Leonard Cohen returns to synagogue of his youth for inspiration

Leonard Cohen [Wikicommons photo]

Congregation Shaar Hashomayim is touched and a little star-struck that one of its most famous living sons, Leonard Cohen, returned to his roots for help in producing his latest album.

You Want it Darker will be in stores on Oct. 21, but Cohen released the title track as a preview on Sept. 21, his 82nd birthday. It’s described on the record label as “an unflinching exploration of the religious mind,” a hypnotic melody made more powerful by the accompaniment of the Shaar’s Cantor Gideon Zelermyer and the synagogue’s male choir, led by Roï Azoulay.

Cohen wanted to recapture the sounds of the synagogue of his youth. The acclaimed singer-songwriter grew up in the Shaar and has maintained ties with it over the years, despite living mostly outside of Montreal since the 1960s.

“Our congregation is honoured that the legendary musician reached out to his lifelong synagogue to participate in his most recent album,” the Shaar’s Rabbi Adam Scheier commented.

But they are not entirely surprised: Zelermyer’s voice is renowned, and the choir, with its mellifluous sonority, is highly regarded even beyond the congregation. Zelermyer has sung as a soloist around the world, and the choir has toured North America and the United Kingdom. The cantor and choir performed at the United Nations this year on Jan. 27, the international day of Holocaust commemoration.

Cantor Gideon Zelermyer
Cantor Gideon Zelermyer

Rabbi Scheier noted that the Cohen family has a long history at the Shaar. Leonard’s great-grandfather, Lazarus Cohen, served as president from 1896 to 1901 and 1907 to 1914. His portrait hangs prominently in the synagogue.

“Leonard is Lazarus’s namesake. Leonard’s Hebrew name, Eliezer, was given to him in memory of this great Jewish community leader,” Rabbi Scheier said.

This is Cohen’s 14th studio album. It was produced by his son, Adam Cohen, and has nine songs, both classics and new material. They are dark, filled with brooding on mortality and humanity’s evils. They lend a sense that Cohen is wrapping things up, but his lifelong spiritual search continues.

The title song’s chorus, “Hineni, Hineni [Hebrew for “Here I am”], I’m ready my Lord” is an echo of the biblical story of the God-fearing Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac, which is read during Rosh Hashanah.

That line is followed by words straight from the Kaddish: “Magnified, sanctified be Thy holy name.”

Another song, It Seemed a Better Way, is described on Cohen’s website as “the feeling of a prayer that’s been there forever, but the spiritual comforts of the past are no longer available.”

A lyric in On the Level is an unflinching take on an old man’s waning desire. In Leaving the Table, Cohen sings: “I’m leaving the table. I’m out of the game.”

Zelermyer, 40, and Cohen have been corresponding by email for a decade, but have never met in person or even spoken. The cantor, who has recorded several albums of liturgical music, was a fan of Cohen even before he moved to the city 15 years ago.

Cohen always signed his emails, “Fraternally, Eliezer.”

For this album, the singer recorded from Los Angeles, where he lives, and Zelermyer and the choir worked at a Montreal studio.

Zelermyer was astonished when Cohen asked him – by email – last November whether he would be interested in collaborating on a planned album.

Zelermyer and Azoulay worked on an arrangement for the title song, using a recording Cohen sent them of him singing, backed only by piano.

Cohen emailed the Montreal Gazette: “These beautiful harmonies have been echoing in my mind since childhood. I am deeply grateful to Gideon and the Shaar choir for lending their great gifts to my songs.”