broken hallelujah

A journey through Leonard Cohen’s poetry, song, and prayers

“I think that Leonard is the greatest living liturgist of our time…”
Rabbi Mordecai Finley, from 'I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen', by Sylvie Simmons


posted on - translated to English

The High Priest: The delicate art of creating an evening of covers for Leonard Cohen

Yaki Hefstein //


In almost every Leonard Cohen poem, one can find a trusting outlet. Nearly every song by Leonard Cohen has been covered over the years. So what did it look like at the tribute concert to Cohen's songs, which was devoted to the faith aspect of his songs? 

I arrived skeptical to the concert "Broken Hallelujah", which brought to the stage several songs of Leonard Cohen. Although I do not know if a  "formal investigation" was made, I can say with high confidence that Cohen is among the top five artists who have received the highest number of covers for their songs. Here are a few examples: Jeff Buckley's version of Hallelujah, REM's version of   "First We Take Manhattan " and Nina Simone's excellent performance for Suzanne. But it is likely that if you turn to another person, he will point to three completely different covers, such as John Kyle's "Hallelujah" by Joe Cocker to " First We Take Manhattan " or that of Tori Amos to "Suzanne."

Cohen was covered so much. After his death in 2016, at the age of 82, this practice became even more popular. From Lana Del Rey, through Ninet to religious wedding bands in Israel (true story) – almost every artist who held a guitar in his hand covers a song of the High Priest.

It is hard to make use of words like "satiety" and "tiredness" in the context of Cohen's texts and melodies, and yet there is a certain saturation, but the performance does not always bring with them a great deal, certainly not compared to Cohen's performance. If so, the pre-opening conditions of the event were quite challenging for me. A possible title for the evening, even before it started: "More of the St."

And after we finished with this travel warning to Manhattan, we would continue to Berlin with a siren and a small spoiler; there was no fatigue there.

Cover? Check

This project, "A Broken Hallelujah," began when Avraham Cohen (an actor, street artist, medical clown and founder and director of the Ben-Zvi Institute's piyyut ensemble) decided to dive with the great music producer and bassist Yankale Segal into Cohen's texts. The main motif during the search was Cohen's preoccupation with prayer and conversation with God.

In general, in almost every Cohen song, one can find an intellectual outlet, and not even need a too wide interpretive range to locate it. The closeness to his great grandfather as a child, the visits to the synagogues and the affection for the Holy Tongue did their part and turned Cohen's faith and Judaism into a permanent presence in his work, either in text or in subtext. There is a certain irony in the fact that it seems that the faith of vocalist Avraham Cohen in the artist Leonard Cohen, and not necessarily in God, played the central role in the evening at Beit Avi Chai.

Abraham, as it turns out throughout the entire evening, not only knows every sentence and nuance in Leonard Cohen's music but lives it. This is illustrated by the soft form of his speech, the manner of thought revealed by the words that link the songs, and in general, the way this whole package is presented on stage. Beyond that, Abraham Cohen, unlike many of Leonard's cabbages, clearly understands the important rule of the game: he is not here to walk in Leonard Cohen's shoes, but to try to interpret it in his own way.

The opening of the concert was a good sign. A clear association was placed at our door with a small beam of light that surrounded Abraham's head, and with the help of a Ukulele (a tiny four-string guitar), he gently performed "Minute Prologue." This is a short poem, one minute and 20 seconds, which, as it was, served as a prologue. Moreover, it seems that a private prayer – if you will – is the version of Abraham Cohen's "Prayer for the Poor" (Psalms 102) before taking on the role of public emissary this evening.

Immediately afterward, and without waiting for a moment, a full light was lit on the stage, and the rest of the ensemble joined in the most canonical prayer performed by Leonard Cohen: "Who By Fire." Legend has it that when he was five years old, Leonard Cohen attended the Yom Kippur service at the Shaar Hashamaim synagogue in Westmount, northeast of Montreal, Canada. The synagogue was built by Cohen's grandfathers and had a central place in the construction of Cohen's artistic foundations, as he often expressed himself in interviews. The child Leonard, or in his full Hebrew name, Eliezer ben Nissan HaCohen, was amazed and heard the words from the piyut "Ntana Tokef" by Rabbi Amnon of Magnatzia for the first time. Later the great impression remained, and the version he wrote became the most famous entropy in the world for this piyyut.

If so, the choice to open rather clearly could have been an obstacle, but it has proved itself to be an excellent trailer. On the side of the text, which always sends shudder, the production of Yankale Segal sound fresh and precise, and it helped bring the atmosphere into this evening; On one hand – to give a place of respect for the texts of heaven and connect to the level of faith in the creation of Leonard Cohen. On the other hand – to go down with them to reality and in the face of the audience.

The unity of opposites

Later in the evening, the compositions continued to play a central role – Hebrew and English, sacred and profane, heaven and earth. The role-playing between Avraham and daughter Chen Edri, the singer next to him, also obeyed this legitimacy.

There were quite a few pleasant moments in the evening, which included quite a few songs alongside anecdotes about Cohen's life. Including a fun country version for "Tower of song," translated by Shlomi Shaban. The performance of "Lover Lover Lover" and the story of his writing, inspired by Leonard Cohen's tour of the Yom Kippur War on the southern front to cheer up IDF soldiers, and the version of "Hallelujah," which caused people in the audience to applaud, The last few minutes before the gates of Heaven close.

Kobi Meidan's guidance greatly enriched the evening. Over the years, Meidan has become one of the most identified people in Israel with Leonard Cohen and his works, in light of the many translations of Cohen's songs and his extensive media involvement in the subject. Midan's ability to tell a story turns his entire reading into an experience, and so it was when he told Leonard Cohen that he was looking for the note on which he wrote his first poem at the age of nine, years after it was written. Above all, however, two compelling moments came to mind.

 The first was the vocal performance on the edge of the a-cappella (minus a light guitar in the background) by Avraham and Edri to the piyyut 'Yedid Nefesh,' which is known to all from the Ashkenazi synagogues on Sabbath. And then, when Avraham took the harmonica, and the rest of the ensemble joined with "Show Me the Place," the heart can not help but burst out from the natural continuum that is being built here. This song, which Leonard Cohen crying out for help and guidance that will illuminate him, the small, the way forward – "Show me the place, where you want your slave to go " – corresponded well with the piyyut 'Yedid Nefesh ("soulmate") : "Pull your servant to your will, will run for servant Like a ram. "

The other moment that was engraved on me was also created by a match between Leonard Cohen and the world of piyyut. This happened when Avraham, accompanied by a guitar alone, told about the beautiful poem by Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Abbas, "Et Sha'arei Ratzon Leiftach," which deals with the story of the binding of Isaac, which is customary in the Ten Days of Repentance. The connection between this piyyut and the legendary "The Story of Issac " is obvious, and yet it succeeded to be exciting. 

The performance moves back and forth between the song and the piyyut, between despair and hope, until the powerful ending in which Avraham reads the verses of the story from the bible in dramatic detail and concludes with the ultimate match for the priest – "Hineny" ('Here I am') here he is.