I haven’t been posting much, and after a year(s) of tremendous personal loss, I’ve intentionally tried to avoid posting about only darker topics, so most of the time I didn’t end up posting. But I was by turns comforted/devastated to read that in an interview with the New Yorker’s David Remnick, the 82-year-old Leonard Cohen declared that he’s ready to die. When asked about completing works in progress or possibly touring, Cohen said:
“I don’t think I’ll be able to finish those songs. Maybe, who knows? And maybe I’ll get a second wind, I don’t know. But I don’t dare attach myself to a spiritual strategy. I don’t dare do that. I’ve got some work to do. Take care of business. I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.”
In his new single You Want It Darker Cohen wields his trademark growling rasp like a light saber to deliver lyrics that seem to accuse an impossible to please God of forcing his faithful into cruel and torturous positions to prove their steadfastness. He seems disgusted and world-weary, but there’s a tiny playful spark there as well- perhaps shared only in the way of a believer who’s had his heart-broken once too often by his sometimes unrequited faith.
Cohen’s no stranger to using biblical or liturgical themes or references in his music including , The Story of Isaac echoed in the refrain here with “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready my Lord,” the words spoken by Abraham when tested and asked to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. While it’s tempting to pull in the recurring theme of the sacrifice of Isaac as referenced in the name of the Hineni center founded by the recently departed Esther Jungreis, or Matisyahu‘s own riff on sacrifice, Akeda*, for now, let’s go back to Cohen’s living legacy.
I was in shul (temple/synagogue) yesterday on Yom Kippur. And while I tried my hardest to keep my mind on the prayers in my machzor, after nearly 25 hours of fasting, my mind wandered. It was during the final prayer of the day, the Neilah service (the closing prayers for the High Holy Days) that I simply listened to the exquisite imperfect singing of the entire congregation that felt almost palpable in the enclosed space. Or maybe it was just my extreme hunger that made me feel the prayers in addition to hearing them.
At one point, a young boy’s voice rose above the rest, pure, sweet, clear, full of hope and fervent belief. And I felt my eyes welling up for so many reasons. I thought about my late father’s experiences during the Holocaust as a young boy, and the millions of Jewish lives deliberately snuffed out in the concentration camps. I thought about the virulent anti-Semitism in the world today and I truly felt baffled by the hatred directed at us century after century. And I thought about the years that I was quiet and did not discuss my own faith, flawed as it is. There was something else, but that’s a bit raw, so I’ll leave it for a later post. Inexplicably, I was filled with hope, the kind that comes after pouring one’s heart out in prayer and wishing every secret wish.
Today, I’m trying to ease back into my day-to-day life, and yet I can’t seem to stop listening to Leonard Cohen’s new song. The background music, according to an article in The Forward, was provided by “the world-renowned, all-male choir of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, the Montreal synagogue in which he [Cohen] 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.” The piece by Seth Rogovy also cites the temple’s cantor, Gideon Zelermyer, as singing the final chorus on the song, in his words “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.”
They’re lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle class and tame
My thoughts aren’t always about faith or prayer or genocide. Far from it. Most days, I’ll write about the trends in boots or eyebrows and things that feel amusingly urgent on a day to day basis. Today I’m thinking about sacrifice and art. About devoting one’s life to pursuing one’s passion or muse. And having heard this song a few weeks back, I didn’t quite realize that like David Bowie’s final dirge, Lazarus, it might be Cohen’s final way of saying goodbye.