19 November 2021

Travelling to Venice with
Leonard Cohen’s spirituality
as my essential reading

A priest’s hands raised for the blessing of the cohenim … a gravestone in the new Jewish cemetery on the Lido in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

What I pack as reading material when I am travelling is almost as – if not more – important that the clothes or the toiletries I bring with me too. After all, I have never arrived in a place that has no shops selling clothes, nor stayed in an hotel that does not provide soap and towels.

Essential reading materials include the day’s newspapers, that week’s edition of the Economist, and the latest editions of New Statesman and Private Eye, as well as a good guidebook or two.

One book I brought with me to Venice last week was Harry Freedman’s Leonard Cohen, The Mystical Roots of Genius (London: Bloomsbury, 2021). I never finished reading it in Venice, but I finished it on my bus journeys between Askeaton and Dublin yesterday.

Harry Freedman writes popular works about Jewish culture and history. But this is also a serious work of Jewish theology, spirituality and literary criticism. It is a book I would like to have written myself, and is a book I would like to have had available as resource some years ago when I was lecturing on Jewish spirituality.

Cohen’s poetry and songs are filled with images not only from the Jewish and Christian Bibles, but also from the Talmud and the Kaballah. The reader is introduced to Cohen’s very deep Jewish roots at the beginning, and the book concludes with a discussion of his self-understanding as a priest, a member of the Jewish cohenim, and his use of the priestly blessing:

‘May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious unto you. May the Lord lift up his face to you and be gracious to you.’

Freedman reveals how the Irish writer and producer John McKenna persuaded Leonard Cohen to collaborate on producing a Requiem in the form of Mass based on the poems and songs of Leonard Cohen.

Five years ago, shortly before his death on 7 November 2016, Leonard Cohen approved John McKenna’s final draft of the Requiem. Its premiere in Carlow on 15 June 2017 was attended by President Michel D Higgins and the Canadian Ambassador to Ireland, Kevin Vickers.

Freedman describes this as ‘the most ambitious liturgical use of Cohen’s work.’ But he points out that this is far from being the only one: ‘Who by Fire, the song based on the Day of Atonement liturgy, has been recited in many synagogues, either as an accompaniment to the Hebrew original or even in place of it.’

He goes on to write, ‘When the Reform synagogue movement decided to produce a new payer book for the Day of Atonement, they printed Who by Fire as a study text to accompany the Hebrew prayer. Some synagogues sing Hallelujah, Story of Isaac, or If It Be Your Will during services or dedicate shabbat study events to celebrations of Cohen’s music. Others set psalms and prayers to the tune of Hallelujah.’

The documentary film Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song, received its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival on the Lido two months ago (2 September 2021).

The film explores Cohen’s life through the lens of Hallelujah, arguably his most famous work.

Cohen approved the development of the movie just before his 80th birthday in 2014. According to the producers, the film presents a ‘deep exploration’ of Hallelujah, from its origins and its poor initial reception to its resurrection and influence on other artists, who have helped it to become one of the most recognised and celebrated songs of all time.

Sony Pictures Classics announced last month it has acquired all worldwide rights to the film following its launch in Venice, and the film will receive a North American cinema release in 2022.

Shabbat Shalom

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