Raised in a family full of Talmudic scholars and synagogue founders, Cohen remained deeply connected to his Jewish faith throughout his life and became likely the most prominent Jewish songwriter of the modern era. A few others — Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Billy Joel — came from Jewish backgrounds but largely left the faith. Earlier Jews wrote some of the most beloved secular and even Christian works in the American songbook — Irving Berlin penned “God Bless America” and “White Christmas;” Johnny Marks wrote at least a dozen Christmas songs including “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”
Only Cohen wrote such popular music in such a distinctly Jewish voice.
Cohen, who died Monday at age 82, was such a poet of modern Judaism that last year, when the Reform movement, the largest American denomination, published its first new prayer book for the High Holy Days since 1978, the rabbis who compiled it decided to print the lyrics to several of Cohen’s songs right alongside the Hebrew text.
Here are some of his works, from a Vietnam War protest song to his most recent album that came out this year, which gave new creative life to Jewish scripture and liturgy.
“It’s about those who would sacrifice one generation on behalf of another,” Cohen introduced this song on his album “Live Songs,” released during the Vietnam War. It tells the Old Testament story of Abraham nearly killing his son at God’s command, with haunting relevance to current-day events.
One of the most challenging prayers in all of Jewish liturgy is the Unetaneh Tokef. Recited at the High Holy Days, it states that God decrees during the 10-day span of that season what each person’s fate will be that year: who will die by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by stoning, and on and on in a litany that Jews grapple with uncomfortably every year. Cohen joined that tradition of wrestling with this text by translating it in this grim song.
In Hebrew, that’s “Ken y’hi ratzon,” the congregation’s response to each line of the priestly benediction — which is recited by a kohen, a member of the priestly order descended all the way from Moses’s brother Aaron. Cohen, whose own name comes from that heritage, ended a concert in Israel with the benediction itself.
“Dance Me to the End of Love”
Cohen said this song, one of his best known, was inspired by a story he read about Jews in a concentration camp who still played music. “Dance me through the panic till I’m gathered safely in. Lift me like an olive branch. Be my homeward dove.”
In this title track of his final album, Cohen reflected on the approaching end of his life in traditional Jewish terms. The chorus repeats the Hebrew word “Hineni,” meaning “Here I am,” which was the word that Abraham used to respond to God when God called on him in the Bible. “Hineni, hineni. I’m ready, my Lord,” Cohen says, and uses English language that evokes the first line of the Jewish mourner’s prayer, the kaddish: “Magnified, sanctified, be Thy holy name.”
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