This Leonard Cohen Quote About Making Jewish Music Is Perfect – Kveller
Skip to Content Skip to Footer


This Leonard Cohen Quote About Making Jewish Music Is Perfect

In a 1985 interview on Israeli TV, Cohen gave the most poetic answer about how Jewish his songs really are.

Leonard Cohen, Canadian poet and singer-songwriter, plays some of his songs in a small recording studio, lower Manhattan, New York, mid 1980s.

via Oliver Morris/Getty Images

Back in 1985, musician Leonard Cohen visited Israel to perform. It was hardly the first time the Jewish Canadian singer visited the country. He first came to Israel in the ’60s, when he hung out with Israeli poet Nathan Zach. In one 1972 concert in Jerusalem, Cohen, under the influence of LSD, apparently felt that his singing and playing was not up to par, and abandoned the stage for half an hour to meditate (and shave!) before returning, with teary eyes, to perform to an enthused crowd that lured him back onstage with Hebrew singing.

Perhaps most memorably, he visited the country during the Yom Kippur War, where the artist, who often spoke against war, was drafted by Israeli singer Oshik Levi to sing and comfort the troupes fighting in the frontline with intimate performances. That story is the subject of Matti Freidman’s book “Who By Fire,” and an experience that led Cohen to write that titular song, which incorporates the words of the Yom Kippur prayer “Unetaneh Tokef,” as well as most of the tracks from his 1974 album “New Skin for the Old Ceremony.”

Over a decade later, Cohen’s visit was a lot less fraught and turmoiled, but he did sit down for an interview with Israeli TV host and journalist Dan Margalit, in which he answered a question about his songs in the most moving of ways.

“They say lately that your songs are more Jewish, is that right?” Margalit poses in the interview.

“My songs are always Jewish, they can’t be anything else but Jewish,” Cohen responded. When Margalit pressed more about that framing, Cohen added, “What is ‘more Jewish?’ It’s like saying somebody is a little bit pregnant or a little bit dead. I write out of my own tradition. My heart was circumcised in the Jewish tradition.”

Is there a more beautiful line about creating art as a Jewish person, about how your religion and identity inform everything that you do?

Cohen, known for songs like “Hallelujah,” “Suzanne,” “So Long Marrianne” and a discography that plays the heartstrings like no other, was a Jewish singer who created an incredible legacy that lives on after his passing in 2016. In 2009, he performed to Israelis one last time, opening his show with some Hebrew words from the scriptures, an age-old compliment for the ancestral land: “How goodly are your tents O Yaakov, your dwellings O Israel,” he told the crowd, before he started to play.

Skip to Banner / Top Skip to Content