Saturday, 23 November 2019

Tales of the Viennese Jews:
9, Leonard Cohen and
‘The Spice-Box of Earth’

Decorative spice-boxes in the Jewish Museum in Bratislava (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

The Tales from the Vienna Woods is a waltz by the composer Johann Strauss II (1825-1899), written just over a century and a half ago, in 1868. Although Strauss was baptised in the Roman Catholic Church, he was born into a prominent Jewish family. Because the Nazis had a particular penchant for Strauss’s music, they tried to conceal and even deny the Jewish identity of the Strauss family.

However, the stories of Vienna’s Jews cannot be hidden, and many of those stories from Vienna are told in the exhibits in the Jewish Museum in its two locations, at the Palais Eskeles on Dorotheergasse and in the Misrachi-Haus in Judenplatz.

Rather than describe both museums in detail in one or two blog postings, I have decided over these few days or weeks to re-tell some of these stories, celebrating a culture and a community whose stories should never be forgotten.

Leonard Cohen’s new, posthumous album, Thanks for the dance, was released yesterday [22 November 2019]. One again, many of the lyrics are infused with his Jewish spirituality, which deepened as he got older but always had a place in his poetry and his songwriting. When he died three years ago, on 7 November 2016, the Jewish Museum in Vienna issued a statement saying ‘We mourn the death of Leonard Cohen. The man with the deep and commanding voice can now be heard only on recordings … Leonard Cohen, the 20th-century prophet of the past, is dead, but his voice lives on.’

His voice and songs had featured that year in the museum’s exhibition, Stars of David: The Sound of the 20th Century, which closed on 16 October, just three weeks before he died. The lyrics of the first verse of Hallelujah were displayed at the start of the exhibition:

Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah


Leonard Cohen left his mark in Vienna. After a concert in the city in 1976, he visited the Arena, a concert venue that was being occupied at the time, and gave an additional concert.

With his description of the Arena as the ‘best place in Vienna,’ he gave the young protesters his support and backing as the demanded to liberate the city from the dusty traces of fascism, persecution, and the extermination of the Jewish population. They felt he had backed their opposition to the small-minded ‘reconstruction’ of Vienna after World War II, and to the self-imposed silence that covered everything.

Cohen returned to Vienna many times, and in 1984, he said of local audiences: ‘In Vienna, there’s a certain value placed on vulnerability. They like to feel you struggling. They’re warm, compassionate.’

A few years later, he wrote a song about Vienna, Take This Waltz, based on the poem Pequeño Vals Vienés (‘Little Viennese Waltz’), written by the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca in New York in the early 1930s.

In this song, released in 1988 on the album I’m Your Man, Cohen’s fascination for the morbidity of Vienna came to the fore once again, but with a coolness that is impossible to emulate:

There’s a concert hall in Vienna
Where your mouth had a thousand reviews.
There’s a bar where the boys have stopped talking,
They’ve been sentenced to death by the blues.
Ah, but who is it climbs to your picture
With a garland of freshly cut tears?
Ay, ay ay ay
Take this waltz, take this waltz,
Take this waltz, it’s been dying for years.


The exhibitions in the two Jewish Museums in Vienna and in the Jewish Museum in Bratislava include interesting collections of spice boxes. Those spice boxes in these three museums reminded me of Leonard Cohen’s second collection of poems, The Spice-Box of Earth, first published in 1961, when he was 27.

The title of the book is found in the poem Out of the land of Heaven, which is dedicated to the artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985).

On the Sabbath, Jews say, the ‘Sabbath Queen’ or the ‘Sabbath Bride’ descends from Heaven to heal the sufferings of the Jews. The arrival and departure of ‘Her Majesty’ is marked by ceremonies. When she enters, everybody is happy; when she leaves, there is a strange sadness. But people take comfort in a symbolic that includes inhaling the aroma of spices contained in an ornamental box, often made of silver, the spice box.

Spice-boxes are an essential part of Havdalah (הַבְדָּלָה, ‘separation’), the ceremony marking the symbolic end of Shabbat and ushering in the new week. Like kiddush, Havdalah is recited over a cup of wine. The ritual involves lighting a special Havdalah candle with several wicks, blessing a cup of wine and smelling sweet spices.

