Skip To Content

On Top of Mount Zen With Leonard Cohen

Writing the first biography of Leonard Cohen took me to a mountain top (Mt Baldy and his Zen hideout), as well as to the Greek island of Hydra, a New York sound stage and the Tower of Song — Leonard’s music room at his home.

Spending time with him meant learning what generosity of spirit and action actually mean.

When we first met, I showed him a class photo of eager Cohen students and he quickly took me into another room where he handed me a Polaroid and said, unexpectedly, “take my picture.” Next, in the Tower of Song, he signed the photo (“Hi Friends, Love Leonard”) and then made twenty color Xeroxes, one for each of the students.

A visit to his family home in Montreal, his room unchanged, his bookshelves filled with texts from McGill, allowed me to glimpse the family life of a young man who would, in fact, choose a different direction, preferring hotel rooms, tour buses, recording studios and concert stages to a more stable existence.

Leonard was a thinker, a singer, and a gracious artist who understood what it meant to live with contradictions and love. Modesty occasionally masked the intensity of his feelings but not their meaning. In his poem “All My News” from “Book of Longing” he writes:

Do not decode
these cries of mine —
They are the road, and not the sign.

But he knew we would all, energetically, follow.

Ira Nadel is the author of “Various Positions, A Life of Leonard Cohen.” (1996)

A message from our editor-in-chief Jodi Rudoren

We're building on 127 years of independent journalism to help you develop deeper connections to what it means to be Jewish today.

With so much at stake for the Jewish people right now — war, rising antisemitism, a high-stakes U.S. presidential election — American Jews depend on the Forward's perspective, integrity and courage.

—  Jodi Rudoren, Editor-in-Chief 

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.