December 16, 2018

Moving & Shaking: Top Israeli Sephardic Rabbi Visits L.A.; Tribute Paid to Leonard Cohen

Israel’s Chief Sephardic Rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, and former L.A. Mayor and current California gubernatorial candidate Antonio Villaraigosa meet in Los Angeles. They had a private conversation about Israel and other topics. Photo courtesy of Congregation Mogen David Rabbi Yehuda Moses

Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, visited Los Angeles from Nov. 21-26 and met with many community members and leaders, including former L.A. mayor and current gubernatorial candidate Antonio Villaraigosa.

During a meeting in the rabbi’s hotel room, Villaraigosa, who is running in the 2018 California gubernatorial race, asked the Hebrew-speaking rabbi for a blessing. The two leaders also discussed pluralism issues facing Israel in light of the Reform movement’s efforts to create a mixed prayer space at the Western Wall.

“It was a very interesting conversation,” Congregation Mogen David Rabbi Yehuda Moses said. “I was in the room. I thought it would be a two-minute conversation. It was a 15-minute conversation.”

Yosef’s trip was coordinated by Moses, who received rabbinic ordination from Yosef’s late father, former chief Sephardic rabbi of Israel Ovadia Yosef. It was the first time Yosef visited Los Angeles since his appointment in 2013.

The chief rabbi, author of books on Jewish law important to the Sephardic and Mizrahi communities, also met with Chabad of California Rabbi Baruch Shlomo Cunin; Rabbi David Zargari of Torat Hayim; Nessah Congregation Chief Rabbi David Shofet; and Rabbi Netanel Louie of the Eretz Cultural Center.

Yosef also spoke to about 700 representatives of the Sephardic community at the Eretz Cultural Center in Tarzana. “He strengthened the whole community,”
Moses said.

From left: Limmud FSU co-founders Sandra Cahn and Chaim Chesler, Israeli Minister Ofir Akunis and singer Mike Burstyn at the event “Leonard Cohen and Judaism” at Hillel at UCLA. Photo by Eli Mandelbaum

A Nov. 14 event at Hillel at UCLA lauded the late singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen and his Jewish roots. “Leonard Cohen and Judaism” was hosted by the organization Limmud FSU and included speeches touting Cohen’s legacy and the singing of his hit song “Hallelujah” by actor-singer Mike Burstyn.

Cohen died on Nov. 7, 2016, in his Los Angeles home at the age of 82.

Limmud FSU, an organization dedicated to connecting Jews from the former Soviet Union with their roots, hosted the event in part because of Cohen’s Eastern European heritage. Chaim Chessler, the organization’s founder, pointed out that Cohen’s mother and paternal grandfather were from the region.

The event included a rendition of “Promise,” an unreleased song by Cohen that was performed by local musician Willie Aron, who co-produced it.

“When the world is false, I won’t say it’s true,” Aron sang. “When the darkness comes, I’ll be there with you.”

Speeches addressed Cohen’s connection with Judaism and the liturgical roots in many of his lyrics.

Cohen taught that “in order for us to be whole, we have to realize the shadow, the darkness, and not hide from it,” said Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, president of the Academy for Jewish Religion California, a transdenominational seminary that shares a building with Hillel.

Ofir Akunis, a Likud member of the Knesset and Israeli minister of science, technology and space, also spoke at the event, calling Cohen “one of the greatest artists of all time” and applauding his “tight connections to the Jewish people.” Akunis referenced Cohen’s 1973 trip to Israel to perform for soldiers during the Yom Kippur War as a sign of the artist’s connection with the Jewish state.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director emeritus of Hillel at UCLA, praised Cohen’s ability to combine Judaism and universalism. “Cohen translated Judaism through music,” he said, “and ask any musician, music transcends boundaries. … He was our rebbe.”

Eitan Arom, Senior Writer

Zane Buzby (right), founder of the Survivor Mitzvah Project, was honored Nov. 27 by the Mensch International Foundation, founded by Steven Geiger. Photo courtesy of the Mensch International Foundation

The Mensch International Foundation honored four community members with the Mensch Award on Nov. 27 at Sinai Temple.

The honorees were Michael Berenbaum, professor of Jewish Studies at American Jewish University; Zane Buzby, founder of the Survivor Mitzvah Project; former Sinai Temple Rabbi Zvi Dershowitz, who served there for 47 years; and Meir Fenigstein, president and founder of the Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles.

“The first award I received was the Silver Angel Award, 37 years ago,” Berenbaum said. “I told my mother about it and she said, ‘I already know you are an angel, but now you should try to be a mensch.’ And here I am today, a real mensch.”

Steven Geiger established the foundation 15 years ago in Hungary, where he was born. The organization’s goal is to raise money to support Holocaust survivors in need and to combat anti-Semitism and stereotyping through education.

Geiger has named many well-known figures as recipients of the Mensch Award, including former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau and former president of Israel Yitzhak Navon.

Actress Frances Fisher introduced Buzby, an actress, film director and philanthropist who then screened a short video documenting the harsh conditions facing Holocaust survivors living in
Eastern Europe.

“I founded the Survivor Mitzvah Project to change their lives, but they are the ones who changed mine,” she said.

Dershowitz was born in Czechoslovakia in 1928 and fled the country with his family 33 days before the Nazi invasion. The family settled in New York City. Dershowitz, who also served as a chaplain in the Southern California prison system for many years, said the award actually “belongs to my parents, who were the real mensches.”

Fenigstein was moved to tears as he recalled his parents, both of whom were Holocaust survivors. “Their love and support gave me the energy to follow
my passion, and I’m here because of them,” he said. “They would have been very proud of me if they saw me
here today.”

The event commemorated the 70th anniversary of United Nations Resolution 181, which was passed by the U.N. General Assembly on Nov. 29, 1947, and called for the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states.

A panel discussion about the U.N. resolution followed the award ceremony. The speakers were Berenbaum, UCLA professor Judea Pearl, Chapman University law professor Michael Bazyler and Rabbi Moshe Kushman.

Ayala Or-El, Contributing Writer

From left: Jewish National Fund (JNF) L.A. board members Barak Lurie and Doug Williams attend the annual JNF breakfast, which they co-chaired. Photo courtesy of Jewish National Fund

More than 1,000 invited guests attended the sold-out 12th annual Jewish National Fund (JNF) Los Angeles Breakfast for Israel on Nov. 28 at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills.

Guest speakers included author and radio commentator Larry Elder and Chemi Shalev, senior columnist and U.S. analyst for the Israeli Haaretz newspaper. The topic was “Media Bias & Israel.” More than 60 table captains and partner organizations helped to bring a cross section of
civic and Jewish community members to the event.

Additional participants in the program included Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles Sam Grundwerg and event co-chairs Douglas Williams and Barak Lurie.

JNF is a nonprofit organization focused on alleviating Israel’s water shortage, promoting education, maintaining more than 250,000 acres of forest in Israel,
and more.

Roman Catholic Priest Father Patrick Desbois (left), author of “The Holocaust by Bullets,” appeared in conversation with Heritage Retreats’ Rabbi Mordechai Kreitenberg. Photo courtesy of Miller Ink

Humanitarian and Roman Catholic priest Father Patrick Desbois appeared in conversation with Heritage Retreats’ Rabbi Mordechai Kreitenberg and philanthropist Mitchell Julis at the Museum of Tolerance’s Peltz Theater on Nov. 7.

Desbois, president of Yahad-In Unum, an organization dedicated to identifying and commemorating sites of Jewish mass executions in Eastern Europe during World War II, shared his experiences documenting genocides and educating for their prevention.

“It is a big challenge to be a believer in God while living with open eyes, but it is part of that belief to cry out,” said Desbois, author of “The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews.” “Searching for these victims who are waiting to be found is an act of faith.”

