Eighty years young, Leonard Cohen fits many descriptions—singer, songwriter, poet, novelist, monk. From his Jewish upbringing in Canada to the present day, Cohen has always explored his spiritual side.
This month, the singer-songwriter released the CD (May 12) and iTunes (May 8) formats of his latest album, “Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour,” which features live recordings from his world tours in 2012 and 2013. Last year, Cohen’s “Popular Problems” was voted by Rolling Stone magazine’s readers as one of the 10 best albums of 2014.
Cohen was born in September 1934 in Westmount—an English-speaking area of Montreal, Quebec—into a middle-class Jewish family. His mother, Marsha Klonitsky, was the daughter of a Talmudic writer, Rabbi Solomon Klonitsky-Kline of Lithuanian Jewish ancestry. His paternal grandfather, whose family had emigrated from Poland, was Lyon Cohen, founding president of the Canadian Jewish Congress. On the topic of being a kohen (descendant of the ancient Jewish high priests), Leonard Cohen has said, “I had a very Messianic childhood.”
Sharon Robinson, a background singer for decades with Cohen and author of the book “On Tour with Leonard Cohen,” called Cohen “a scholar, a thoughtful individual whose Jewish background is very much intact.”
After initially taking pictures of Cohen out of personal interest, Robinson realized she was involved in something special—and the end result was her December 2014 book.
“I didn’t want to forget a moment of it,” she told JNS.org regarding being on tour with Cohen. “After some [of the photos] were on social media, they came to the attention of a publisher who wanted to do the book.”
In 2004, Cohen’s manager stole his life savings, forcing him out of planned retirement into the current phase of his musical career. Robinson has been associated with Cohen since the “Field Commander Cohen” tour of 1979-80, first as a singer and then as his co-writer and producer. She was drafted into the current iteration of Cohen’s band, “The Unified Heart Touring Company,” from its onset and has been at his side for more than 400 shows. Photographically, she has captured her experience behind the scenes with the unique access afforded by her position.
“[Cohen] loves his Jewish faith and is observant,” Robinson said. “The human heart resonates through his work. It’s who he is. He comes from a long line of rabbis. References to Judaism can be found throughout his work, probably in every song. There is a very deep and profound connection with his Jewish faith.”
Indeed, Cohen said in 1974, “I’ve never disguised the fact that I’m Jewish and in any crisis in Israel I would be there. I am committed to the survival of the Jewish people.” A year earlier, he had performed for Israeli soldiers during the Yom Kippur War.
Cohen’s music explores religion, politics, isolation, sexuality, and personal relationships. Sylvie Simmons, author of the August 2013 book “I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen,” said listeners feel the weight of Cohen’s authority.
“I was in my early teens when his first album came out in 1967, so I didn’t really understand the full weight of it, but I felt the weight of it,” Simmons told JNS.org. “I felt this was somebody who wasn’t just singing about angst and misery and anger, but somebody who had authority who came to tell me personally something. There is a certain intimacy as well as a hypnotic element to his voice that imparts what he’s saying. So even if you don’t know exactly what he’s talking about, somehow you absorb the feeling of it. “
Perhaps Cohen’s best-known song is “Hallelujah,” first released on his studio album “Various Positions” in 1984. The song had limited initial success, but found greater popularity through a 1991 cover by John Cale. Hallelujah has been performed by almost 200 artists in various languages, and more than 5 million copies of the song sold in CD format prior to 2008. The song has been the subject of a BBC Radio documentary and a book—Alan Light’s “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah,’” in addition to being featured in the soundtracks of numerous films and television programs.
But before “Hallelujah,” there was “Suzanne.” In 1967, disappointed with his lack of financial success as a writer of novels and poems, Cohen moved to the U.S. to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter. That year, Cohen’s“Suzanne” became a hit for singer Judy Collins and proceeded to be his most-covered song for many years.
Simmons, who has studied Cohen’s early years, said the singer’s family of origin “was distinguished and important—one of the most prominent Jewish families in Montreal.”
“Leonard’s ancestors had built synagogues and founded newspapers in Canada,” said Simmons. “They had funded and presided over a lengthy list of Jewish philanthropic societies and associations. Leonard never knew his grandfather Lyon, but Lyon’s principles, his work ethic, and his belief in ‘the aristocracy of the intellect’ all sat well with Leonard’s own persuasion.”
Cohen’s intellect intensified as he began writing poetry and novels. His poetry collections include “Let Us Compare Mythologies,” “The Spice-Box of Earth,” and “Book of Longing.” His novels include “The Favorite Game” and “Beautiful Losers.” Yet he will undoubtedly be remembered more for his songs.
“There’s a lot of mystery to the songs that draws people back again and again,” Simmons said. “There’s something about them that makes you listen again and again to get to the heart of them. He’s really working through the same things that he started with way back in the beginning [of his life].”
Cohen is a member of the American Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. He is also a Companion of the Order of Canada, that nation’s highest civilian honor, and in 2011 he received Spain’s Prince of Asturias Award for literature.
Sharon Robinson said Cohen appreciates the accolades he has received, but that his focus is elsewhere.
“He doesn’t take any of that (the awards) for granted,” she said. “He works very hard on the work itself. The focus is more on the work. He appreciates the honors, especially in the case of Canada.”
Judaism has remained a significant part of Cohen’s life—even when he has studied Zen Buddhism.
“In the tradition of Zen that I’ve practiced, there is no prayerful worship and there is no affirmation of a deity,” Cohen told the New York Times in 2009. “So, theologically, there is no challenge to any Jewish belief.”
Involved in Buddhism since the 1970s, Cohen was ordained a Buddhist monk in 1996, but still considers himself Jewish. He has said that he observers Shabbat traditions while on tour.
In 2009, Cohen recited Jewish prayers and blessings in Hebrew before his audience at a concert in Ramat Gan, Israel, after opening his show with the first sentence of the “Ma Tovu” song. In the middle of that concert, he said “Baruch Hashem” (Blessed be God). Then, staying true to his lineage, he ended the show by reciting Birkat Kohanim (the Jewish priestly blessing).
“He is a very kind and thoughtful guy,” Simmons told JNS.org. “He studies everything. He doesn’t give an opinion lightly.”