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Saying Kaddish For Leonard Cohen — And America

Many American Jews face two yahrzeits in the coming weeks, two memories of existential loss. The first comes November 8, when we’ll mark the first anniversary of the election of President Trump. For many of us, this wasn’t just the loss of a preferred candidate. It was the death of a certain reassuring narrative — the idea that America really is different, that minorities and strangers are genuinely embraced, that the words carved into the base of the Statue of Liberty represent an authentic and essential American ethos. The candidate who explicitly appealed to a kind of white, ethnic nationalism won the election. That killed our story of the American dream. We’re still saying Kaddish.

The other yahrzeit comes just a few days later. It’s for Leonard Cohen, probably the greatest North American Jewish poet of the 20th and 21st centuries, whose later work became more explicitly Jewish, and even more astonishingly stark, startling and beautiful. Cohen was always more poetic and more Jewish in his work than Bob Dylan, the other great Jewish bard. His death left a huge void.

Both Kaddishes came together in a weirdly spellbinding moment, when Kate McKinnon of “Saturday Night Live” — still playing Hillary Clinton — sang Cohen’s “Hallelujah” four days after the election. After literally crying through the lines “I did my best, it wasn’t much,” she turned to the audience — as Hillary? Kate? King David? Who knows? — and said, “I haven’t given up, and neither should you.”

As both yarzeits approach, I’ve been studying the Cohen oeuvre, listening for moments of wounded redemption, wondering how to make sense of all this loss. I couldn’t find it in “Hallelujah,” even though so many synagogues have borrowed the haunting melody — and sometimes even the words — for key moments during the services. The lyrics never really made much sense to me, and even Cohen, toward the end of his life, expressed exasperation with the popularity of what he referred to as “that Hallelujah song.” Pondering the new Trump era, which I fear will be with us for a while, I found two lesser-known songs I’d choose for Cohen’s Kaddish — words to ponder, words that help us reflect on our condition as American Jews.

The first is a masterpiece from his last album, called “You Want It Darker.” The chorus, sung by a classically trained hazan accompanied by his men’s choir, consist of the words “You want it darker / hineni, hineni, I’m ready, my Lord.” The song is obviously about death; the ailing, aging Cohen chants out his readiness to meet the final darkness. But it also reflects Cohen’s shocked sense of the living world. It’s even darker than he thought. “They’re lining up the prisoners / And the guards are taking aim… you want it darker.” The singer is expressing astonishment that God might allow even more suffering, more sin, more punishment. But his response isn’t escape or despair. It’s hineni. I am ready. He’s urging us (from the grave) to wake up to the dark moment and pronounce our readiness to work, to sing, to resist. Cohen, a Buddhist monk as well as a Canadian Jew, throughout his career cycled through rhythms of escape and engagement. But his final years, after his last mountain retreat, were marked with a deep and inspiring engagement with the world, as he toured and recorded his very best work.

The other song — an obscure gem — is called “By the Rivers Dark.” At first reading (or listening) it seems to describe a Jacob moment of wrestling and wounding. An unseen presence cuts the singer’s lip and heart “with a deadly force.” He wakes “in a wounded dawn.” The dark demon, which steals his wedding ring, is Babylon — the Diaspora, which robs our identity and “circles us with everything.” But in the final lines, Cohen sings, “Be the truth unsaid and the blessing gone / If I forget Babylon,” where “it all goes on.” Cohen here is lifting up the darkness, embracing it like a banner. Babylon, he’s saying, is part of who we are. We’re born with darkness in our souls; it’s the birth wound that marks our Jewish Diaspora identity, and equips us with the mission and vocation to engage with a world suddenly grown darker.

What’s the Kaddish? What do we say with one year gone and many more to come? What is the work when so many shadows still “cover us with everything”? When even the weather seems to remind us that we live in a crueler world? Cohen’s gone but he gives us the word: hineni. I am ready.

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