First Volume of Leonard Cohen Bio Sheds Light on Enigmatic Troubadour

Oct. 22, 2020

By RUTH SCHWEITZER

Leonard Cohen rarely gave candid interviews and he also managed to avoid media scrutiny. He was a man of mystery cloaked in bohemianism.

Generations of fans of the brilliant Montreal-born poet, novelist and singer-songwriter have been touched by his interesting mind and his penetrating song lyrics for decades. They’ve connected to him, sometimes deeply, yet know little about him.

Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen

A new Cohen biography, Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: The Early Years, published by Simon & Schuster Canada, reveals more about Cohen’s personal and professional life than previous biographies do. At nearly 500 pages long, it will certainly satisfy the inquisitive.

This is the first volume of Michael Posner’s series about Cohen. Posner, a former writer for the Globe and Mail, interviewed more than 500 of Cohen’s friends, associates, one-time lovers, and acquaintances, and gathered enough material for three books. The second volume is due in the fall of 2021, with a third to be released in the fall of 2022.

They are oral biographies, made up of brief excerpts from the interviews Posner conducted, with some quotes from Cohen himself. Posner doesn’t vouch for the accuracy of those memories that often come into conflict. Was it Cohen who gave LSD to the 15-year-old son of his muse, Marianne Ihlen, or was it the boy’s father? From the accounts in the book, it was probably not Cohen, but we’ll never know for sure.

In his introduction to volume one, Posner writes that one of the virtues of oral biography is that “everyone gets to take the stand, and the jurors – readers – decide whose version of the truth they endorse.”

The book opens with chapters about Cohen’s family and his youth in Montreal during the 1940s and ‘50s – he was born in 1934 – and ends in 1969, by the time he’d achieved minor stardom as a songwriter and singer.

Cohen’s grandfather, Lyon Cohen, was president of Montreal’s Shaar Hashomayim synagogue, where the extended Cohen family filled two rows during services. About Judaism, Cohen said: “What I missed in the tradition was that nobody ever spoke to me about methods, about meditations. I was hungry as a young man – I wanted to go into a system a little more thoroughly. I wanted to be exposed to a different kind of mind.”

What Cohen found lacking in Judaism was the seed that propelled him on a lifelong spiritual search, from Scientology to Zen Buddhism. Then at the end of his life, the search brought Cohen back full circle, to Judaism.

Leonard Cohen with his mother, Masha

The most influential woman in Cohen’s life was his mother, Masha. Cohen’s longtime friend, fellow poet Irving Layton, paints a picture of Masha as a stereotypical, domineering Jewish mother, commenting that “her eroticism was directed at Leonard.” Linda Clark attributed his inability to make a full commitment to a woman to Masha, because part of Cohen heart always belonged to her.

But Cohen had a huge appetite for sex. Deadly charming, he was frequently on the prowl and seduced many women. “A friend of mine once asked me if Leonard had ever hit on me,” Cheryl Sourkes says. “I said no. She said, ‘We must be the only two women in Montreal [that he didn’t hit on].’” Many worshipful women were drawn to Cohen, too, attracted to him like metal filings to a magnet, recalls Max Layton, Irving Layton’s son.

Some readers may be troubled by the sexism of Cohen’s generation of men and his younger, artistically inclined male followers, who got easy access to the women around Cohen. “The men around him were treated to the women, whether they were married men or not,” recalls Carol Zemel. “It was one of the ways he held men in his thrall – there were always women around. If he wasn’t sleeping with them, he shared them.”

In 1960, Cohen moved to the Greek Island of Hydra, where he lived with Marianne over a period of seven years, when he wasn’t in Montreal or New York City. Hydra was an artists’ colony and, being the 1960s, sexual freedom was blowing in the wind. But freedom didn’t necessarily make for happiness. “Relationships were unraveling. Everyone was sleeping with everyone else,” says Aviva Layton, Irving Layton’s wife. “Open marriages. It really was a painful, emotionally dangerous time.”

