How Leonard Cohen’s messianic childhood prepared him for a sort of priesthood
Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: The Early Years.
by Michael Posner
Simon & Schuster, 496 pages, $30
We already know that rock poet Leonard Cohen was a profoundly Jewish songwriter and a deeply spiritual man. But a new oral biography, “Leonard Cohen — Untold Stories: The Early Years” (Simon & Schuster), by Michael Posner, recounts in great detail the essential role the Cohen family played in the Montreal Jewish community for over a century; Cohen’s lifelong, abiding belief that he was born into a priestly caste with an obligation toward leadership; and how that tradition fed his ambition toward becoming one of the most revered songwriters of the rock era.
For Posner’s 482-page opus — the first of a projected three volumes — he interviewed over 500 people, almost all of whom knew Cohen personally. With deft organization and interstitial authorial narrative, Posner skillfully strings together the story of the first 36 years of Cohen’s life — from his childhood in Montreal through his rise to predominance in Canada’s vital poetry scene to his successful transition from a purely literary figure to a celebrated songwriter, performer and recording artist — in the voices of friends, family, and literary and musical peers.
Several themes tie together that narrative, one of the most significant being how seriously Cohen took his tribal heritage as a Kohen — a descendant of the Temple High Priests. “I had a very Messianic childhood,” Cohen says. “I was told I was a descendant of Aaron, the high priest. My parents actually thought we were Kohenim — the real thing. I was expected to grow into manhood leading other men… In some part of my young soul, I took that very seriously.”
Several friends elaborate on how this played out in Cohen’s life and personality. “He was a hubristic Kohen — that’s what he was,” says Carol Zemel. “He took being a Kohen very seriously. That was always central to how he thought of himself. On some levels, he never wasn’t being that. He was a highly moralizing man, highly judgmental.” His cousin Stephen Lack echoes Zemel’s analysis: “He was rabbinical — totally. He was a Kohen, priest class. He carried that, why wouldn’t he? It’s a major blessing.”
Aiding and abetting this sense of priestly obligation was the status of the extended Cohen clan in the history of Montreal Jewry. Ruth Cohen, a cousin-by-marriage, explains, “If there was a Jewish aristocracy [in Montreal], the Cohens were it.” Dating back to the late 19th century, Cohen’s ancestors were founders and leaders of Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue, where Cohen attended Sunday school and was bar mitzvahed in 1947. At services, the extended Cohen clan occupied two entire rows. “I strongly felt that my family was conscious of representing something important,” said Cohen. “I learned a lot about the responsibility and the love of the tradition — because the people really loved it.” Cohen remained devoted to Shaar Hashomayim throughout his life — in the year leading up to his death in 2016, he worked with the synagogue’s cantor and choir to lend musical atmosphere to his final studio album, “You Want It Darker.”
In addition to being a Kohen, Cohen had some serious yikhes. His paternal great-great uncle Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Cohen (1862-1950), who arrived in Montreal in 1889 from Lithuania, went on to serve as the unofficial chief rabbi of both Montreal and Canada. Zvi’s brother Lazarus, Cohen’s great-grandfather, had great success in the coal and construction industry. Eventually, the family interests expanded into menswear, in large part seeding Cohen’s dapper, signature style —rarely was he seen without a suit, tie and fedora. Lazarus’s son Lyon, Cohen’s grandfather, was the entrepreneurial genius of the family and an active leader and philanthropist in Jewish communal life. Lyon founded the English-language newspaper the Jewish Times. The original Samuel Bronfman, who built the Seagram liquor empire, was a pallbearer at Lyon’s funeral.
Cohen also had yikhes on his mother’s side. His materal grandfather was Solomon Klonitzky-Kline, known as “Sar Ha Dikdook” or “Prince of Grammarians,” among whose books was the 700-page “Ozar Taamei Hazal: Thesaurus of Talmudic Interpretations.” In 1957, at age 23, Cohen, after dropping out of law school, moved back home to study the book of Isaiah line by line with Klonitzky-Kline. “He’d read a passage and kind of explain it in a combination of English and Yiddish,” remembered Cohen. “It wasn’t really because I was a devoted biblical scholar. It was because I wanted the company of my grandfather.”
