and every song, most were dedicated fans. And judging by numbers on the look out for tickets outside the stadium at the last minute, many who were equally devoted didn’t get in.

Cohen’s Israel following isn’t only surprising for how large it is, but also how mixed it is. There were plenty of people in the stereotypical Cohen fan age-range, forties and upwards, but there was a large much younger following — many of whom were not born when he last performed Israel in 1975.

This is what a couple of square yards near the stage looked like: a couple in their late fifties stood arm-in-arm; a young couple in their early twenties sat on the ground transfixed, the woman in her army uniform evidently on the way home for the weekend; a girl in her late teens, drunk in the extreme, danced enthusiastically singing along word-perfect. A middle-aged man wearing a kippah and his wife with a headscarf were nearby, as were two young Israeli Arab women, one in a headscarf.

When Cohen started his classics, like “Chelsea Hotel” and “First We Take Manhattan,” the crowd erupted into rapturous applause and sang along for sections. But for much of the concert the crowd was surprisingly quiet, doing something that Israelis don’t tend to do: watching respectfully and in almost-silent appreciation. The concert was un-Israeli in another respect: It started right on time at 7.45 p.m., even though people were still on their way in.

The audience found Cohen’s rendition of “Who By Fire” particularly poignant, as it is based on the liturgy from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Throughout the whole concert, as Cohen sang lyrics were translated in to Hebrew on giant screens, and it was surreal seeing the lines from the liturgy he had switched to English translated back to Hebrew and matching the prayer book word for word. A policeman who had kept an on-duty stern expression throughout the performance welled up, reached in to his pocket and pulled out a camera to capture the moment.

There was a sense of Cohen advancing a claim-of-ownership when he came to “Hallelujah.” This song has been covered by so many artists, including Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright, but Cohen sang it with such feeling and gusto it was as if he was questioning why anyone else would bother.

During some of his recent concerts Cohen has spent a lot of time speaking to the crowd, but in Tel Aviv it was all about the music, he kept the chat to a minimum. When he spoke he was gracious, verbosely introducing and praising his band and thanking the audience for welcoming him.

The only other topic that merited a break in the music was Middle East conflict. He is under no misapprehension that he can solve it, he said, but he is determined to help those he believes can play a part in doing so. He praised those on both sides who have lost loved ones and still strive for peace, saying this is why proceeds from the concert would go to help them. Theirs is a “healthy response to human suffering, baruch hashem,” he said.

When Cohen finished his third encore, “Famous Blue Raincoat,” ending with the perfect sign-off line, “sincerely L Cohen,” everyone was sure he was finished, but he was having too much fun, and carried on. In the light of his discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict his song “Whither Thou Goest,” went down particularly well. “Thy people shall be / My People” he sang, drawing on the Biblical book of Ruth.

Then there was a surprise that nobody could have anticipated. Cohen, an ordained Buddhist monk, put his hands together in the special formation reserved for Cohanim, members of the Jewish priestly caste, to use when giving the Priestly Blessing in synagogue. He then pronounced the words of the blessing, which come from the Biblical book of Numbers. “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord let His face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord look kindly upon you and give you peace.”

Even that wasn’t the last that concert-goers saw of Leonard Cohen. On the way out of the stadium, there were Leonard Cohens everywhere. Next to the shopping carts purloined from supermarkets by street sellers using them to sell hot bagels was a stall offering black fedora hats, Cohen’s trademark. It sold hundreds, and so Leonard Cohen has left a behind a different Israel to the one that greeted him. Today, you don’t have to be Haredi to wear a black hat.

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