Leonard Cohen, the great singer-songwriter, poet and novelist from Montreal, turns 80 this week. A decade ago (three years before I moved to Ottawa to work at the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin), I was asked to write a feature for the Canadian Jewish News celebrating Cohen’s 70th birthday and highlighting some of the Jewish themes in his work.
One of the works I highlighted was “Story of Isaac,” a song from the 1960s, which was inspired by the biblical story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son to God. The song is written in the first-person from Isaac’s perspective and ultimately, I noted, Cohen turns the song into a rabbinic-style morality lesson on the ethics of one generation sacrificing the lives of the next.
One of the things that has always drawn me to Cohen’s songs is that so many of them reveal even more meaning and nuance over time and repeated listening. I suspect that particular aspect of Cohen’s work is rooted in his boyhood study with his maternal grandfather, Rabbi Solomon Klinitsky-Klein – known as the Sar ha Dikdook, the Prince of the Grammarians, a prominent Talmudic scholar in both Eastern Europe and North America.
Written at the time the anti-Vietnam War movement was at its zenith, “Story of Isaac” was widely interpreted to be an anti-war song.
However, listening to the song now, just after Israel’s war with Hamas and the other terrorist groups in Gaza, I am again discovering more to be discerned from Cohen’s words.
“You who build these altars now/To sacrifice these children/You must not do it anymore,” he sings in one passage. This is the key passage I was referring to in the 2004 article about one generation sacrificing the lives of the next. This is the passage that gives the song its anti-war message.
But, now, in these words, I see a message about Gaza’s Islamist terrorists launching their barrages of rockets at Israel knowing full well that Israel will ultimately defend itself and that a consequence will be the sacrifice of innocent Palestinian children. But that was the goal of those terrorists: to score some sort of symbolic victory through the deaths of innocent children.
And no matter how hard Israel tried to prevent such deaths – and not to excuse certain incidents, such as the four children killed playing soccer on the Gaza beach, which Israel acknowledges should never have happened – they were inevitable in a war being fought against an enemy that deliberately hides its military targets in homes, hospitals, schools and mosques.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad claim to be religiously motivated. But what they did was build altars to sacrifice their children. This is in direct contradiction to the lesson from the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac – God does not want the wanton sacrifice of children.
I was struck by another passage in “Story of Isaac” in light of the Gaza conflict.
“And if you call me brother now/Forgive me if I inquire/‘Just according to whose plan?’/When it all comes down to dust/I will kill you if I must/ I will help you if I can.”
Isaac’s biblical half-brother was Ishmael, regarded as the patriarch of the Arab people and the direct ancestor of Muhammad, the founder of Islam. Seen in that light, Cohen, singing as Isaac, the Jewish patriarch, seems to be speaking prophetically, telling the descendants of Ishmael: “I will kill you if I must,” meaning that Isaac’s descendants, the Children of Israel, if forced to, will act defensively in such manners as Operation Protective Edge with its consequences; and “I will help you if I can,” meaning what will flow from a peace between the two peoples descended from Abraham.
As I mentioned, Cohen wrote “Story of Isaac” at the time of the Vietnam War, and the song has been widely interpreted in the context of the anti-war movement of that era. But he also wrote the song not too long after the Six Day War of 1967. Listening now, I think it is really the Arab-Israeli conflict he was singing about. “I will kill you if I must, I will help you if I can,” the choice, war or peace, is there for the children of Isaac’s brother to make.
Happy New Year
On behalf of the staff of the Bulletin – Brenda, Barry, Monique and myself – I wish everyone a happy, sweet and peaceful New Year. Shana Tova.