Among Cohen’s friends at McGill University was Ruth Roskies, who would later become Ruth Wisse, the famed scholar of Yiddish literature and of Jewish history and culture. An early champion of Cohen’s work as a poet, Wisse helped market and sell his first volume of poetry, “Let Us Compare Mythologies.” She saw the book as a response to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” She says, “In our postwar period of mourning, our Montreal orphan poet drew on both the 20th and past centuries for his psalter of the aching heart.” Wisse would not remain a lifelong fan of Cohen’s, however. Posner portrays her as “disgusted” by his deep interest in the I Ching. “I was shocked that anyone whose ancestors had written the Talmud could profess enthusiasm for this stuff,” she says. One can only imagine Wisse’s feelings about his later dalliance with Scientology.
While he didn’t make the transition from poet and novelist to singer-songwriter until 1967, Cohen got an early taste for entertaining a crowd with his voice and guitar in summer 1956, when at age 21, he was unit head of the senior boys at a B’nai B’rith camp in Quyon, Quebec. Although he lacked the athletic abilities that were expected of a typical summer-camp counselor, he was a charismatic leader, convening twice-weekly bonfires at which he would lead boys in singing folk songs, Hebrew songs and Israeli songs, including “Tzena, Tzena,” “Zum Gali Gali,” and “Go Down Moses.”
Montreal had its own tradition of Jewish poets, who were also cultural figures throughout Canada, and Cohen eventually took his place in that lineage. As fellow poet David Solway explains, “Among the Jewish poets, the original prophet was A.M. Klein, and he passed the mantle, like Elijah to Elisha, to Irving Layton. And Irving in later years gave the mantle as a gift to Leonard.”
But attaining primacy on the Canadian literary scene was not enough for Cohen, who sought a larger stage. By January 1966, at age 31, Cohen had published three volumes of poetry and one novel. Another poetry volume and another novel were due out that year. But Cohen was still mostly living off family money. He dreaded the thought of opting for a teaching career to support his writing, like many of his poet-peers did. And he certainly did not want to work in the family shmatte business.
South of the border, there was a singing Jewish poet from the icy northern United States whose example suggested another path for Cohen, who soon became obsessed with Bob Dylan. Here was a Jewish guitar-playing poet who was reaching masses of people — not just poetry readers — and earning a living and then some. Jack Hirschman, an American poet who met Cohen in 1965 and became friends, says, “I was struck when I met him — Leonard was extremely ambitious, expressly, to overtake Dylan. He was very conscious of Dylan. I didn’t know who Dylan was.”
Cohen began launching an assault on the American folk scene in earnest. He went straight to the source, trying to attract the interest of Dylan’s manager and publisher, Albert Grossman, but without success. Mary Martin, a Canadian who worked for Grossman (and who earlier had introduced Bob Dylan to the Toronto-based group the Hawks, who would become Dylan’s touring band before morphing into The Band), saw potential in Cohen, however. Already planning to strike out on her own, Martin took on Cohen as a publishing client. By summer 1966, Martin had played some Cohen songs for Judy Collins, including “Suzanne,” and the rest, as they say, is history. Within a year, Collins had a hit with “Suzanne” and Cohen was signed to Columbia Records by John Hammond, the same talent scout who brought Bob Dylan to the label. The next summer, Cohen performed at the Newport Folk Festival, where he met Joni Mitchell and they commenced a yearlong affair.
After recounting Cohen’s first European tour in 1970 — during which he would greet German audiences with a Nazi salute in some bizarre attempt to subvert the ultimate gesture of evil into a gesture of “peace and love” (his words) — the book closes with Cohen’s triumphant return to Montreal in December 1970, where, instead of reciting poetry in some small café, he played a concert at the Place des Arts, one of Montreal’s most prestigious cultural venues. He had come full circle — but he’d only just begun.
Seth Rogovoy is a contributing editor at the Forward. He is the author of “Bob Dylan: Prophet Mystic Poet” (Scribner, 2009).