The panel opened with a video introducing Desbois’ work and contextualizing its importance in light of contemporary anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. A Q-and-A session with the audience followed the discussion.

Heritage Retreats, which provides young Jewish adults with an opportunity to engage with Judaism in outdoor wilderness settings, organized the event.

The group plans to lead trips to Poland, where participants will visit the massacre sites identified by Desbois and meet witnesses whom he has interviewed near Krakow.

15 tracks to top your High Holy Days playlist

For centuries, the blast of the shofar has jolted generations of Jews into the proper frame of mind for the introspection needed to pursue teshuvah, or repentance, during the Days of Awe.

But that doesn’t have to be the only way to get into the spirit of the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement. For a more modern musical approach, try listening to a little Justin Bieber or Nirvana. Because while “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” — as Elton John sang in 1976 — it’s still the best place to start.

Here are some other songs and lyrics to get you going.

“This Is the New Year” (2014)
A Great Big World
“Another year you made a promise
Another chance to turn it all around
And do not save this for tomorrow
Embrace the past and you can live for now”

“Sorry” (2015)
Justin Bieber
“I just need one more shot at forgiveness
I know you know that I made those mistakes maybe once or twice
By once or twice I mean maybe a couple a hundred times”

“Please Forgive Me” (2010)
Bryan Adams
“Please forgive me
I know not what I do”

“Sorry, Blame It on Me” (2006)
“As life goes on, I’m starting to learn more and more about responsibility
I realize everything I do is affecting the people around me
So I want to take this time out to apologize for things I have done
And things that have not occurred yet”

“The New Year” (2003)
Death Cab for Cutie
“So this is the new year
And I have no resolutions
For self-assigned penance
For problems with easy solutions”

“The Apologist” (1998)
“When I feel regret
I get down on my knees and pray
I’m sorry, so sorry”

“All Apologies” (1993)
“What else should I be?
All apologies”

“Man in the Mirror” (1987)
Michael Jackson
“I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you wanna make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change”

“Let’s Start the New Year Right” (1942)
Bing Crosby
“Let’s watch the old year die
With a fond goodbye
And our hopes as high
As a kite”

And, of course, Leonard Cohen’s riff on the Unetanah Tokef prayer from the High Holy Days liturgy:

“Who by Fire” (1974)
Leonard Cohen
“And who by fire, who by water,
Who in the sunshine, who in the nighttime
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial
Who in your merry, merry month of May
Who by very slow decay
And who shall I say is calling?”


“Sorry” (2005) by Madonna

“Oops! … I Did It Again” (2000) by Britney Spears

“New Year’s Day” (1983) by U2

“Hard to Say I’m Sorry” (1982) by Chicago

“(Just Like) Starting Over” (1980) by John Lennon

Leonard Cohen memorial concert in Montreal to feature Sting, Elvis Costello

Leonard Cohen performing in Ramat Gan, Israel, Sept. 24, 2009. Photo courtesy of Marko/Flash90.

The family of singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen has announced a benefit concert in Montreal to mark the first anniversary of his death.

The concert, called “Tower of Song: A Memorial Tribute to Leonard Cohen,” will be held Nov. 6 in Cohen’s hometown, his family said Monday. It will benefit the Canada Council, which awards grants to Canadian arts projects, and helped Cohen in the early days of his career.

Among the artists signed on to perform are Elvis Costello, Lana Del Rey, Philip Glass, Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites of The Lumineers, k.d. lang, Feist, Sting, Patrick Watson and Damien Rice, Billboard reported. Actors also will read Cohen’s poetry.

“There were so many groups of people expressing beautiful interest in commemorating and memorializing and paying tribute to my old man,” Cohen’s son, Adam, told Billboard. “Instead of having it be a whole bunch of candles burning in various places, we wanted to pull a bunch of disparate pieces together and make a big bonfire, a big sight on a hill.”

Cohen said his father wished to be buried in Montreal with a small memorial service, but gave his son permission to organize a large public event after his death with the condition that it be held in Montreal, the Montreal Gazette reported.

The event will be filmed for a TV special.

11 inspiring Jews who died in 5777

Clockwise, from top-left: Carrie Fisher, Leonard Cohen, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Jerry Lewis

It’s always difficult to whittle down the list of influential Jews who died in a given year, but this year the task seemed to be especially tough. The number of Jews who left historic marks on their fields — and, more broadly, on Jewish culture — was remarkable.

As 5777 draws to a close, here are some members of the tribe — representing areas as diverse as pop culture to politics — we’ve mourned since last Rosh Hashanah.

Carrie Fisher60

Carrie Fisher

Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in “Star Wars” in a photo from Aug. 23, 1978. (CBS via Getty Images)

Most know Carrie Fisher because of her iconic role as Princess Leia in the original “Star Wars” films, but her tumultuous career extended beyond that. The actress, who struggled with addictions to cocaine and prescription medications, also wrote four novels and three memoirs along with acting in dozens of other films. Fisher landed the “Star Wars” role as a relative unknown despite being the daughter of Jewish singer Eddie Fisher and movie star Debbie Reynolds. After she died of a heart attack in December, her only child pointed out that Fisher’s real cause of death was her substance abuse issues.

Leonard Cohen, 82

Leonard Cohen sharing a joke and smoking a cigarette in 1980. (Evening Standard/Getty Images)

The grandson of a rabbi who grew up in an Orthodox home in Montreal became one of the most beloved folk artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. Leonard Cohen launched his musical career late, releasing his first album at 33 after writing multiple books of poetry. But he would go on to release 13 more records and often incorporate Jewish themes into his meticulously crafted songs. His song “Hallelujah” became one of the most covered and revered songs in pop music history. Just weeks before his death in November, Cohen released his final album, which included a track featuring a chorus saying “I’m ready, my Lord.”

Simone Veil, 89

Simone Veil

Simone Veil, then France’s minister of health, outside the Elysee Palace in Paris, 1974. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Fewer than 70 people have been awarded France’s Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor — Simone Veil, a Holocaust survivor who became a pillar of French politics, was one of them. After making it out of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, Veil became a lawyer and served as France’s minister of health and later as president of the European Parliament. She also was one of the few female members of the prestigious French Academie Francaise and spearheaded the legalization of abortion in France in the 1970s. Veil died in June, less than a month from her 90th birthday.

Jerry Lewis, 91

Jerry Lewis

Jerry Lewis in 1971 (Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Don’t let the funnyman’s stage name fool you: Jerry Lewis was born Joseph Levitch to parents who performed on the Borscht Belt hotel circuit. Lewis, who died of cardiac disease in August, rose to prominence as part of a duo with Dean Martin, with whom he made over a dozen wacky comedy films from 1949 to 1956. He would go on to star in dozens of other films, including “The Nutty Professor” (yes, the original one, well before Eddie Murphy’s 1996 remake) and Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy.”

Zsa Zsa Gabor, 99

Zsa Zsa Gabor in 1952 (Nixon/Express/Getty Images)

Though this legendary Hollywood socialite and sex symbol was buried in a Catholic cemetery, she had Jewish roots. Born to Hungarian Jewish parents in Budapest, Sari Gabor (her real name) was married nine times and appeared in films such “Moulin Rouge” and “Lovely to Look At.” Her love life was a tumultuous public affair, and she has been called the first celebrity to be famous for being famous. Zsa Zsa Gabor died in February, less than two months from her 100th birthday.

Don Rickles, 90

Don Rickles

Comedian Don Rickles at Book Soup in West Hollywood, May 31, 2007. (Mark Mainz/Getty Images)

The well-known comic nicknamed “Mr. Warmth,” who loved to hurl insults at his audience members, was also a serious actor trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He appeared in countless TV shows, performed standup into his 80s and acted alongside legends such as Clark Gable and Clint Eastwood on the silver screen. Younger audiences know him as the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the “Toy Story” series. He passed away in April from kidney failure.

