Robert Zimmerman became Bob Dylan, Allen Konigsberg became Woody Allen, but Leonard Cohen stayed Leonard Cohen. Coming of age at a time when showbusiness demanded Jews not make their background too obvious, Cohen was happy to be named less like a folk icon than a senior partner in an accountancy firm. It seems an obvious point, but it nods to a larger one that was either overlooked or underplayed in the extensive obituaries that followed Cohen's death last week. Put simply, Cohen was an intensely Jewish artist—along with Philip Roth, perhaps the most deeply Jewish artist of the last century.
Of course, there’s been no shortage of writers or performers with a Jewish sensibility. Allen's earliest films were steeped in Brooklyn shrugs and Manhattan angst, with plenty of Jewish neurotic shtick. Dylan's “Neighbourhood Bully,” telling of a besieged, encircled state of Israel, might be the most AIPAC-friendly song in the rock canon. But the Jewishness of Cohen's work is on an entirely different level.
Sure, he could adopt the requisite shrug of self-deprecation. “I'm the little Jew who wrote the bible,” he sang in “The Future.” And he was finely attuned to the epic forces of 20th-century Jewish history. “Dance Me to the End of Love” was prompted by the knowledge that a string quartet played at the Nazi death camps: “Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin,” Cohen sings. In 1973, he volunteered to fight for Israel during the Yom Kippur war, saying, “I am committed to the survival of the Jewish people.” Told he was more use wielding his voice than a gun, he entertained IDF troops in back-to-back performances. During a 2009 concert in Ramat Gan, he blessed his audiences with the ancient benediction of the Cohanim—the priesthood from which his name is derived.