03 November 2020

‘I’m just staying home tonight
Getting lost in that hopeless little screen’

Leonard Cohen at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham in 2012 … is ‘Democracy is coming to the USA’? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I plan to stay up all night to watch the US election and the results coming in. Although it’s over 18 years since I left The Irish Times in 2002, I am still a ‘news junky’ and I still stay up late into the night and into the early morning watching election results pour in from the US, Britain and Ireland.

Four years ago, on the night of 8 November 2016, I sat up all night in an hotel in Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter in Kraków, watching the last US presidential election in disbelief.

I had spent that day visiting many of the synagogues and the remaining Jewish cemeteries Kazimierz and the previous day was spent in Auschwitz.

I could not believe what was happening in America. I fell back on the dark humour that journalists understand: in another country pretending to be a democracy, where the candidate who lost the popular vote by 3 million votes, they would be waiting for an American invasion to restore democracy.

Leonard Cohen had died the day before, on 7 November 2016, the day I was visiting Auschwitz. We can never really guess how he might have responded to the election of Donald Trump, but as I prepare to sit up all night tonight I still find wisdom in the lyrics of his song ‘Democracy’:

It’s coming to America first,
the cradle of the best and of the worst.
It’s here they got the range
and the machinery for change
and it’s here they got the spiritual thirst.
It’s here the family’s broken
and it’s here the lonely say
that the heart has got to open
in a fundamental way:

Democracy is coming to the USA.

After months of an election campaign in the US this year that gave us

… … the feel
that this ain’t exactly real
or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there

and after years of a rising tide of

… the wars against disorder
… the sirens night and day
… the fires of the homeless
… the ashes of the gay …

I wonder tonight, as I settle down to watch this election in its closing hours, can I share Leonard Cohen’s hope, ‘Democracy is coming to the USA’?

It could be a roller-coaster night. It could be a roller-coaster week.

Leonard Cohen cared about America but was horrified and revolted by what was happening to it. At a time when the US is in more danger of foundering than ever before, Cohen’s words are the perfect anthem for these times:

Sail on, sail on
oh mighty ship of State,
to the shores of need
past the reefs of greed
through the squalls of hate.

Tonight, as the world watches as the dominant superpower is on the verge of re-electing or sacking a bigoted bully with fascist tendencies for president, I think too of the many of the lines Leonard Cohen cut out of this song, and how relevant they are tonight – lines such as ‘Concentration camp behind a smile’, or,

Who really gets to profit
and who really gets to pay?
Who really rides the slavery ship
right into Charleston Bay?

Almost three decades after he completed this song in 1992, Leonard Cohen continues to speak to these times as though he were writing today.

‘Democracy’ is the sixth of nine tracks on The Future, the ninth studio album by Leonard Cohen, released on 24 November 1992. Almost an hour in length, it was Cohen’s longest album at the time.

Both the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 1992 Los Angeles riots took place while Cohen was writing and recording the album, expressing his sense of the world’s turbulence. The album was recorded with a large cast of musicians and engineers in several studios.

The album built on the success of his previous album, I’m Your Man, and sold a quarter of a million copies in the US, which until then had not been enthusiastic about Cohen’s albums.

In an interview with Paul Zollo in Songwriters on Songwriting, Leonard Cohen spoke at length about ‘Democracy.’ He admitted that he wrote 60 verses for the song. As he watched the fall of the Berlin Wall, he recalled, ‘everyone was saying democracy is coming to the east.’ But he thought to himself, ‘I think a lot of suffering will be the consequence of this wall coming down.’

‘But then I asked myself, “Where is democracy really coming?” And it was the USA … So while everyone was rejoicing, I thought it wasn’t going to be like that, euphoric, the honeymoon. So it was these world events that occasioned the song. And also the love of America. Because I think the irony of America is transcendent in the song.

‘It’s not an ironic song. It’s a song of deep intimacy and affirmation of the experiment of democracy in this country. That this is really where the experiment is unfolding. This is really where the races confront one another, where the classes, where the genders, where even the sexual orientations confront one another. This is the real laboratory of democracy.’

According to Ira Nadel’s book Various Positions (1996), the title track, ‘The Future,’ was originally called ‘If You Could See What's Coming Next.’ I cannot predict the future, I cannot see what is coming next. But this evening I wonder whether the US is ‘the real laboratory of democracy’ or whether we are watching the end of democracy in the USA, perhaps even the beginning of the end of the USA.