Drugs were easily available on Hydra and Cohen indulged in several, including cannabis, hashish, LSD and amphetamines. Always a hard worker, drugs didn’t stand in the way of his creative output, maybe even enhanced his work.

Leonard Cohen

Several books of Cohen’s poems were published in the 1960s: The Spice Box of Earth in 1961; Flowers for Hitler in 1964, and Parasites of Heaven in 1966. His semi-autobiographical novel, The Favourite Game, came out in 1963, and a second novel, Beautiful Losers, was published in 1966.

The critic Leslie Fiedler said Beautiful Losers was either one of the best or worst novels he’d ever read – he wasn’t sure which. 

Critic Myra Bloom wrote that Beautiful Losers’ “experimental form, along with its critique of history, religion and other metanarratives, make it a perfect object lesson in Canadian postmodernism.” But she added that “lately, though, the book has started to resemble a how-to guide for writers who want to tank their literary careers.”

Sales were poor for Beautiful Losers, so Cohen decided to become a singer-songwriter. But it was not just for the money, Barry Wexler, a Canadian writer and producer and friend of Cohen’s for 50 years, maintains: “Leonard never thought he’d be spoken of in the same breath as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and e.e. cummings – or even first-rate poets like Sylvia Plath, Langston Hughes, and Allen Ginsberg,” Wexler said. “He knew he was good, but didn’t think he was great. That, in part, is why he applied his talent to song. There, a minor poet – no small thing in itself – could become a major lyricist.”

The release of Cohen’s first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1967, foreshadowed the kind of chart success he would go on to achieve. The album, which included Cohen’s signature song, Suzanne, reached No. 83 on the Billboard 200 and peaked at No. 13 on the UK Albums Chart. Cohen had made it to the bottom rung of stardom.

Cohen wasn’t a good singer, but by 1967, that no longer mattered, after a folksinger with a whiny voice, Bob Dylan, had paved the way for Cohen to become successful singing his own songs. Audiences were beginning to appreciate what songwriters bring to performances of their own material.

Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: The Early Years is a detailed account of Cohen’s fascinating early life and career. For serious Cohen fans, it’s a page-tuner.

Synagogues Reinvent High Holiday Services Amid COVID

Sept. 8, 2020 – By LILA SARICK

When Rabbi Lisa Grushcow ascends the bimah on Rosh Hashanah at the Montreal synagogue she leads, it will be in a silent and nearly empty building.

Like many synagogues, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom has decided it is not safe to gather together, and so all the High Holiday services will be virtual this year.

While some rabbis may be negative about “three-day-a-year Jews,” Rabbi Grushcow said she is not one of them.

“I love that feeling of a full sanctuary, of people being there with each other and for each other,” she told the CJR. “There’s no question I’ll miss that.”

While Jews may have participated in Zoom seders over Passover, few thought that Jewish life would be still be online by the High Holidays. But COVID has forced synagogues of all denominations to radically change how and where they will worship this fall.

For some institutions it will mean moving to technology in a way they never envisioned. For others, it means shortened services, outdoors if possible, to reduce congregants’ exposure to each other.

For many synagogues, the priority has been connecting with members in a time of isolation. Rabbi Grushcow’s temple distributed 600 High Holiday kits with a honey cake, a yahrzeit candle and a mizrach – decorative art used to indicate the direction of prayer – to help people transform their homes into sacred spaces.

“We’re trying to create that feeling of connection. That’s what’s at the heart of what people are looking for,” Rabbi Grushcow said.

While Jewish history is long enough to demonstrate that the current situation is not entirely unprecedented, technology is certainly changing the landscape for synagogues, Rabbi Grushcow pointed out.

“We are all working not to reinvent our mission, but the way we deliver it,” she said. “The fact we can use technology is a huge help and there’s a certain openness to doing things new ways that is helpful.”

Rabbi Adam Cutler will be conscious of new technology when he begins Rosh Hashanah services at Adath Israel Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Toronto.

Only about 170 of the synagogue’s 1,100 seats will be filled, to comply with social distancing rules, but the service will be livestreamed to members who do not feel comfortable attending this year.

The Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards had been considering the halachic implications of livestream technology in synagogues before the pandemic started, but hastened to issue a ruling in May that approved the use of cameras on Shabbat and holy days.

Individual synagogues can decide whether to adopt the ruling, and after studying the decision and speaking with colleagues, Rabbi Cutler felt it was the right thing for Adath Israel.

“It’s not something we plan on keeping permanently, but it’s there until everyone feels comfortable being present in the shul.”

When leading services, Rabbi Cutler said, “I make a point of noticing the additional people (watching) at home. It means looking at the camera, which is new for me.”

Adath Israel’s services will be shorter in order to limit exposure, and require pre-registration for contact tracing.

Recognizing that people may need more preparation for the High Holidays this year, the synagogue prepared a month-long program of daily videos highlighting different character traits as well as booklets with texts and essays for discussion.

The synagogue parking lot will also be the site of a drive-through holiday experience before Rosh Hashanah to allow children to hear the shofar, eat apples and honey, and symbolically cast away their sins (into an inflatable pool), all while remaining safely in their family’s car.

Like most synagogues that have re-opened, Adath Israel has not restricted people from attending, but suggests that those who are older consider whether they should come to services in person.

“I fundamentally believe that people have the right to their own agency, you can decide what’s right for you,” Rabbi Cutler said.

Still, it will be an unusual experience when Rabbi Cutler enters a sanctuary where only a fraction of the congregants will be in the pews.

“You have to gear yourself up, and realize there are empty seats for appropriate reasons,” he said.

Not every synagogue in Canada is facing the same restrictions. In Halifax, where COVID cases have been low, current health regulations allow groups to occupy 50 percent of a building’s capacity.

Rabbi Gary Karlin, spiritual leader of Halifax’s Shaar Shalom Congregation, estimates his sanctuary will hold up to 150 people, accounting for social distancing, with more accommodated in a tent. The service will also be livestreamed.

Halifax Synagogue
Halifax Synagogue

Rabbi Karlin will also blow the shofar at the Conservative synagogue’s tashlich ceremony, which is held on the city’s boardwalk, facing the Atlantic Ocean.

While it will be a different High Holiday season, with restrictions and masks, Rabbi Karlin who is celebrating his second Rosh Hashanah in Halifax, hears from colleagues about synagogues that will not be able to open at all.

“I feel very fortunate that things are good deal safer in Nova Scotia. I thank God I’m in a relatively safe place.”

Not opening for the High Holidays was not an option for Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, a Montreal Orthodox synagogue that has taken its classes and programs online, but eschews livestreaming on Shabbat and holidays.

Instead, the synagogue will be offering multiple shortened services, indoors and outside, as well as a pre-recorded service featuring the choir and cantor that was produced over the summer.

Rabba Rachel Kohl Finegold, a member of Shaar Hashomayim’s clergy and president of the Montreal Board of Rabbis, will be leading a family service in a tent this year.

“None of us are having children in the building, which is counter to every instinct we have,” she said.

Instead, the synagogue has sent out a High Holiday box with at-home activities for its youngest members, and volunteers have made calls to older members. “There’s a lot of isolation,” said Rabba Finegold. “We want people to know we’re there for them.”

The pandemic has also thrown new light on Jewish home life, she said. “We’ve all spent so much time at home, that’s reinvigorated that home base for many families.”

The synagogue, for instance, made a challah kit for families, who could then participate by Zoom with Rabba Finegold as she and her daughter braided challah and sang Shabbat songs.

“They’re in my kitchen and I’m in their kitchens. That’s a new way of Jewish engagement.”

Rabba Finegold has also been working with families to craft bar mitzvahs and baby-namings that were completely different from what they had envisioned.

“It’s an amazing time of innovation. There’s the silver lining and we have to harness that too.”

While she could never have imagined the restrictions that COVID has placed on people, she said it may also open new avenues.

“To be outdoors in a tent greeting the New Year, maybe there are possibilities there. We’ve invented some pretty engaging things.”