Legendary poet, novelist, songwriter and singer
Leonard Cohen, the legendary Canadian poet, novelist and singer-songwriter was born in Montreal on September 21, 1934 to a prominent Jewish family. His paternal grandfather, Lyon Cohen, was founding president of Canadian Jewish Congress and his maternal grandfather, Rabbi Solomon Klinitsky-Klein, was a noted Talmudic scholar. His father, Nathan Cohen, a clothing manufacturer, died when the boy was just nine years old. Masha Cohen, his mother, from whom he inherited a love for songs and poetry, died in 1978.
Growing up, Cohen studied extensively with his rabbinic grandfather and was profoundly influenced by him on several levels. In much the same way that he and the rabbi would spend many hours discussing the meaning of a single sentence, Cohen said that he often devoted similar amounts of time, sometimes more, to a turn of phrase in a poem or song.
As a McGill student in the early-1950s, Cohen began to make his mark as a poet. His first book of poems, Let Us Compare Mythologies, was published in 1956 and Cohen quickly became one of the Montreal’s major English-language literary figures. More books of poetry and two novels – The Favorite Game and Beautiful Losers – soon followed.
In the mid-1960s, Cohen turned his attention to songwriting. The 1960s were an exciting time for innovative songwriters. Another Jewish songwriter, Bob Dylan (born Robert Zimmerman), had combined the musical influences of Woody Guthrie and traditional American folksongs with the literary influences of beat poets and novelists like Allan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, thereby redefining what could be accomplished in a song. Cohen was drawn to that creative challenge and it was as a singer-songwriter that Cohen would attain his most enduring fame.
Jewish and Jewish-influenced themes were evident in many of Cohen’s songs including his most famous song, “Hallelujah,” and “You Want It Darker,” which he recorded shortly before his death with Cantor Gideon Zelermyer and the men’s choir from Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, the synagogue at which he grew up in Montreal.
In 1994, Cohen withdrew from public life and moved to the Mount Baldy Zen Center in California. Zen is a branch of Buddhism that stresses meditation and offers no discussion of God. He left the Zen centre in 1999 and told an interviewer in 2002 that the years he spent at the Zen centre had strengthened his commitment to Judaism. “You just enter into that 4,000-year-old conversation with God and the sages,” he said.
In 2008, Cohen embarked on the first of a series of concert tours over the next five years. With an ensemble of world class musicians and back-up singers, Cohen performed hundreds of masterful, meticulously planned, and long concerts of songs drawn from across his career at major venues around the world, including in Israel.
Cohen suffered from cancer in his final months and died November 7, 2016 after taking a fall in his Los Angeles home. He was buried near his parents at the Shaar Hashomayim cemetery in Montreal. Cohen was survived by a son, Adam, also a noted singer-songwriter, a daughter, Lorca, and three grandchildren.
Throughout 2017, in celebration of Canada’s sesquicentennial, the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin is publishing a series of profiles spotlighting the contributions of historically important Jewish Canadians to our country. Previously in the series: