Jeffrey Salkin remembers that the first book of poetry he ever owned was the “Selected Poems” of Leonard Cohen. Cohen’s poetry, his fiction and his songs left their mark on Salkin, and when he was planning the High Holy Day services for Temple Beth Am in Bayonne, N.J., where he is the rabbi, he remembered that the Jewish-Canadian bard turns 80 this year.
“Many of our congregation are his age,” Rabbi Salkin said in a telephone interview last week. “He gets better as he has aged, and many of his fans are less than a quarter of his age. [He] provides an excellent model for people as they age.”
More than that, many of Cohen’s songs are drawn directly from the Jewish sacred texts he read as a boy in Montreal. The singer-songwriter has said of the experience, “The first poetry that affected me was in the synagogue — the prayer book and the Bible. That would send shivers down my spine.”
(Some of his songs and poems, of course, are drawn from earthier sources. His poem “Almost Like the Blues,” which appears in the Sept. 8 New Yorker, contains this sacred/profane stanza: “I let my heart get frozen/ To keep away the rot/ My father said I’m chosen/ My mother said I’m not/ I listened to their story/ Of the Gypsies and the Jews/ It was good, it wasn’t boring/ It was almost like the blues.”)
Rabbi Salkin, who has himself authored numerous books on spirituality for the likes of the Jewish Publication Society and Jewish Lights, has a similarly intense response to Cohen’s words.
“Cohen has been a secret pleasure of mine for many years,” Salkin confessed. “He has been on a powerful spiritual search that has led him to use Christian imagery, Buddhist imagery and Jewish ideas. I’m choosing to focus on several of his songs that are innately and instinctively Jewish and to present those to our congregation as a modern rendition of our prayers.”
Salkin chose four of Cohen’s songs and has slotted them rather comfortably into the services.
He explained, “’The Story of Isaac’ tells the Akeidah from Isaac’s point of view and it seemed appropriate to sing it before we read that passage from the Torah. ‘Who By Fire’ actually references the prayer ‘Un’taneh Tokef’ and asks us to consider the nature of God as well as the mysteries of life and death that are the heart of that passage of the service. We’ll sing ‘If It Be Your Will’ immediately before ‘Kol Nidre,’ and his most famous song, ‘Hallelujah,’ just before the end of Ne’ilah.”
Asked about the reaction of his congregation, which is predominantly older Jews who have lived in Bayonne or the vicinity “all their lives,” he replied, “Liturgical change is rarely easy. Inevitably new music must sit side-by-side with older forms, and that is appropriate.
“You want to bring people into a larger vision of what you’re trying to do,” Rabbi Salkin said, “but they have their comfort level and I respect that.”