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

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

Image by Getty Images

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:

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.


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

Your Comments

The Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. All readers can browse the comments, and all Forward subscribers can add to the conversation. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Forward requires 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 and will be deleted. Egregious commenters or repeat offenders will be banned from commenting. 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 Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Recommend this article

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

Thank you!

This article has been sent!