Leonard Cohen’s heart and spirit remained with Jewish community

Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen may have left the city in the 1960s and turned to Zen Buddhism for spiritual sustenance, but his heart and finally his spirit clearly remained in Montreal and with its Jewish community.

The iconic singer-songwriter and poet was revered by generations of fans around the world for his brooding melodies and lyrics that are both cerebral and romantic, his gravelly voice, and gentlemanly manner.

He death at age 82 is being mourned equally by anglophones and francophones in Quebec. Universal yet proudly Jewish, Cohen is being hailed as a unifying force among all peoples.

For his final album, You Want it Darker, released on Oct. 21, Cohen turned to the synagogue he grew up in, Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, to capture the authentic sound of the traditional Jewish liturgy so beloved to him.


Cohen told his Shaar collaborators: “These beautiful harmonies have been echoing in my mind since childhood. I am deeply grateful to [Cantor Gideon Zelermyer] and the Shaar choir for lending their great gifts to my songs.”

Although his death was announced on Nov. 10, it has been confirmed that Cohen died on Nov. 7.

On Nov. 10, he was buried, in accordance with his wishes, in the Shaar Hashomayim cemetery on Mount Royal beside his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents in a graveside service conducted by Rabbi Adam Scheier and Zelermyer and following the traditional Jewish rite.

“Leonard was a beloved and revered member of Shaar Hashomayim and he maintained a lifelong spiritual, musical and familiar connection to the synagogue of his youth,” they said in a joint Nov. 11 statement.

Scion of a well-to-do Westmount family, Cohen’s great-grandfather Lazarus Cohen and grandfather Lyon Cohen were both presidents of the august congregation, founded in 1846, which relocated to Westmount in 1922. Lyon was also founding president of Canadian Jewish Congress in 1919. The singer’s own father Nathan died relatively young when Leonard was 9.

Zelermyer and the Shaar’s male choir helped with the arrangements and sang background vocals on two of the album’s songs, including the title track, in which Cohen intones the haunting chorus: “Hineini, hineni; I’m ready my Lord.”

The songs are foreboding, a coming to terms with life as it approaches the end. In an interview with the New Yorker published last month, Cohen speaks serenely of being ready to die. “Spiritual things, baruch hashem, thank God, have fallen into place, for which I am grateful.”

He affirmed that he never rejected his heritage. “I have a deep tribal sense. I grew up in a synagogue that my ancestors built. I sat in the third row. My family was decent. They were good people, handshake people. So I never had a sense of rebellion.”

At the home of the Canadian consul general in Los Angeles last month, Cohen, although appearing frail, said he had exaggerated the imminence of his demise and joked he intended to live forever.

L.A. and California had been his principal residence for decades. The cause of death was not released. His family, which includes children Adam and Lorca, announced that a memorial service will be held later in Los Angeles.

It was at that consul general’s gathering, celebrating the album’s release, that Cantor Zelermyer met Cohen for the first time in person.

Cohen, who always signed his emails to the cantor with “Fraternally, Eliezer” (his Hebrew name), wrote, “I am pleased that my enduring association with the Shaar be known to the congregation, and that our work together reflects our love for the place, the people, and the tradition.”

When news of his death broke, a spontaneous vigil gathered outside the home Cohen maintained in Montreal, on Marie-Anne Street in the Plateau Mont-Royal.

A Jewish group in the area, the Mile End Chavurah, announced it will gather to sit shivah in the coming days for Cohen, “poet, musician, Montrealer, visionary, holy man, saint, sinner, Jew.”

Over the years, Cohen often returned to the city and could be seen walking in the neighbourhood – and at the Shaar across town.

Despite his universal acclaim, Cohen, who always remained humble and courteous, did not really achieve star status in the eyes of many in his birthplace until relatively recent years, when he was forced out of retirement.

His international touring until he was in his late 70s, necessitated by the embezzlement of millions of his funds, lent him a new stature; maturity only enhanced his appeal.

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre ordered the flag lowered at city hall and tweeted that Cohen “defined so well our cultural diversity and duality representing the true definition of living together.”

An avid fan, Coderre also posted recordings of some of his favourite Cohen songs, including Suzanne, inspired by the Montreal woman he admired, who “takes you down to her place near the river.”

Throughout this summer, the city paid tribute to Cohen and that song in a music video projected on the Clock Tower looking out onto that river, the St. Lawrence.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a statement saying: “A most remarkable Montrealer, Leonard Cohen managed to reach the highest of artistic achievement…[He] is as relevant today as he was in the 1960s. His ability to conjure the vast array of human emotion made him one of the most influential and enduring musicians ever. His style transcended the vagaries of fashion.”

Cohen was an honorary pallbearer at the funeral of his friend, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, in 2000.

Among his many national and international honours, Cohen was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 2003 and won two Junos in 2013, as Artist of the Year and Songwriter of the Year.

In 2008, he was inducted at the highest echelon of the Ordre national du Québec, the province’s most prestigious citation.

“Mr. Cohen has always celebrated his Jewish and Montreal roots, demonstrating an unwavering respect for the cultural and linguistic specificity of Quebec,” the National Assembly announcement read.

His poetry and at least one novel were translated into French.

The Université du Québec à Montréal this past year published a collection of essays on Cohen presented by francophone scholars, from here and abroad, at a conference in Paris entitled “Leonard Cohen: Baladin juif du notre époque.”

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) called Cohen a “musical giant” and a “cultural icon.”

“History will certainly count him among the most influential cultural figures of our time, perhaps of all time,” president David Cape stated. “A favourite son of Montreal, he was loved passionately and in equal measure by anglophones and francophones throughout Quebec, Canada and the world.”

Cape noted that his Jewishness was reflected in numerous songs, including Who by Fire, Anthem and, of course, Hallelujah, which was covered by countless artists.

“He was a great friend of Israel and Israelis,” Cape added, standing in solidarity with the Jewish state during one of its darkest times, the Yom Kippur War in 1973. His performances for the Israel Defence Forces troops in the Sinai during that time have become the stuff of legend.


Cohen’s most recent performance in Israel was in 2009, the first since 1975, which went ahead despite the boycott movement’s urging him not to do so. Held at Ramat Gan Stadium, all 47,000 tickets were sold out in less than a day. Cohen did stipulate that some of the box office go to Israeli and Palestinian peace groups.

Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin and his wife Nechama paid a personal tribute to Cohen upon hearing of his passing. “This morning we looked at each other and thought the same thoughts: Dance Me to the End of Love was the soundtrack to so many moments in our life as a couple and as a family,” they posted on his Facebook page.

They praised him as “a giant of a creator, open to all people, who also knew how to accompany the State of Israel in the fields of battle and in times of growth.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who fought in the Yom Kippur War, commented that Cohen was “a warm-hearted Jew who loved the people of Israel and the State of Israel.”

Leonard Cohen in Israel FLASH90 PHOTO
Leonard Cohen in Israel FLASH90 PHOTO

In 2005, at the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival in Montreal, a campaign was launched for the nomination of Cohen for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Many here feel Cohen should have received it this year instead of the startling choice of Bob Dylan – who, reportedly, considered Cohen his nearest peer as troubadour.

Admiration for Cohen extended beyond the globe. On Cohen’s 75th birthday, Canadian astronaut and fan Robert Thirsk, who was orbiting Earth aboard the International Space Station, beamed to a birthday celebration in Montreal: “You know, Leonard Cohen’s poetry and music shares an awful lot in common with space flight; it seems to transcend the routine, they both defy familiar laws, and both take us to places we have never been before.”