Vera Rubin, 88

Vera Rubin

Vera Rubin in her office at the Carnegie Institution of Washington in Washington, D.C., Jan. 14, 2010. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post via Getty Images).

Without this groundbreaking scientist, we still might not understand what 27 percent of the universe is made up of: dark matter. Rubin, an astronomer from Philadelphia, discovered that galaxies don’t rotate the way previous scientific models led us to believe, which led to the proof of the invisible, undetectable stuff that makes up nearly a third of our world. Rubin, who passed away in December, once said that science was separate from religion: “I’m Jewish, and so religion to me is a kind of moral code and a kind of history,” she said. “I try to do my science in a moral way, and I believe that ideally, science should be looked upon as something that helps us understand our role in the universe.”

Otto Warmbier, 22

Otto Warmbier

Otto Warmbier arriving at a court for his trial in Pyongyang, North Korea, March 16, 2015. (Xinhua/Lu Rui via Getty Images)

After being held in North Korea for more than 17 months for allegedly tearing down a propaganda poster during a student tour, Otto Warmbier was released, comatose, in June. He did not survive the injuries — Warmbier died a week after being returned to the United States. JTA reported that he was an active member at the University of Virginia Hillel, but North Korea’s narrative said that Warmbier stole the poster for an American church. So his Jewish identity was kept under wraps so as not to embarrass North Korea during negotiations for the release of the student — “if that’s what their story is, there’s no point fighting it if your objective is to get him out,” the family spokesperson explained — who had been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.

Ruth Gruber, 105

Ruth Gruber

Ruth Gruber at The Paley Center for Media in New York City, Feb. 3, 2011. (Andy Kropa/Getty Images)

Among the impressive accomplishments on Ruth Gruber’s resume: a pioneering reporting stint in the Soviet Arctic, a trip ordered by President Franklin Roosevelt to comfort post-Holocaust Jewish refugees, and reportage of the Nuremberg trials and Operation Moses. The writer, who will go down as one of the 20th century’s most important journalists, Jewish or not, began her career at the New York Herald Tribune in 1947. She lived to 105.

Henry Heimlich, 96

Henry Heimlich

Henry Heimlich demonstrating his famous eponymous maneuver on Johnny Carson, April 4, 1979. (Gene Arias/NBCU Photo Bank)

Yes, that Heimlich — the person who invented the famous Heimlich maneuver that has saved countless numbers of choking people since its inception in 1974. Dr. Henry J. Heimlich was a thoracic surgeon born to Jewish parents in Wilmington, Delaware. Besides the famous life-saving method, he also invented the chest drainage flutter valve, known as the Heimlich valve. He died last December from complications following a heart attack.

Sara Ehrman, 98

Sara Ehrman in 2016 (Screenshot from The New York Times)

This longtime Democratic Party activist, adviser on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and friend of the Clintons described herself as “first a Jew, second a Democrat and above all a feminist.” Sara Ehrman may be most famous for advising Hillary Clinton not to move to Arkansas to marry Bill, though she worked on George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign and later advised President Clinton on Israel-Arab peacemaking. She also helped organize Bill Clinton’s first trip as president to Israel, served as AIPAC’s political director and later worked with J Street. She died in June, more than 50 years after her entree into politics.

Edie Windsor, 88

Edith Windsor. Photo from Twitter


The gay rights activist at the heart of the Supreme Court’s landmark 2013 decision to nullify the Defense of Marriage Act, Windsor died earlier this month. She was the lead plaintiff in the case that extended federal recognition and a number of government benefits to same-sex couples. Later, a 2015 Supreme Court ruling built on the so-called Windsor decision to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide.

Windsor’s case arose from a tax dispute after the death of her wife, Thea Spyer, in 2009, two years after the women were married following a 40-year engagement. Windsor was denied a $363,053 estate tax refund by the Internal Revenue Service and sued, appealing up to the nation’s highest court. In a 5-4 decision, the court struck down the 1996 law — and ordered the IRS to issue Windsor the refund, with interest.

Windsor was the daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants. Her death was met with mourning by LGBT communities across the country.

Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld: 10 life lessons I learned from Leonard Cohen

The author with Leonard Cohen. Photo courtesy of Aaron Kemp

On December 10th, I was privileged to be able to attend Leonard Cohen’s official Los Angeles Memorial Service and afterwards share my favorite Leonard stories with his family and friends.

With the weight of his passing on my mind, I’d like to share 10 important Life Lessons that I learned from observing Leonard and his career…


Leonard Cohen got a relatively late start as a musician. Already a published novelist and poet, he entered a musical world dominated by twenty-something wunderkinds like Bob Dylan and the Beatles in 1967 when he was almost 34 years old. That’s right, he was nearly 10 YEARS older than many of the leading, established rock stars of the era who had already become legends by the time Leonard was just starting out.


Unlike many of his contemporaries, who hid behind shades and ‘cooler than thou’ affected attitudes, Leonard was always Leonard. He never changed his name.  He never changed personas. He never sneered out from behind raybans at the establishment, the press or the average man on the street. He never acted like he was cooler than everyone else in the room. By example, he taught the world that it was okay for a rock star and intellectual to be a humble, decent guy to virtually everyone and never, ever got caught up in his own hype or mythology.


Rock and roll is full of mythological stories of classic songs being written in mere minutes, as if the artist had been chosen by the gods and struck by a divine bolt of creative lightning.

Leonard freely admitted to the enormous toiling and struggle that went into many of his greatest works. It took him 5 YEARS to write “Hallelujah” (arguably the world’s most covered song) and trim its 80 verses to 5. It took him 10 YEARS to write “Anthem”, a song whose insights on spirituality have been quoted by virtually every faith on the planet.


Most rock stars record their most popular work near the beginning of their career when they are in the prime of their youth. Leonard did not release the classic song “Hallelujah” until he was 50 years old (an age when most rock stars are already considered “washed up” with their best work long behind them.) Hallelujuah, after being featured in the movie “Shrek”, has arguably gone on to become the most covered song in the entire world.  Like a musical swiss army knife with metaphysical transformative power, it applies equally well to virtually all of life’s momentous occasions. It has, is, and will be featured, now and forever, in an endless parade of weddings, births, funerals, religious services, TV shows, movies and even sporting events (not to mention the countless drunken renditions you’re likely to encounter in karaoke bars.) The version that started it all is Jeff Buckley’s classic cover, which created the groundswell that caused the Hallelujah phenomenon.


In his quest for truth and peace, Leonard Cohen joined a Zen Monastery in Los Angeles to enhance his spiritual focus. Even though he was already a legendary rock star and song writer, he regularly cooked and cleaned for others in the monastery as part of his spiritual practice. What other rock stars would do that? (unless it was as a stunt for their own reality show.)


The song “Anthem” has a line that has resonated with millions across the globe and has become part of our spiritual lexicon.  It’s so often quoted, that many people probably don’t even realize it’s from a song:

“Forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in”.

In two sentences, Leonard Cohen has defined the essence of man’s struggle to have a relationship with God and to make sense of the frailty of the human condition.


I saw Leonard perform a four-hour concert at age 75. He sang, chanted and performed some of the most physical musicality I’ve ever witnessed on a stage. He came up with a line during the concert that really put things in perspective:

“I’m 75 years old now and I haven’t toured in 15 years. Back then, I was just a crazy 60 YEAR OLD KID with a dream….”  That line reframed the entire reality of aging for me and has never left my thoughts.


