How Leonard Cohen Helped Us Find God

God is the dominant image in the poet’s most-loved songs and is present in different ways, even more than lovers.

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A man lights a candle in front of the home of Leonard Cohen, Montreal, November 10, 2016.
A man lights a candle in front of the home of Leonard Cohen, Montreal, November 10, 2016.Credit: Paul Chiasson / The Canadian Press via AP
Ariana Melamed
Ariana Melamed

How to summarize this love that has never died? How to speak of it when it’s not mine but that of millions of people engulfed in sadness when they heard he had died? Each of them surely has his own Leonard Cohen.

We’ve each had our own Leonard Cohen since he first touched our hearts with “Suzanne” and “Bird on the Wire,” since he taught us to part beautifully in “So Long, Marianne” or await the return of a loved one from an unnecessary war. And he taught us to patiently withhold rage in “Democracy” and “First We Take Manhattan.”

Many of those who loved him found that he allowed them to befriend the necessary darkness in their soul, the betrayal of the body, the realization that our lust and dreams are an absurdity that only take shape in love, and even this is fleeting.

“Dance Me to the End of Love,” he wrote, and we immediately understood what he meant, because like every poet who touches multitudes of people with such power, Leonard Cohen made us believe that he was speaking straight from his heart into the only heart that was listening. It was as if he wrote a personal story for only one man or woman.

He played this illusion beautifully so that a song would sink in and receive the love that its creator wanted, so that it would sail above the choruses of thousands of melancholy songs with laudable melodies. The song has to echo what we’re incapable of saying to ourselves with the power and beauty in powerful and surprising images.

Yes, he gave us that bird with the deceptive freedom, our woman of the river, Jesus the sailor, and the loneliness of the partisan about to be put to death who would soon return from the shadows.

And he enriched our collective soul with mysterious and beautiful female characters. There was the barefooted and penniless Suzanne, and Marianne, who made him forget his prayers to the angels; then the angels forgot to pray for him. There was the mysterious woman in the blue raincoat, Alexandra, who was destined to leave her lover behind. These and others will always remain as he envisaged them, and people who never met them will continue to miss them.

It’s not mine, this love. For me, Cohen was the man who dragged God into his songs almost by force and demanded of him a long, hard, angry, comforting and reconciliatory dialogue with destiny.

God isn’t an accessible image in pop songs. In fact, he never was, certainly not the Jewish God, who was expelled from popular culture in the writings of two great Jewish creators – Freud and Kafka. But God wasn’t absent for a moment from the songs of Cohen’s life. He’s the dominant image in the most-loved songs and is present in different ways, even more than lovers.

The first meeting between the two, it so happens, took place at a synagogue, because Cohen grew up in an Orthodox family with a rabbinical tradition. But when he went out to other cultures he took with him wonderment about Jesus, and the “pleasant Bibles that are bound in blood and skin,” as in “Last Year’s Man.” Jesus is incidental, a cultural reference, not the entity with which Cohen is conducting a conversation.

His God comes from the harsh Bible stories, from the serpent and Cain and Abel, and from the fable he recites with Isaac’s voice and accuses both Abraham and the one who will not become this image.

“You who build these altars now to sacrifice these children,” he promises. “I saw some flowers growing up where that lamb fell down / Was I supposed to praise my Lord?” he asks in “The Butcher.” But “lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove,” he begs in “Dance Me to the End of Love.” And he goes on and interprets Bible stories for himself and for us.

He wrote “Samson in New Orleans” because there are Philistines everywhere around the world, while God, love and slavery are intertwined in “Treaty”: “They are dancing in the street – it’s Jubilee / We sold ourselves for love but now we’re free.” I loved my master, says the Canaanite slave.

In some of his darker songs, in which hide a master’s tortured love for his slave, God looks on and is silent. In others like “Amen,” it’s no longer clear or important whether Cohen is talking about a lover or God, because sometimes they intertwine, but God remains after love wanes.

And he alone will remain to the end, as Leonard Cohen told us many times.

As he grew older, it became clearer that this God wasn’t love or compassion alone but also a vengeful God, complex and hard. Cohen’s masterful “Who By Fire” is Cohen’s adaptation of the Yom Kippur prayer Unetanneh Tokef with the petrifying terror that God awakens.

Then there’s “Hallelujah,” of course, with the acknowledgement that Cohen would “stand before the Lord of Song” with nothing on his tongue but “Hallelujah.” But maybe there’s not enough in it to curry favor.

Decades later, only a few weeks ago and too soon for everyone who loves him, Cohen wrote a wonderful Kadish for himself in “You Want It Darker”: “A million burning candles for the help that never came.” And these, like it or not, are memorial candles.

The man who realized that the dialogue was about to end announced to us all and to God in this song: “Hineni [Here I am]. I’m ready, my Lord.” For what else is left for a man who always attracted amazement and frustration, creation and destruction, love and fury, but to arrive ready and complete at the end. May his memory be a blessing.

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