Leonard Cohen celebrated on recent postage stamps issued in Canada (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

In ‘Democracy’, Leonard Cohen sings:

It’s coming through a hole in the air
From those nights in Tiananmen Square
It’s coming from the feel
That this ain’t exactly real
Or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there
From the wars against disorder
From the sirens night and day
From the fires of the homeless
From the ashes of the gay
Democracy is coming to the USA

It’s coming through a crack in the wall
On a visionary flood of alcohol
From the staggering account
Of the Sermon on the Mount
Which I don’t pretend to understand at all
It's coming from the silence
On the dock of the bay,
From the brave, the bold, the battered
Heart of Chevrolet
Democracy is coming to the USA

It’s coming from the sorrow in the street
The holy places where the races meet
From the homicidal bitchin’
That goes down in every kitchen To determine who will serve and who will eat
From the wells of disappointment
Where the women kneel to pray
For the grace of God in the desert here
And the desert far away:
Democracy is coming to the USA

Sail on, sail on
O mighty Ship of State
To the Shores of Need
Past the Reefs of Greed
Through the Squalls of Hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on

It’s coming to America first
The cradle of the best and of the worst
It’s here they got the range
And the machinery for change
And it’s here they got the spiritual thirst
It’s here the family’s broken
And it’s here the lonely say
That the heart has got to open
In a fundamental way
Democracy is coming to the USA

It’s coming from the women and the men
O baby, we’ll be making love again
We’ll be going down so deep
The river’s going to weep,
And the mountain’s going to shout Amen
It’s coming like the tidal flood
Beneath the lunar sway
Imperial, mysterious
In amorous array
Democracy is coming to the USA

Sail on, sail on

I’m sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can’t stand the scene
And I’m neither left or right
I’m just staying home tonight
Getting lost in that hopeless little screen
But I’m stubborn as those garbage bags
That Time cannot decay
I’m junk but I’m still holding up
This little wild bouquet
Democracy is coming to the USA

Democracy lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

How the main synagogue
in Vienna was saved from
the Nazis and Kristallnacht

The attack on the Stadttempel or City Synagogue on Seitenstettengasse in Vienna attacked last night … the only synagogue in the Austrian capital to have survived World War II (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The attack on the Stadttempel or City Synagogue on Seitenstettengasse in Vienna last night (2 November 2020) was yet another chilling reminder of the rise of antisemitism, racism and violence across Europe.

I was in Vienna this time last year (November 2019), and for a second time visited the Stadttempel in the Innere Stadt 1 district. This is the main synagogue in Vienna, and is the only synagogue in the Austrian capital to have survived World War II, when the Nazis destroyed all 93 other synagogues and Jewish prayer-houses in Vienna.

Because of its unusual architectural design and its location, this synagogue uniquely survived destruction 82 years ago, on Kristallnacht, 9-10 November 1938.

Despite two major expulsions in the Middle Ages, Jews continued to settle in the city, and in 1624 were granted a new neighbourhood in Vienna. The Unter Werd was located along Taborstrasse in present-day Leopoldstadt, on the other side of the Danube.

A new synagogue was built there on the site where the Leopoldskirche church stands today. The Unter Werd ghetto, which included 132 houses, offered the Jews a certain amount of protection until it was destroyed and its residents were exiled in 1670.

With Joseph II issued an edict of tolerance in 1782, Jews settled in Vienna once again.

A new synagogue designed by the Viennese architect Josef Kornhäusel (1782-1860) was built on Seitenstettengasse in 1824-1826, marking the Jewish community’s effective return to the historical centre of Jewish life in Vienna in the Middle Ages.

The main building of the Jewish community in Vienna, housing the Stadttempel or City Synagogue … the synagogue was designed by Josef Kornhäusl and built in 1824-1826 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The synagogue was designed in the elegant Biedermeier style by Kornhäusel, who had built palaces, theatres and other buildings for Prince Johann I Joseph of Liechtenstein. The construction was supervised by the official municipal architect, Jacob Heinz.
When the synagogue was built, it was fitted into a block of houses and hidden from plain view of the street. An edict from Emperor Joseph II decreed that only Roman Catholic places of worship were allowed to be built with façades that faced directly onto the city streets.

Two five-storey apartment blocks were built at No 2 and No 4 Seitenstettengasse at the same time, designed by the architect to screen the synagogue from the street in compliance with the Patent of Toleration.

The synagogue is in the form of an oval. A ring of 12 Ionic columns support a two-tiered women’s gallery. Originally, the galleries ended one column away from the Aron ha-Kodesh or Holy Ark holding the Torah scroll. They were later extended to the columns beside the ark to provide more seating. The building is domed and lit by a lantern in the centre of the dome, in classic Biedermeyer style.

At the consecration of the synagogue on 9 April 1826, the cantor, Solomon Sulzer, sang an arrangement of Psalm 92 written by the composer Franz Schubert.