Leonard didn’t actually “lose” his voice, however as he aged his voice became raspy and much, much lower. Unable or perhaps just unwilling to sing his songs in their original register, he changed his style from conventional singing to a “poetic chanting”.  Not only did this change not hurt him with audiences, he went on to enjoy the highest grossing tours of his entire career.


Leonard started out as a Jewish novelist/poet, became a rock star and had tremendous financial and critical successes.  He was later ripped off by managers and endured career ending failures.  He turned his back on the business to work on himself and became a zen buddhist monk. He then returned to music and Judaism in his mid 70s, and after “losing his voice” went on to enjoy the greatest artistic and commercial successes of his career.


No other modern musician has so poetically wandered the landscape of failure, loss, struggle and spirituality and narrated it with such beauty and poignance. Leonard taught us that it wasn’t about what happened to you in your life, but how you rode the rising and falling crests of fate and who you became along the journey.

Being Leonard Cohen’s rabbi

I last saw Leonard Cohen a few months ago. He had asked me to come to his place. After brief pleasantries, he said to me, “Reb, I am getting ready to shuffle off this mortal coil. I have some questions for you.”

He and I had spoken about “Hamlet” more than a few times. I knew the play and especially the soliloquy were close to his heart, and, at that moment, closer than ever. He knew he was soon not to be, at least in this frail frame. I remember thinking to myself, “I have to remember every word we say.”

We spoke longer than we ever had before, maybe four or five hours straight. Children and grandchildren genially punctuated our talk. Adam and Jessica popped in, with young Cassius Cohen in tow, commanding the room with a series of pointed questions and comments. Lorca came in. Viva lit up the room. Leonard shed his age and frailty for a moment and took on a mantle of joy. 

Rebecca De Mornay, his former fiancée, stopped in. He tried to convince her to come to synagogue. We had some dinner and cookies. He asked me if I wanted to listen to the album he was working on. He played me tracks from “You Want It Darker” from his computer. I particularly remembered the title song, and also “Steer Your Way”: 

Steer your path through the pain
That is far more real than you
That smashed the cosmic model
That blinded every view
And please don’t make me go there
Tho’ there be a god or not

Year by year
Month by month
Day by day
Thought by thought

If you are familiar with Lurianic Kabbalah, and its main heretical interpretation, Sabbateanism, you will understand this album, these two songs, and I think much of his body of poetry and lyrics. I think that whatever drew Leonard to me, for me to be his rabbi these last 10 years, was that for each of us, Lurianic Kabbalah gave voice to the impossible brokenness of the human condition. The pain of the Divine breakage permeates reality. We inherit it; it inhabits us. We can deny it. Or we can study and teach it, write it and sing its mournful songs. 

Leonard and Anjani

I met Leonard and his then-partner Anjani Thomas when I officiated at the wedding of Larry Klein and Luciana Souza in August 2006. Larry had produced the album “Blue Alert,” with music by Anjani and lyrics by Leonard. 

After the wedding, I was seated next to Leonard and Anjani. They interrogated me thoroughly. Leonard listened carefully. He had this slight grin when he listened. He could see the opportunity for wit, either from himself or from a game discussion partner, a mile a way. Leonard was interested in my brand of Judaism, which I called at the time Post Orthodox Neo Chasidic. He chuckled at the acronym. 

I called my wife, Meirav, after the reception (she was in Israel) and asked her if she had heard of Leonard Cohen. She almost fainted long distance. “I used to cry myself to sleep when I was in high school, writing poems and listening to his albums.” “Oops” I thought. 

I did some research on Leonard that week and was astounded. I bought and listened to several of his albums, got his songbooks. I ordered his books of poetry and sank into them. I listened to “Blue Alert” in enraptured silence, and again when my wife returned from Israel. 

I was very, very moved by that album, and everything else. I was deeply touched by him. I realized, ruefully, that I had been in the presence of a Great Man. Oh, well. 

I was more than astounded — flabbergasted? — when Leonard and Anjani walked into shul the next Shabbat. Turns out that Anjani wanted to come for more of the spiritual psychology and she encouraged him to come, knowing this was something with which he would connect. Leonard was hesitant about joining a synagogue. They became regulars, attending weekly. 

Anjani and Leonard also started attending my Monday night classes, Jewish spiritual psychology dharma talks. I taught Mussar, gave talks on Chasidut and led meditations. I did not know yet that Leonard was a Buddhist monk. I probably would have been self-conscious leading meditations in front of him had I known. He would sit in the front row, shoes off, in his signature suit, tie and fedora, eyes closed, listening, radiant. I asked him what he liked about my teachings. What in particular?

“It’s not just the words,” he said. “You are a healer.” I was taken aback. 

Leonard and Anjani stayed for lunch after services. Anjani and my wife became close friends (and remain so). Leonard and I became close but never chummy. He actually was much more comfortable around my wife, whom I think he truly loved. He and I only talked about deep stuff until it hurt and we had to stop. We weren’t able to chitchat. 

Deep discussions

The congregants loved Leonard. He was genteel, even chivalrous. He enjoyed the community — the music, the food and the vibe. I asked him once why he liked Ohr HaTorah and he said, “Because you are not uptight.”  

A congregant once said to him she was happy that he had found a place to practice his Judaism. Leonard then pointed over to me and said, “It’s not because it’s Jewish. It’s that man that I come for. I would follow him if he were flipping burgers.”

I don’t understand that, but I can tell you what I think. Leonard (he called himself Eliezer and me “Reb”) pushed me hard to explain my take on the kabbalah. 

Lurianic Kabbalah sees the breaking of the vessels as the poetic truth that defined the breakage of the human being. When I took over the mysticism class at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, around 2003, I worked my way through Scholem’s classic “Sabbatai Sevi” and saw the inner truth in kabbalah’s greatest heresy. Leonard also had read this heavy tome, and nearly everything on kabbalah that I had read. (He and I both studied from Daniel Matt’s masterful translation of the Zohar.) 

We both had seen the terrifying obsidian luminosity. We shared a world of Divine absence, except for a shattered residue. We shared a common language, a common nightmare. I think Leonard finally found a rabbi who spoke the truth from which he wrote. I spoke about it unafraid because I think I was more afraid not to speak this truth. Like Leonard a bit, I guess. I was a good teacher. He, on the other hand, was a great poet. What took me a half-hour to say, he could say in three words. 

We often came back to one issue of dispute. By temperament, but maybe more as a professional obligation, I offered a path of repairing the broken vessels. I think Leonard could not accept that suture. Spiritually, I am somewhat equipoised between Neoplatonism and Gnosticism — topics about which we spoke often. Leonard often took the Gnostic turn. He said to me that the human condition is mangled into a box into which the broken soul does not fit. We all chafe, terribly. 

After many of those discussions, I told him that I thought some of his poems were liturgy (especially his “Book of Mercy”), liturgy of the breakage. He told me that he thought everything he wrote was liturgy. I was a professor of liturgy, and I considered him the greatest liturgist of our time, and one of the greatest of all time. 

Where from? Leonard’s grandfather was a Talmid Chacham, a Talmud scholar. Leonard let me borrow a copy of a sefer his grandfather wrote. A true rabbinic classic — and beautifully written. As far as I know, it remains untranslated and unavailable. 

I told him about my tentative connection with Rav Yakov Leib HaKohain, a spiritual descendant of the Donmeh, a self proclaimed Neo-Sabbatean. I broke off but Leonard kept up. I honesty felt a bit nervous learning from a Sabbatean, neo or not. Leonard had no such qualms. 

