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Better than Hallelujah?

Taking issue with our song list’s Leonard Cohen selection

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(Jim Dyson/Getty Images)

To me, Jody Rosen and Ari Y. Kelman’s stellar  list of 100 great Jewish songs was not meant to be taken as gospel. Rather, like all great best-of lists, it is an invitation to a discussion about the artists and the songs we find most meaningful, and the qualities, not always immediately perceptible, that make them Jewish.

As an obsessive fan and future biographer of Leonard Cohen, the list got me thinking about which one of the poet laureate of Jewish theology’s songs is most befitting for inclusion in a top 100 countdown. Rosen and Kelman selected “Hallelujah”; while certainly a strong choice—it is, by far, Cohen’s most popular work, and the lyrics involve David and Samson, Bathesheba and Delilah, and other biblical flavorings—it’s not one I would make. While a musical masterpiece, “Hallelujah,” I believe, is one of Cohen’s least Jewish songs.

It’s not just the mention of the holy dove—the earthly manifestation of the Holy Spirit in Christian iconography. The entire song is riddled with imagery that could easily be borrowed from other traditions, from the vaguely Protestant minor fall and major lift to the Lord of Song, a reference, possibly, to the literal meaning of the Bhagavad Gita.

Other Cohen songs, I think, come much closer to exploring his serious and evolved Jewish theology. Several of our readers suggested “Who By Fire,” the lyrics of which are adapted from the Unetaneh Tokef prayer. My own top-three list is as follows:

1. Anthem: “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” To my mind, the best expression of the Jewish idea of redemption ever put to music.

2. Story of Isaac: “You who build these altars now / to sacrifice these children, / you must not do it anymore. / A scheme is not a vision / and you never have been tempted / by a demon or a god.” Unlike Dylan’s glib take on the sacrifice, Cohen is in full prophetic mode.

3. The Future: “You don’t know me from the wind / you never will, you never did / I’m the little Jew / who wrote the Bible. / I’ve seen the nations rise and fall / I’ve heard their stories, heard them all / but love’s the only engine of survival.” The history of the Jews in a few devastating lines.

Agree? Disagree? Got your own Cohen favorites you want to share? Kindly post ‘em in the comments. This discussion has only just begun…

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Well done, Liel. You missed my #1 favorite in terms of his Jewish ouevre: If It Be Your Will. It is the best modern Yom Kippur piyut of which I am aware.

Liel Leibovitz says:

Amen to that, Ittai. I stand corrected.

I agree completely.

Beautiful choices. How about Dance Me To the End of Love?

Hi Liel, interesting article. Hallelujah for me religious connotations aside is the greatest song ever written. I guess though the most Jewish song Leonard wrote would have to be Story of Issac which I also love but then again I love all of his songs.
I see an interesting comment in your article, “and future biographer”. Really, have you started this yet and are you planning on a general biography or are you going to concentrate on one aspect of this wonderful mans life? I also know of at least one more forthcoming biography and it will be interesting to what different angles you cover that haven’t already being covered by the ones already available. Good luck with it and I look forward to its release!

Janis Kirtz says:

Leonard has introduced a new song in his recently completed World Tour. It is called “Born in Chains.” I think the lyrics are on point to this discussion. These are most of the lyrics, as best as several fans can make them out. (Souce: LC Forum).

I was born in chains but I was taken out of Egypt
I was bound to a burden, but the burden it was raised
Oh Lord, I can no longer keep this secret
Blessed is the name, the name be praised.

I was fed with the bread of freedom and its choosing
But I rebelled there and I knelt before the idols in my shame
But in the midst of all this wild confusion
I heard it spoken: Blessed is the name

Into the full embrace, he hides away so not to see
His creature face to face
You yourself are hidden too, with all your sins of [state]?
There is no king to pardon you,
His mercy is more ……

I fled to the edge of a mighty sea of sorrow
Pursued by the riders of a cruel and dark regime
But the waters parted and my soul crossed over
Out of Egypt,
Out of Pharaoh’s dream.

Word of words and the measure of all measures
Blessed is the name, the name be blessed
Written on my heart in burning letters
That’s all I know,
I cannot read the rest .

I was idle with my soul, when I heard that you could use me
I followed very closely, but my life remained the same
But then you showed me where you had been wounded
In every atom,
Broken is the name.

I was alone on the road, your love was so confusing
And all the teachers told me that I had myself to blame
But in the arms of sensual illusion
A sweet unknowing
Unified the name.

I’’ve heard the soul unfold in the chambers of its longing
And the bitter liquor sweeten in the hammered cup
Ah but all the ladders of the night have fallen
Just darkness now,
To lift the spirit up

What song is more defiantly Jewish than “First We Take Manhattan”?

I’ve said that least 1524780 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

I derive pleasure reading it. I fundamental to learn more on this subject.. Thanks for the sake writing this marvellous post.. Anyway, I am gonna subscribe to your support and I wish you mail again soon.

Pierre Corneille~ When there is no peril in the fight there is no glory in the triumph.

The best proof of love is trust. – Joyce Brothers

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Better than Hallelujah?

Taking issue with our song list’s Leonard Cohen selection

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