At the time, the synagogue was considered one of the city’s most innovative buildings and it became a model for other synagogue buildings in western Europe. It became the first official Ashkenazi communal synagogue, and the prayers were conducted according to the Reform liturgy.

The Hebrew inscription from Psalm 100 at the entrance to the Stadttempel on Seitenstettengasse (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Hebrew inscription at the entrance reads: ‘Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise’ (Psalm 100: 4).

Around the oval main prayer hall were 12 Ionic columns support a two-tiered women’s gallery with partitions. The ceiling was painted sky-blue with golden stars. The Bimah was at the east side of the hall and opposite it, stood the double-level Aron ha-Kodesh or Holy Ark, a splendid architectural essay in the Baroque style. On top are the Tablets of the Law within a golden sunburst.

A commemorative glass made at the time of the synagogue’s dedication and etched with a detailed image of the interior is now in the collection of the Jewish Museum in New York.

The synagogue was renovated in 1895 and again in 1904 by the Jewish architect Wilhelm Stiassny, adding considerable ornamentation. But the architectural historian Rachel Wischnitzer believes ‘the serene harmony of the design was spoiled.’

Before World War II, Vienna had more than 100 prayer houses, 60 synagogues and a Jewish population of about 200,000, making it one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe.

The design and construction that saved the Stadttempel that saved it on Kriistallnacht is explained in an exhibition in the Jewish Museum in the Palais Eskeles on Dorotheergasse (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This edict of Joseph II saved the synagogue from total destruction on Kristallnacht, 9-10 November 1938, because the synagogue could not be destroyed without setting on fire the buildings to which it was attached. The Hotel Metropol, 150 meters away, was the Nazi headquarters in Vienna, and they did not want a fire to spread there.

In 1938, the Nazis also closed the Jewish Museum in Vienna, which opened in 1895 and was the first Jewish museum in Europe and sent the collection of 6,000 items to different museums.

After World War II, the Stadttempel was the only synagogue in Vienna that had not been destroyed during Kristallnacht, and a small but active Jewish community re-established itself in Vienna in 1945.

The first post-war service was held in the Stadttempel in Autumn 1946, before any restoration began on the looted and defaced building. This service, commemorating the 120th anniversary of the synagogue and marking its re-dedication, was attended by cabinet ministers.

The damage inflicted on Kristallnacht and by the Nazis was repaired in 1949. That year, the coffins of Theodor Herzl and his parents were displayed at the synagogue, before they were taken to Israel for burial.

The Stadttempel was renovated again in 1963 by Professor Otto Niedermoser, with the City of Vienna providing funds for the restoration.

A mezuzah at a door in the Stadttempel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today, the synagogue is an historic monument. The interior has a sky blue, star-speckled dome overhead. The gilded beams, white and ivory curtain in the women’s section and the ovoid shape have led one visitor to say it made ‘me feel as though I were inside a priceless Faberge egg.’

Two people at a bar mitzvah ceremony were murdered in 1981 and 30 more when injured when terrorists attacked the synagogue with machine guns and hand grenades.

Another synagogue, the Leopoldstädter Temple, was built in 1858, across the Danube not far from where the Unter Werd ghetto once stood. This attracted Jewish settlers to the district, later called Mazzesinsel, or ‘Matzoh Island.’

But very few Viennese Jews returned to Vienna after World War II. Many Jews who left the Soviet Union in the 1970s and could not adapt to life in Israel made Vienna their home. Today the Jewish population of Vienna is comprised mostly of Russians and immigrants.

Since the 1980s and 1990s, the Jewish community has once again concentrated its activities in the two historical neighbourhoods. The Jewish community in Vienna has 7,000 members and is slowly growing, but the number of Jews living in the city is far higher, with estimates ranging from 10,000 to 12,000 and even up to 15,000.

The complex at Seitenstettengasse houses the Stadttempel, the only surviving synagogue from World War II and also the offices of the Vienna Jewish Community, the Chief Rabbi of Vienna, the editorial offices of the community newspaper Die Gemeinde (The Community), the Jewish community centre, the Library of the Jewish Museum and a kosher restaurant.

The other synagogues and prayer halls in Vienna include: Agudas Israel, Grünangergasse; Agudas Yeshurun, Rabensteig; Misrachi, Judenplatz; Agudas Israel, Tempelgasse; Beth Aharon, Rabbiner-Schneerson-Platz; Beth Hamidrash Tora Etz Chayim, Grosse Schiffgasse; Machsike Hadass, Grosse Mohrengasse; Or Chadash, Robertgasse; Ohel Moshe, Lilienbrunngasse; Sephardic Centre, Tempelgasse; and Blumauergasse Synagogue. They serve a variety of traditions, including Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Reform and Chassidic Jews.

A plaque recalls the attack on the synagogue in 1981 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)