Soul of a poet

Once in an old radio interview in Canada, the interviewer asked Leonard if he had ever considered changing his name. He said, “Yes, to September.” She said, in some surprise, “Leonard September?” and he said, “No, September Cohen.” I think I knew him well enough to know that he wanted to say “Elul” (the month before the Days of Awe).  For those afflicted with the bittersweet sadness of the broken soul, Elul is a time of intense inner scrutiny preparing for the Days of Awe. 

Often after services, he asked me if I wanted to hear a poem. “Gladly,” I would say. Once, we sat down and he recited a poem, classic darkly luminous Cohen. Short lines. Couplets. Maybe 20 stanzas, perhaps more. Serrated edge of a murder weapon used on a guy who had it coming to him. 

After soaking in that one, I asked him how long it took him to write it. I had known him for about a year, so I thought, “A month?”  I truly think he said, “Fifteen years.”  He also recited for me one time many unpublished verses of “Bird on the Wire.” Like thousands, I guess, I still sing that song to myself. Just another drunk in the midnight choir. 

He sent me poetry he was working on (I think I was on a list) until the week before he passed. He wrote me on Friday that he wished he could come to shul to hear my new series of talks on a deep dive into Genesis. He died on Monday. 

Once at lunch, he asked a group of people if they would like him to recite a poem based on a sermon I gave. People expected a brief “Book of Longing” kind of gem.  This poem also had maybe 20 stanzas. He wrote that one in about a week. 

Leonard and the Muse

Even though Leonard and Anjani split up a couple of years ago, most of the time we knew Leonard, he was with Anjani. She brought him to the house. We would prepare meals and celebrate holidays together. 

It was sweet and funny to think how ordinary it was. One Thanksgiving, we had Leonard and Anjani and David and Rebecca Mamet over. The women were in the kitchen preparing food and the men were on the back porch drinking whiskey. 

Not so ordinary was that we on the porch eventually talked about where our ideas come from, because people always ask us. Fewer people ask me, but people ask me nonetheless. 

Leonard said, as he often did, that if he knew where his poems came from, he would go there more often. We all spoke about feeling that we were in the service of the Muse (the Bat Kol). We tried to channel her. We had to be careful around her. I remember we all stopped talking at once, agreeing silently that she did not want people talking about her as if she weren’t listening in. We said enough and stopped and went back to drinking and swapping jokes. Man, I loved his laugh. He would have a visceral experience of pure joy at a punchline. The torment would cease for a moment. 

One night when we had them over, Leonard asked Anjani to sing from “Blue Alert.” Anjani sat at our baby grand, Leonard across from her softly singing along with a beatific look on his face. Meirav and I barely dared to breathe. The words, the piano, the voices — I was transported to another world. I had the strangest thought: “Now I understand music.” When Anjani sang “The Mist,” Meirav and I broke into tears. Then they started tearing up. Then Anjani said, “He wrote that when he was 17.”

A giving man

Let me tell you how generous Leonard was. First, after I knew him about a year, he gave me one of his fedoras, right off of his head. 

Second, when our synagogue was scraping bottom during a brutal remodeling of the dilapidated building we bought, Leonard (with several other families) came to the rescue. He was very generous (always handed his checks in person) and appreciative of the work my wife (the designer and general contractor) was doing. On one of this visits to the building, he spent a full afternoon with Meirav. He delighted in everything we had done, especially the café and the preschool. He visited with the kids in the pre-kindergarten. (The teachers almost fainted.) Got some of the lentil soup that he loved — he liked to call it “Jacob’s stew.”

He often signed his emails “Old Priest” and so I called myself “Old Sarge.” He got a kick out of knowing that I was a sergeant in the Marines a million years ago and hearing some of the stories from my military days. When we talked politics, he would quote a line of his: “Oh, and one more thing. You won’t like what comes next after America.”  

A few more things. He aimed to be a vegetarian but made exceptions every time my wife made her Yemenite lamb soup. One Passover seder, he testified to the benefits of yoga and showed us poses, including standing on his head. He loved the music at Ohr HaTorah (handcrafted by our music director, the rebbetzin). One year, he brought all of the singers and not a few of the musicians on his tour to our High Holy Days services. We saw him at one point standing up and dancing. I read from his “Book of Mercy,” and do so every year. 

Leonard and Judaism

People asked how could he be Jewish if he was a Buddhist monk. He told me Zen Buddhism, at least the kind that he practiced, was not a religion. It was a tuning fork for consciousness. He was a devoted Jew, a learned, deep and troubled one — a genius. He had candles lit every Shabbat. I received photos of candles lit on the tours. 

Once when he was at the monastery with Zen master Roshi up at Mount Baldy, a group of Chabad guys trekked up there during Chanukah to return him to Judaism. They found him in his robes, I think he told me. He told them to shush, took them to his quarters. His Chanukah candles were sputtering. They had brought some whiskey with them. He had plastic cups. And then he told them about his Judaism and his meditative path. The way that Eliezer told me the story, they got mellow, sang and danced. The Chabad guys left a bit drunk, more than satisfied that the monk was still Jewish, and maybe a little chastened. 


One day, with his children’s permission, maybe I will be able to write about that conversation that began with “Hamlet.” As I write these words, my heart is too heavy, too broken. I knew Leonard’s soul and feel it in my own. He knew mine. I think he sought me out to tell me his version, and invited me to tell him mine. I saw us as a couple of quasi-Sabbatean Neo-Chasidic kabbalists sharing a thick, dark night in that “Bunch of Lonesome Heroes”: 

“I’d like to tell my story,”
Said one of them so bold
“Oh, yes, I’d like to tell my story
’cause you know I feel I’m turning into gold.”

Music historian catalogues Leonard Cohen’s musical history

Like many of us, author Harvey Kubernik first heard Leonard Cohen through his interpreters. Judy Collins recorded Cohen’s cryptic “Suzanne” and the sardonic suicide ode “Dress Rehearsal Rag” on her 1966 “In My Life” album. The songs impressed Kubernik, but it wasn’t until Cohen’s first album, “Songs of Leonard Cohen” (Columbia 1967), that Kubernik began to recognize the full impact of the novelist-turned-singer-songwriter. 

Released to coincide with Cohen’s 80th birthday last month, Kubernik’s new book “Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows” (Backbeat) is a thorough examination of the elusive Canadian and his enigmatic work. Having spent his formative years in Greece, he made his first American impressions in Greenwich Village and at the Newport Folk Festival, and has also led a substantial L.A. life, which Kubernik illuminates for the first time. He is also an observant Jew with a strong spiritual investment in Zen Buddhism.  

Kubernik’s enthusiasm is longstanding: “I went to Fairfax High,” Kubernik said, “and there were 32 people at my school named Cohen. I knew that Bob Zimmerman changed his name to Dylan for show-business reasons, but I’d never heard a name like Leonard Cohen on FM underground radio; which was where I heard [Cohen’s] songs.”

In that format, dominated at the time by the Beatles’ “White Album” and Cream’s “Wheels of Fire,” Cohen’s evenly modulated tones seemed more narration than singing. “It was slow and seductive,” Kubernik said. “He was an older guy with a distinguished voice who dressed immaculately — like someone I’d see at High Holy Days.”  

Cohen brought a reservoir of literary weight to his lyrics, informed by diverse sources including Albert Camus, Federico Garcia Lorca, the I Ching and Hermann Hesse. Sufficiently impressed with lyrics like “Tea and oranges that come all the way from China” and “You’ve used up all your coupons, except the one that seems to be written on your wrist,” Kubernik dutifully wrote a term paper on the unlikely éminence grise of the local FM rock stations.

At West Los Angeles Junior College, Kubernik worked in the library, conscientiously ordering Cohen’s “Beautiful Losers” and “The Energy of Slaves” books and Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” along with underground newspaper the Los Angeles Free Press and Ramparts magazine. At San Diego State University, he said he helped create the curriculum of the first rock-music course. “I screened ‘Feast of Friends’ by The Doors,” Kubernik noted, “brought singer Carolyn Hester into class, and passed out mimeographed sheets of Leonard’s lyrics.”

