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Is Leonard Cohen’s New Song His Most Jewish Ever?

Leonard Cohen has died at 82. Here are Seth Rogovoy’s thoughts, originally published in September, about the title track of Cohen’s recent album “You Want It Darker.”

For his 82nd birthday on Wednesday, September 21, 2016, Leonard Cohen gave the world a gift: a sneak preview of his upcoming album, the title track of “You Want It Darker,” released on October 21.

In a body of work chock-full of midrash-in-song, including numbers such as “The Story of Isaac,” “Who By Fire?” – his poetic rendering of the Yom Kippur prayer Unetanah Tokef – and his most famous song, “Hallelujah,” which begins, “I’ve heard there was a secret chord / That David played, and it pleased the Lord…,” his latest song is perhaps his most Jewish yet, another plaint of a narrator addressed to God, asking why bad things happen to good people, why mankind suffers, and why God seemingly wants us to descend to the darkest depths before offering redemption.

Most obviously, there is the chorus sung in Hebrew: “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready my Lord,” the Hebrew words spoken by Abraham to God in Vayera, the Bible portion that includes that touchstone for Cohen – the Akeidah, or the binding of Isaac. The song’s narrator addresses God from a position of humility and readiness to serve.

The first line of the second verse continues in this vein: “Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name,” a virtual word-for-word translation of the Kaddish, the hymn of praise to God that appears throughout Jewish liturgy.

And on and on the modern-day prophet, the bard of gloom and doom, continues:

It’s written in the scriptures/ And it’s not some idle claim/ You want it darker/ We kill the flame

He builds himself up to such a level of disgust with man’s burden that he sings, “I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim… If thine is the glory, mine must be the shame,” in the growliest growl he’s ever offered.

What’s more, Cohen goes to great lengths to set these lyrics to Jewish music. He hired the world-renowned, all-male choir of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, the Montreal synagogue in which he was raised (reportedly where he was bar mitvah and where his grandfather and great-grandfather were presidents of the congregation), to provide background to the track (as well as on “It Seemed the Better Way,” another song on the upcoming album). And the temple’s cantor, Gideon Zelermyer, sings the final chorus on the song, a no-holds-barred original piece of khazones — cantorial music — that if it doesn’t break the heart of a cold-stone God, will certainly break the heart of any empathic listener.

A contributing editor to the Forward, Seth Rogovoy won a 2016 Simon Rockower Award from the American Jewish Press Association for his article “Leonard Cohen’s Mystical Midrash,” published in the April/May 2015 issue of Hadassah Magazine.

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