These Hebrew Genderbent Leonard Cohen Covers Are So Beautiful – Kveller
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These Hebrew Genderbent Leonard Cohen Covers Are So Beautiful

Israeli singer Aya Korem's stirring covers of the Jewish music giant's songs must be heard.

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One day after October 7, singer-songwriter Aya Korem was by Kibbutz Be’eri about to perform to a group of soldiers when she got an unexpected request — her cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire.” For those who don’t know Korem, that’s not exactly her most popular song. Yes, she put out an EP of five Leonard Cohen covers a little while back, and yes, she had been singing those songs to herself and then on stage for six years, but she is most well known for her 2000s pop hits like “Summer,” “A Simple Love Song” and “Yonatan Shapira.”

That moment put Korem face to face with the echoes of time. It was 50 years after the Yom Kippur War, a seminal moment in Cohen’s career when the Canadian singer who once said his “soul was circumcised in the Jewish tradition” came to Israel to tour in front of soldiers. And now here she was, singing his songs to young men about to go into yet another battle. “Then, a thin Jew performed in front of soldiers, and now it’s me,” Korem mused on her Instagram.

As she went from volunteer performance to performance, trying to revive the souls of displaced residents of Israel’s South, of soldiers ahead of battle, of a bleeding nation, she also found the key to a translation of one of Cohen’s songs that had always alluded her — “Lover, Lover, Lover,” which Cohen wrote at Hatzor Air Base during the war.

The song is part of “Yours, A. Korem,” her new album released last month of mostly live performances recorded on one of Israel’s most venerated stages, Heichal Hatarbut, or the Charles Bronfman Auditorium. It’s full of very personal translations and reinterpretations of Cohen’s songs. Almost every cover is genderbent, sung in the Hebrew singular feminine.

Like so many of Cohen’s songs, “Lover, Lover, Lover” had been translated to Hebrew before, but Korem’s translation touched something live and raw in the current moment. “I asked, why why why won’t my love come back to me?” she sings in her pure and powerful voice, full of the melancholy longing and misery of all those who, in these moments, are waiting for the return of loved ones, or longing so deeply for the homecoming of those who will never come back. “The symbolism is so heavy that I almost collapse under its weight,” Korem reflected online.

When talking about the songs, Korem often opens with a disclaimer, almost an apology, justifying why she feels entitled to reinterpret these works. “I already feel that it is OK that I translated these songs. That I do have the right. That I have chutzpah, but so did [Cohen]. That I’m a little bit of a narcissist but so was he,” she wrote while announcing the album on her Instagram.

Korem and Cohen, with their similar sounding but very different Jewish last names, have quite a bit in common. They’re both accomplished and talented writers who marry the personal and the political in their music. Korem was part of My Favorite Enemy, a joint band of Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians and Norwegian artists that incorporated songs in Hebrew, English and Arabic about the conflict, and she lent her music and voice to the recent Israeli protest movement. Like Cohen, her romantic relationships have a significant impact on her career. One of her first hits, “Yonatan Shapira,” is about an old fling, a funny sort of “So Long, Marianne.” (Her parter in music and in life is virtuoso guitarist and musician Adam Ben Amitai, with whom she has two children.) Lastly, both Korem and Cohen inhabit a strange place in relation to pop culture and the commercial nature of the music business. “For most of his career, Leonard didn’t feel loved enough… his record label didn’t want to release ‘Hallelujah’ because it wasn’t commercial enough,” she once decried.

As for Korem, she had big commercial hits early in her career and is a successful touring performer, but she also went through a terrible ordeal with her first record label, a years long battle that ended up in a new law (yes, there’s an Aya Korem law) and with the freedom to make her own music. She’s also incredibly self-effacing and unserious about her relation to fame — especially in fun videos on her Instagram and TikTok that make fun of the aesthetics of her old performances or the fact that some people go to her concerts thinking she’s a different early 2000s Israeli pop star. (Unlike Leonard Cohen, she’s a bit of a viral internet sensation.)

“I’m standing on stage, like him. Waiting for applause, like him. Tormented in front of the paper, like him. The writing of Leonard Cohen is my Everest and I can never reach its peak, but,” she wrote about their connection, “I think I know a thing or two about how he felt.”

Her covers are all so full of feeling, and they carry a different kind of poignancy when sung by a woman and mother. Just as Cohen’s songs take us into his own world and imagery, Korem’s covers take us into hers. In “Democracy,” she dreams of democracy coming to Israel, not the U.S. She sings about the organization and the concept of Peace Now. Tiananmen Square becomes Rothschild Boulevard.

When Korem first released her EP of covers, she wrote that as someone who grew up on Cohen, Waits and Dylan, she always had an outsider experience of their songs, in which the hero’s grand tale is almost always that of a man. In “Yours, A. Korem,” the tales are just as grand, but suddenly women and girls can see their love, heartache, grief, rage and dreams in these remade songs of a gentle Jewish giant.

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