As a music journalist for Melody Maker, Phonograph Record and other publications, Kubernik interviewed Cohen several times between 1974 and ’78. “My favorite Jews were Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen,” Kubernik said. “Dylan was remote and cynical, but Leonard was a mensch,” he recalled of the interviews. Producer Kim Fowley, a longtime friend of Kubernik, identifies the appeal as “father-figure rock — something started by Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead. It was ‘elder-cool.’ ” Of Cohen, Kubernik concedes, “I don’t know him well, but I’ve found him a very decent chap.”  

Using religious imagery and terminology to explore emotional territory and matters of the heart, Cohen has forged a substantial body of recorded work over the years that wrestles with Judaism, love in all of its forms, economics, substance abuse, eroticism — all in a manner that’s personal yet universal. His work has been interpreted by other artists widely and obsessively dissected by fans of all ages. His “Hallelujah” has been performed by more than 300 artists.

I did my best, it wasn’t much

I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch

I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you

And even though

It all went wrong

I’ll stand before the Lord of Song

With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Kubernik is also well known for an authoritative spate of music books rooted in the Southern California experience. He creates multi-voice mosaics to form composite portraits of his subjects, among them “Canyon of Dreams: The Magic and the Music of Laurel Canyon” (2009), “A Perfect Haze: The Illustrated History of the Monterey International Pop Festival” (2011), “It Was 50 Years Ago Today: The Beatles Invade America and Hollywood” (2014) and the recent “Turn Up the Radio! Rock, Pop, and Roll In Los Angeles, 1956-1972” (2014).  

Of the Roshomon-like format, Kubernik considers his forthcoming Neil Young tome and observes: “I have two people who both claim they named the Buffalo Springfield. And that doesn’t bother me in the least.”   

With his brother Kenneth, Kubernik’s “Big Shots: Rock Legends and Hollywood Icons, the Photography of Guy Webster” hits the market next month, and the Young book will be published in November 2015.  

Kubernik claims the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin as part of his family tree.  His grandfather served in Katherine the Great’s army, and Kubernik read Soviet Life magazine as a boy with him.  His mother, though a Chicago native, was conceived in Kiev. “The Leonard Cohen book is being translated into several languages,” he notes with pride. “I love it that my mother’s still on the planet, and my publisher tells me we’ll have a Russian edition.” 

Leonard Cohen won’t perform on High Holidays

If you were surprised by just how early the high holidays are this year, you’re in good company.

Iconic Jewish singer Leonard Cohen has just rescheduled two dates on his UK tour after learning they fell out on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, BBC News reports.

The 78-year-old is already publicly repenting, apologizing “deeply for the inconvenience” he has caused fans–via a statement from his promoter, anyway.

FYI for those who still haven’t checked your Jewish calendars: The New Year hits on Sept. 5 and 6 and Yom Kippur is Sept. 14. Oh, and with Hanukkah falling on Nov. 28, Thanksgiving evening, we’ll be lighting the menorah over turkey this year. Luckily for Cohen this won’t be an issue. He’s Canadian.

Calendar Picks and Clicks: Nov. 3-9, 2012


Good Food Conference/Localicious

LACMA hosts provocative panel discussions exploring issues integral to building organic and sustainable food systems. On Sunday, head to the beach for Good Food’s Localicious fundraiser, featuring signature dishes prepared by 30 of L.A’.s leading chefs paired with 30 farmers from the Santa Monica Farmers Markets. Sat. Noon. $45 (includes museum admission). Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 857-6010. Sun. 6-9 p.m. $125. Annenberg Community Beach House, 415 Pacific Coast Highway, Santa Monica.


After the death of a close friend, actress-comedian Wendy Hammers undergoes a transformation. She divorces her husband and re-enters the dating world in this autobiographical one-woman show. Blending dance, humor and confession, “Ripe” recounts the previous 10 years of Hammers’ life and celebrates the wisdom she gains along the way. Sat. Through Nov. 11. 8 p.m. $25. Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 655-7679, Ext. 100.


Mitzvah Day

Synagogues from the San Fernando, Conejo, Simi, Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys pitch in and help out at a combination of on-site and off-site community service projects for kids, teens and adults, including campus beautification, food drives for Thanksgiving, making Chanukah cards, packing lunches for the homeless, writing letters to U.S. military service members, decorating pot holders for women in refugee camps, hiking trail cleanups, visiting seniors and donating blood. Congregations Adat Ari El, Temple Adat Elohim, Temple Ahavat Shalom, Shomrei Torah Synagogue, Temple Aliyah, Temple Judea, Valley Beth Shalom and others participate. Sponsored by The Jewish Federation Valley Alliance. Sun. Various times and locations. Free. Visit synagogue Web sites for additional details.


Zion Ozeri

World-renowned photographer Ozeri captures the cross-cultural dimensions of contemporary Jewish life from Bukhara to Djerba, Sana to Brooklyn, Mumbai to St. Petersburg. During “Jewish Identity, Jewish Diversity Through Photography,” Ozeri addresses how his images reflect ritual, spirituality and slices of Jewish life. On Nov. 6, he leads “The Language of Photography, Spring Board to a Social Action,” a workshop that examines the intersection of social action, his Jewish identity and photography. Mon. 4-5 p.m. Free. Pepperdine University campus, Pendleton Learning Center 125. Tue. Noon-1 p.m. Free. Fireside Room, 24255 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu. (310) 506-4164.

Leonard Cohen 

The oft-covered singer-songwriter and Shabbat-observant JewBu is still going strong. After the release of his 12th studio album, “Old Ideas,” earlier this year, Cohen hit a career high of No. 3 on the U.S. Billboard 200. Performing songs of love, desire, hope and redemption, the 78-year-old troubadour appears tonight with his eight-piece band at downtown’s Nokia Theatre. Mon. 8 p.m. $49.50-$279.75. Nokia Theatre L.A. Live, 777 Chick Hearn Court, downtown. (213) 763-6030.


Hélène Grimaud

Born to Jewish parents from Corsica and North Africa, the French classical pianist frequently collaborates with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and is known for boldly reinterpreting works. Appearing at the Walt Disney Concert Hall for an imaginative recital program, the charismatic Grimaud performs Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 8, Berg’s Piano Sonata, Opus 1, Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor and Bartok’s “Romanian Folk Dances.” Wed. 8 p.m. $55.50-$112.50. Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown. (323) 850-2000.


Barbra Streisand

The legendary entertainer and eight-time Grammy winner brings Broadway to the Bowl for two nights, concluding a tour of the United States and Canada in support of her new album, “Release Me,” a collection of previously unreleased songs. Streisand performs crowd-pleasing hits that span her entire career, including “The Way We Were,” an homage to the late Marvin Hamlisch, and sings duets with son Jason Gould, half-sister Roslyn Kind and more. Pop-jazz trumpeter Chris Botti and Italian operatic trio ll Volo also appear. Fri. 8 p.m. Nov 11. 7:30 p.m. $70.50-$756.50. Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood. (323) 850-2000.

“Cave … A Dance for Lilith”

Theatre Dybbuk and the L.A. Cotemporary Dance Company examine the notion of the outsider and the stranger through Lilith, the primary demon figure in Jewish folklore who is said to be the first woman before Eve. Incorporating Hebrew goddess mythology, kabbalistic concepts of creation and multicultural narratives of oppression and freedom, the multidisciplinary performance features five dancers and two actors whose movements offer multiple layers of meaning. Through Nov. 18. Fri. 8:30 p.m. $20 (online), $25 (door). Diavolo Performance Space, 616 Moulton Ave., downtown.

