For baby boomers, Leonard Cohen’s music brings back that special intensity of love, confusion, idealism, and sadness that characterized the 1960s. But the 6,124,858 views on a YouTube version of his debut single, “Suzanne,” from his 1967 album, “Songs of Leonard Cohen,” suggests a large and diverse audience of Cohen fans.
Yael Bermano, 36, program coordinator at The Jewish Center, said she became a fan once she “outgrew boy bands” and seized control of her older sister’s Cohen CDs. Then she got to see him live in a 2009 concert in Tel Aviv. “He made everyone feel as one,” she told NJJN. “We had cheap seats in the back of the stadium in Tel Aviv, but I remember feeling really engaged and part of the performance.”
Bermano added, “The fact that he is Jewish and is a positive Jewish voice in the world was very significant.”
Honoring the first anniversary of Cohen’s death on Nov. 7, 2016, the Jewish Center in Princeton and Zamru, an independent minyan celebrating Shabbat through spiritual and musical prayer, are sponsoring a tribute concert on Saturday, Oct. 28. The concert will feature vocalist Shira Averbuch, guitarist Dan Nadel, Cantor George Mordecai of Temple Israel Congregation in White Plains, and readings by Aubrey Glazer, rabbi of Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco.
The idea for this concert had roots in an unexpected commission. Someone who had heard Averbuch and Nadel perform music of North American composers, including Cohen, hired the pair for a private concert of Cohen’s music shortly after the musician’s death. He expected maybe 20 or 25 friends to respond to his email about the concert, but somewhere between 80 and 100 people showed up. The host “told a story about being at one of Leonard Cohen’s concerts and feeling transported,” according to Averbuch. Nadel added that the man “was at an emotionally difficult place in his life, and the music spoke to him.”
For Glazer, “Leonard Cohen’s lyrics dance us along on our own steps to self-discovery and that’s how his songbook has revealed my own journey as a Jewish philosopher, rabbi, musician, and artist,” he wrote in an email. Glazer is the author of several books, including “Tangle of Matter & Ghost: Leonard Cohen’s Post-Secular Songbook of Mysticism(s) Jewish & Beyond” (Academic Studies Press, 2017).
Glazer’s “first experiment in spiritual community” involved Cohen. Shortly after assuming leadership of his San Francisco pulpit, he sang Cohen’s “Hallelujah” at a Rosh HaShanah service. “I sought…to touch on something that the remainder of the Hebrew, piyyut-laden service no longer manages to realize for most of those gathered — a direct heart-to-heart connection with the contemporary seeker,” he wrote.
Cohen grew up in Montreal, a city with many Yiddish speakers and survivors of World War II. Cohen sang in Yiddish on occasion; the secular Yiddish culture that “doesn’t live anymore was alive with him,” Nadel said.
Cohen performed three concerts in Israel, the first during the 1973 Yom Kippur War with Israeli singer and songwriter Matti Caspi to benefit soldiers fighting in the Sinai.
“You can see his Jewish identity coming through his songs and poems,” Averbuch said.
“His ability to use biblical imagery — I don’t think that is paralleled in secular North American music,” Nadel said, noting that “Hallelujah,” Cohen’s most popular song, was “talking about King David and the blessings and curses of his life and through that expressing the fragility of the human condition. It’s incredible to do that within a mostly Christian society — to pull that out and for it to become an anthem.”
Averbuch said that Cohen is “a poet who happens to sing his poems,” and Nadel added that the melody is a vehicle for the poetry. “His poems are so condensed with imagery and power that in order to really hear those words the melody has to stay simple,” he said.
Much of Cohen’s music lends itself to duet, especially of a vocalist and guitar, Nadel said. “Then it is a question of bringing our personalities into the dialect he created,” by reinterpreting his music in their performance.
“His original version allowed for so much more musical interpretation,” Averbuch said. “Dan and I can listen to it and just fly. There is so much freedom in the simplicity.”
When listening to other artists covering Cohen’s music, Nadel suggested that sometimes “his truth, his simplicity, got lost.” But for Nadel and Averbuch, he continued, “We’re always aware that we want to make it our own but also want to be loyal to the message of the song.”