Havdalah engages all five senses: to feel the cup, to smell the spices, to see the candle flame, to hear the blessings, to taste the wine.

Spices in Hebrew, are usually kept in decorative spice-boxes to beautify and honour the mitzvah, and are handed around so that everyone can smell the fragrance. In many Sephardi and Mizrahi communities, branches of aromatic plants are used for this purpose, while Ashkenazim have traditionally used cloves.

A special braided Havdalah candle with more than one wick is lit, and a blessing is recited. If a special Havdalah candle is not available, two candles can be used, and the two flames joined when reciting the blessing.

The central blessing of the Havdalah is:

Blessed art thou, God, our Lord, King of the Universe
Who distinguishes
Holiness from the everyday,
Light from dark,
Israel from the nations,
The seventh day from the six workdays.
Blessed art thou, God,
Who distinguishes holiness from the everyday
.

As people recite the words ‘Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam, bo’re m’orei ha’esh,’ they hold their hands up to the candle and gaze at the reflection of the light in their fingernails.

As Havdalah concludes, the leftover wine is poured into a small dish and the candle is extinguished in it, a sign that the candle was lit solely for the mitzvah of Havdalah. In a reference to Psalm 19: 9, ‘the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes,’ some people dip a finger in the leftover wine and touch their eyes or pockets with it.

After the Havdalah ceremony, it is customary to sing ‘Eliyahu Hanavi’ (‘Elijah the Prophet’) and to bless each other, Shavua’ tov, ‘Have a good week.’

The text of the Havdalah service exists in two main forms, Ashkenazic and Sephardic. The introductory verses in the Ashkenazic version (beginning הנה אל, Hinei El) are from the Books of Isaiah and Esther and the Psalms. In the Sephardic liturgy, the introduction begins with the words ראשון לציון, Rishon L’tsion, and consists of biblical verses describing God giving light and success, interspersed with later liturgical prose.

The four blessings over the wine, spices candle and praising God for separation between the holy and the profane are virtually identical between the traditions. The phrase בין ישראל לעמים, bein Yisrael l’amim, ‘between Israel and the nations,’ is based on Leviticus 20: 26.

The Spice-Box of Earth became the most popular and commercially successful of Cohen’s early books, established his poetic reputation in Canada, and brought him a measure of early literary acclaim.

My copy of this book, to paraphrase words in another Leonard Cohen song, ‘has grown old and weary,’ or, rather, it is battered, stained and dog-eared. As I read through it the other evening, I could remember which poems I had selected for poetry readings in Wexford in the early and mid-1970s, including ‘I have not lingered in European monasteries’ and ‘The Genius.’

In Out of the Land of Heaven, the poem that gives this book its title, Leonard Cohen writes:

Out of the Land of Heaven
Down comes the warm Sabbath sun
Into the spice-box of earth.


The poem seems to be a verbal invocation of one of Marc Chagall’s painting. The rabbi thrusts his hands into the ‘spice-box of earth’:

Down go his hands
Into the spice-box of earth,
And there he finds the fragrant sun
For a wedding ring
[for the Sabbath Queen]

And he tells them:
The Queen makes every Jew her lover.


The book concludes with ‘Lines from My Grandfather’s Journal’ and the final verse is an ‘Inscription from the family spice-box’:

Make my body
a pomander for worms
and my soul
the fragrance of cloves.

Let the spoiled Sabbath
leave no scent.
Keep my mouth
from foul speech.

Lead your priest
from grave to vineyard.
Lay him down
where air is sweet.


Following the success of The Spice-Box of Earth, Leonard Cohen retreated for several years to the Greek island of Hydra, where he worked on more poems and songs.

I am listening to his posthumous album, Thanks for the Dance, which arrived in the post as it was released yesterday [22 November 2019].

Praised are You, Adonai our God, who rules the universe, Creator of all kinds of spices.

‘Down comes the warm Sabbath sun / Into the spice-box of earth’ … spice-boxes in the Jewish Museum in Bratislava (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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