Leonard Cohen: A troubadour’s journey

Among the most-played songs in my iTunes library are four immortal (and often-covered) compositions by Leonard Cohen: “Sisters of Mercy,” “Bird on a Wire,” “Hallelujah” and, of course, “Suzanne.” Significantly, “Hallejujah” is a meditation on the “sweet singer of Israel,” King David, although Cohen himself is, famously, a Buddhist monk and, not so famously, a former student of Scientology with a “Senior Dianetic, Grade IV Release” to show for it.

Before he achieved his current stature as a celebrated songwriter and an éminence grise of (North) American popular culture, however, Cohen more closely resembled a character out of a Mordecai Richler novel. Young Leonard was born in the wealthy Jewish neighborhood of Westmount in Montreal, the son of a man who made his fortune in haberdashery and insurance, and he served as president of the Menorah Club at Westmount High School, but he reinvented himself as a faintly Byronic figure with poetry that he fully intended to win prizes and readers. 

The whole story of Cohen’s life and work is told in “I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen” by Sylvie Simmons (Ecco: $27.99), a rock journalist and biographer (“Neil Young: Reflections in Broken Glass”). It is a sweeping and yet penetrating book that gives us the elusive Cohen in full light and intimate detail.

Simmons brings her flair for the arresting phrase to her work. “By inclination he is a private man, rather shy,” she writes, “but if probing is required he’ll put his feet in the stirrups with dignity and humor.” And she succeeds in capturing the alchemy by which Cohen turned his adolescent angst into gold: “The Big Bang of Leonard, the moment when poetry, music, sex and spiritual longing collided and fused in him for the first time, happened in 1950, between his fifteenth and sixteenth birthdays,” she explains, “when he happened upon ‘The Selected Poems of Federico Garcia Lorca.’ ” Young Leonard never looked back.

Sylvie Simmons. Photo by Alissa Anderson

By 1954, Cohen had published his first poem. Two years later, his first book of poems, “Let Us Compare Mythologies,” was in print in an edition of 400 copies. He was praised in the Canadian press, but he aspired to the Big Apple: “Leonard had gone to New York to be a writer — a serious writer, but also a popular one,” Simmons writes. But he soon ended up back in Canada, where he was reduced to working as a camp counselor. Only when he managed to make his way to England, then Israel and finally Greece did he fully grasp the role that would make him famous — the tortured but muse-inspired artist whose life (including his sex life) is a restless search for meaning.

“[W]hat served Leonard best was his survival instinct,” Simmons writes. “Leonard was a lover, but when it comes to survival he was also a fighter.”

His breakout book was a poetry collection titled “The Spice-Box of Earth,” another explicitly Jewish reference, but “the poems dance back and forth across the border between the holy and the worldly, the elevated and the carnal.” He was now writing novels and, although not yet 30, a memoir titled “The Favorite Game.” Cohen understood how to call attention to himself, as when he delivered an intentionally inflammatory but also self-revelatory talk at the Montreal Jewish Public Library.

“Jews were ‘afraid to be lonely’ and sought security in finance, neglecting their scholars and sages, their artists and prophets,” the author writes. “ ‘Jews must survive in their loneliness as witnesses,’ he told them. ‘Jews are witnesses to monotheism and that is what they must continue to declare.’ ”

Simmons interviewed Cohen for her book, but she also sought out those who knew him in one way or another throughout his life, including Suzanne Verdal, the woman who inspired the poem and song titled “Suzanne,” and who now works as a masseuse in Santa Monica. “I sensed a deep, philosophical side to Leonard that he seemed to see in me as well,” the original Suzanne recalls, “and he got a kick out of it that I was a sort of fledging in a way, just emerging as a young artist.” 

The famous song, as it turns out, provides a good example of what Simmons does best in her biography. Cohen asserts that he convinced Judy Collins to record “Suzanne” — a breakthrough moment in his songwriting career — by “playing [the song] to her over the phone from his mother’s house in Montreal.” Simmons, however, sought out Collins herself and checked out Cohen’s version. “ ‘B—s—,’ says Collins.” The fact is that Cohen performed three of his songs in person for Collins, and “Collins recorded the songs as she heard them.”

Recently, I caught a screening of the 1965 documentary titled “Ladies and Gentlemen … Mr. Leonard Cohen,” which — as Simmons rightly puts it — “depicts Leonard doing an assortment of cool-looking things in various cool-looking Montreal locations to a soundtrack of cool jazz.” He was not yet the maker of metaphysical love songs that he would soon become, but the talent, drive and sheer charisma that turned him into an icon were already on display.

So it is with Simmons’ rich, compelling and provocative book, which is a star-studded but also frank account of how the music industry really works and, at the same time, a discerning portrait of one especially important musician. Along the way, she describes how an ambitious and gifted young man rescues himself from a career in the family shmata business and remakes himself into an artist and a celebrity — two very different identities, both of which Leonard Cohen has managed to embody without going entirely to pieces. 

Sylvie Simmons discussses her book on Sept. 24 at Book Soup in West Hollywood. For more information, visit 


Calendar Picks and Clicks: Apr. 7-13, 2012


For television actor Jack Shore and his Yiddish actor grandfather Jacob Shemerinsky it’s showtime — in parallel dimensions. Preparing for a sold-out tribute to his grandfather, Jack is backstage in his cramped dressing room worrying about his career, his angry co-star wife and the attractive ingénue who caught his eye. Meanwhile, 75 years earlier, Jacob is in the same dressing room facing similar issues as he’s about to stage a Yiddish classic to a half-empty house. Actors play dual roles in the past and present in the West Coast premiere of playwright James Sherman’s (“The God of Isaac”) comedy, winner of the Barbra Streisand Festival of New Jewish Plays. Sat. Through May 6. 8 p.m. $15-$25. The Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 653-4667.


Virginia Quarterly Review contributing editor Jacob Silverman, whose book blends Woody Allen angst with Kafkaesque absurdity, is the featured West Coast writer at this month’s New Short Fiction Series, L.A.’s long-running spoken-word program. The reading series stars founder-director Sally Shore, Alain Benatar (“Jane by Design”), Martin Clark (“Southland,” “The General”) and The Groundlings’ Ryan Klamen. Sun. 6 p.m. (doors), 7 p.m. (show). $10 (advance), $15 (door). Federal Bar, 5303 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. (877) 435-9849.


David Blumberg, managing partner with Blumberg Capital, discusses the origins, trends and future implications of Israel’s growth in the technology sector. Part of the Beverly Hills Forum Lecture Series. Mon. 7:30-9 p.m. Free. Council Chambers, Beverly Hills City Hall, 455 N. Rexford Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 285-6830.


Explore American culture and the intimacies of how we communicate without words as Wayne Koestenbaum, poet (“Best-selling Jewish Porn Films”) and English professor at City University of New York’s Graduate Center, discusses his new book on Harpo Marx with artist, author and critic Matias Viegener. Using text and film clips to deliver a detailed play-by-play of Harpo’s physical movements, Koestenbaum celebrates the actor’s “cute” pathos, somnolence and Jewishness, among other attributes. Tue. 7 p.m. Free. Central Library, Mark Taper Auditorium, 630 W. Fifth St., downtown. (213) 228-7500.

After the Holocaust, a young Czech boy who survived Auschwitz searches for his mother with the help of an American soldier (Montgomery Clift) in this Oscar-winning 1948 film directed by Fred Zinnemann (“High Noon”). One of the first directors allowed inside postwar Germany, Zinnemann spent months interviewing child Holocaust survivors, many of whom appear in the film, and incorporated the ruins of German cities, including Nuremberg. A conversation with Zinnemann’s son, Tim Zinnemann, and Getty scholar Jennifer Smyth follows. Tue. 7 p.m. Free (reservations required). Getty Center, Harold M. Williams Auditorium, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 440-7300.

