The lesson of Leonard Cohen’s Jewish identity

Leonard Cohen in Israel FLASH90 PHOTO

Before I left Montreal in 2004, I was dimly aware of Leonard Cohen as one of ours. He was around, but I probably knew more covers of his songs by other artists (Jennifer Warnes’ ethereal album Famous Blue Raincoat comes to mind), than about his own impact on the Canadian literary scene, or his deep connection to Montreal Jewry.

To be fair, by then he had been generally absent from Montreal, and public consciousness in general, for almost a decade. At some point, I recall quoting Who By Fire in my High Holiday classes to illustrate the possibility of modern commentaries on medieval liturgy. But aside from that, Cohen was not on my radar.

I returned to Montreal in 2013, just as Cohen was embarking on a late career resurgence, and began to pray at the Shaar Hashomayim, his childhood congregation. Portraits of his grandfathers, past presidents of the synagogue, hung proudly on the walls, and I could see his own name among the other congregants who were recipients of the Order of Canada. And that was when I began to really contend with his identity as a Montrealer and as a Jew.


After having been away, I became more aware of the way Montrealers speak, and I was struck by how much those unique cadences and phrases abound in Cohen’s writing and singing. Listening to his music, I noticed how similar it was to the way people –  especially people at the Shaar –  talked.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, Cohen was unapologetic about his Judaism and supremely confident in his Jewish identity. Take, for example, his poem Not a Jew from 2006’s Book of Longing: “Anyone who says/ I’m not a Jew/ is not a Jew/ I’m very sorry/ but this decision/ is final”

Cohen’s surefooted Jewishness was a head-scratcher for many people. Did he believe in God? Why was he spending all that time at a Zen retreat? Not a Jew is Cohen’s response, but it is also much more, a profound encapsulation of Jewish theology. Whatever I am, he was saying, however you define yourself, whichever way a person chooses to live, it is not for a Jew to judge another Jew.

Cohen was already a rising star in the literary scene in 1964 when he delivered a speech at Montreal’s Jewish Public Library. As Liel Liebovitz describes in A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen, the speech was devoted to his teacher A.M. Klein and how the locus of influence in the city’s Jewish community had moved from men of words, like Klein, to the men of industry, like the Bronfman family. In Cohen’s formulation, the keeper of ideas in today’s society was a priest tending an empty temple – what was needed was a prophet who could vivify ideas and make them vibrate with truth. This was going to be his role.


My favourite part of that speech comes at the very beginning. “I am afraid I am going to talk about myself,” Cohen said. “All my best friends are Jews, but I am the only Jew I know really well.” He deeply respected the men of words. But his job was going to be to bring the ideas to the people. In other words, if the role of the scholar was to conceive of new ideas with which to educate the people, the role of the poet or artist was simply to be the everyman, only more so.

Cohen embodied this ethos, a distillate of who we are expressed back to ourselves in a manner that we can relate to and that helps us make sense of life and Judaism. The magical part was that he found it all in himself. And when one is that self-assured in their relationship to their faith, the only response to God is: Hineini.

Rabbi Avi Finegold is the founder of The Jewish Learning Lab.