Like father, like son. His new record, “Like a Man,” features minimal instrumentation — nylon-stringed guitar, upright bass — for an acoustic-driven, intimate selection of songs that recalls the spare production style used by his father, Leonard Cohen, in his mid-1970s recordings. Lyrically, the record is Cohen’s first attempt at the autobiographical after abandoning the broad pop rock of his now-defunct band Low Millions. Tue. Through Wednesday. 7-8:45 p.m. $14 (presale). The Hotel Cafe, 1623 Cahuenga Blvd., Los Angeles.


Actor-comedian Jeff Garlin (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”), who played studio executive Mort Meyers on “Arrested Development,” welcomes series creator and executive producer Mitch Hurwitz to the “Jeff Garlin in Conversation With …” series at the Largo. With a new season of “Arrested Development” slated to air on Netflix in 2013, followed by a feature film, you can bet questions will fly about the Bluth dysfunctional family reunion. Wed. 8 p.m. $30. Largo at the Coronet, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 855-0350.

We know what you’re thinking: Another all-girl Chasidic alt-rock band from Crown Heights?! Bulletproof Stockings, featuring Perl Wolfe (vocals, piano), Dalia Shusterman (drums) and Michelle Lieberman (guitar), hosts a women-only record release party for their new EP, “Down to the Top.” Songs like “Easy Pray” and “Vagabond Wagon” show a band under the influence of Regina Spektor and Florence and the Machine, among other indie rock and jazz-pop goodness. Special performance by Chanie Kravitz. Drinks served. Wed. 8 p.m. $10 (advance), $12 (door). Chai Center, 3115 Purdue Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 391-7995.

Crooners celebrate Canuckia’s Cohen and a first for our very own Greenberg

Saturday the 24th

A Leonard Cohen love fest takes place at Royce Hall this evening. The enigmatic genius poet/songwriter is paid tribute in an event titled “The Gospel According to Leonard Cohen,” which is presented by Perla Batalla, a vocalist with whom he has frequently worked. While surprise guests are promised, confirmed performers include Jackson Browne, Michael McDonald, Howard Tate, Bill Gable, Bill Frisell and Don Was.

8 p.m. $17-$52. UCLA Royce Hall, Westwood. (310) 825-2101. ‘ target=’_blank’>

Tuesday the 27th

Despite what we feel is a terrible title, “Melanoma My Love” may be worth your attention. The interesting premise of this Israeli film is a tragic tale about a young dancer who is diagnosed with melanoma at age 30, and given only three months to live. Not wanting to shatter her spirit with such precious time left, her husband chooses to hide the prognosis from her. The film screens — with a conversation with star Sharon Zukerman to follow — at UC Irvine tonight, and Pomona College tomorrow.

Feb. 27, UC Irvine.

Feb. 28, Pomona College International Theater, Pomona.
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Thursday the 1st

Local author T Cooper signs her new acclaimed novel, “Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes” at Malibu’s Diesel bookstore on Wednesday, and Skylight Books today. To quote Publisher’s Weekly’s assessment of her latest, “[Cooper] takes apart the usual Jewish heritage tale and the themes of assimilation, touching them with postmodern parody and Chagallesque folk magic.”

Feb. 28, 7 p.m., Diesel, A Bookstore, 3890 Cross Creek Road, Malibu. (310) 456-9961.

March 1, 7:30 p.m. Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 660-1175.

Friday the 2nd

A Shabbat service with vocal resonance awaits at the Wilshire Theatre, this evening. The 50-voice Tabernacle Gospel Choir led by Justin White joins the Tova Marcos Singers of Temple of the Arts in an interfaith, intercultural “Shared Heritage of Freedom” service. They will be led by Rabbi David Baron and Bishop Charles Blake of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ.

8 p.m. Wilshire Theatre Beverly Hills, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (323) 658-9100. IFF: Engaging in disengagement — five horrible days in Gaza

Leonard Cohen Film Toasts Songwriter

“He’s the man who comes down from the mountaintop with tablets of stone,” says U2’s guitarist, The Edge, in “Leonard Cohen I’m Your Man,” a documentary on Cohen, one of the greatest living songwriters, that is screening at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Comments on Cohen’s many biblical references in his songs and his almost mystical authority are sprinkled through out the film, which is slated for a May theatrical release from Lionsgate, even as the many interviewees also point out that Cohen can also be droll and erotic in his work.

The film’s director, Australian-born and L.A.-based Lian Lunson, expanded upon The Edge’s comments in a telephone interview:

“I think with great writers like Leonard Cohen, the gift they have has so much weight behind it, that even if the lyric isn’t religious, it takes on a religious aspect because of the great amount of contemplation that has gone into it.”

The film interweaves interviews with various subjects with a wry, introspective 71-year-old Cohen — his face creased and hair gray but both his mind and his wardrobe sharp. Interspersed, too, are performances at the “Came So Far for Beauty” concert tribute to Cohen at the Sydney Opera House.

At that show, produced by American Hal Willner (who also produced UCLA Live’s Randy Newman tribute), such musicians as the McGarrigle Sisters, Rufus Wainwright, Beth Orton, Nick Cave, Linda Thompson and Antony (of Antony & the Johnsons) perform versions of songs from throughout Cohen’s career. Eventually, late in the film, Cohen sings — in his gravely rumble of a voice — “Tower of Song,” in a surprising special performance staged just for the film by Lunson, a longtime music video director.

As Cohen and others recall, his youthful influences included the Jewish liturgy he heard in synagogue. Cohen was born in 1934 in Montreal to an influential English-speaking family. His father was a clothing manufacturer, his paternal grandfather helped lead numerous Jewish civic and religious institutions and his maternal grandfather was a rabbi and Talmudic scholar.

Cohen became first an accomplished poet and then, starting with 1967’s “Songs of Leonard Cohen” (which contained the oft-recorded “Suzanne”) a singer-songwriter. According to Ira Nader’s Cohen biography, “Various Positions,” Cohen’s Judaism has influenced his songs greatly — “Who By Fire” is based on the melody of a Yom Kippur prayer, “Mi Bamayim, Mi Ba Esh,” and “If It Be Your Will” is derived from a “Kol Nidre” phrase.

Cohen talks movingly in the film about how his father’s death — when he was just 9 — galvanized in him a compassionate but unsentimentally mature view about the limitations of life on earth.

“It was in the realm of things that couldn’t be disputed or even judged,” he tells Lunson.

And he explains he’s been searching for other such things to give his life structure and discipline — truth — ever since. He describes himself as drawn to “the military and the monastery.”

While remaining Jewish, he has pursued an interest in Zen Buddhism for some 30 years at the Mt. Baldy Zen Center with a Japanese master, Joshu Sasaki Roshi.

“He was someone who deeply didn’t care about who I was, and the less I cared about who I was the better I felt,” Cohen tells Lunson.

Speaking quietly but unguardedly, Cohen appears amused when discussing his lifelong dislike for blue jeans, his following among young “punksters” and his regrets about once revealing that “Chelsea Hotel” was written about a sexual encounter with Janis Joplin. “She wouldn’t have minded, but my mother would have minded,” he says of his indiscretion.

“Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man” was produced by Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions, which arranged distribution with Lionsgate. Lunson and Gibson are longtime friends, and she helped him put together the album, “Songs Inspired by ‘The Passion of the Christ,'” which included Cohen’s “By the Rivers Dark.”

“I took the idea of the film to Mel because he’s a huge Leonard Cohen fan, always has been, and he said, ‘Let me put it out there and see,'” Lunson said. “He loves Leonard Cohen.”