The Art of the Jewish Journey

This post is cross posted to the URJ KESHER Blog, where I’m also a contributor. They’ve got good stuff there, too.

Leonard Cohen – prolific songwriter, singer, musician, poet, novelist, and philosopher – is a music hero. He’s been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. He is also a Companion of the Order of Canada – our country’s highest civilian honour. These aren’t mere platitudes bestowed without good reason: his career spans six decades and is unwaveringly progressing; Lou Reed, front-man of The Velvet Underground, has labeled Cohen as being amongst “the highest and most influential echelon of songwriters.” Not bad for an observant Jew from the Montreal suburbs.

In the interest of full disclosure, I admittedly love his music, but what has impresses me most about Cohen is his desire to infuse his connection to Judaism in all that he creates. For him, Judaism isn’t just one sphere of many in his life, it is a ubiquitous reality. Listen to his music, read his poems, or watch him on stage, and it is clear that a Jewish stream flows through all he does. In his music and poetry, Cohen has incorporated Machzor liturgy, Torah ethics, and Tanakh stories (think the opening verse of “Hallelujah”). He also observes Shabbat, even while on tour. Impressive.

And yet, there are those who would accuse him of reneging against his Judaism. You see, Leonard Cohen also embraces a Zen-oriented lifestyle which – for some – is sufficient grounds to expunge him from the Jewish people. Heavy.

In his 2006 “Book of Longing,” Cohen responds to these accusations with poetic eloquence:

Anyone who says
I’m not a Jew
is not a Jew
I’m very sorry
but this is final.

The pen is mightier, indeed.

It seems to me that Leonard Cohen offers a pretty good model of pluralistic Judaism. His argument that a monolithic interpretation of Judaism is inherently antithetical to what Judaism is about is almost Talmudic in its essence. It bears a close resemblance to the oft quoted passage “shiv’im panim laTorah,” that “there are seventy faces to the Torah” (B’midbar Rabbah 13:15). Many Jews could learn from Cohen.

It also seems to me that this man would fit in well at Jewish camp – a place where Judaism isn’t just one sphere of life; isn’t just an item from 10:00-11:00 on the schedule; isn’t confined to the sanctuary or the library. Judaism at our camps is effervescent. Certainly, it manifests itself in different individual ways – music, sports, programming, environmentalism, prayer, and yes, Torah study – but it is most definitely akin to the life Cohen leads: omnipresent and profound.

At our camps, we embrace the notion that there is no monolithic definition of Judaism, or what it means to live a Jewish life. We know that the beauty of Judaism is that every Jew has the ability to find a different, unique face of the Torah and see it in their own way, even while we are all learning and living from the same Book. If Cohen went to a URJ Camp, nobody would tell him he’s not a Jew. Here, we embrace the journey that is Judaism.

So go find some of Leonard’s music or writings, and spend some time with them. Truly, there is a Jewish journey within his art.

This Week’s Amazing, Stupid, F’d up, and Just Plain Odd Things

Make sure you get down to the last one on the list. It will change the way you look at the world. Or maybe just the way you look at America.

1. The RIAA list of the Top 100 Selling Music Artists of All Time.
I was actually pleasantly surprised by most of the artists on this list. Turns out the factory-made, genetically engineered pop music that seems to be so pervasive since the Spice Girls were manufactured in a defunct cold-war weapons factory is not actually as successful as it appears to be. At least not when compared to the other bands on the list. I was, however, disappointed that Brittney Spears has sold as many albums as Dave Matthews has. And more than Pearl Jam and Tom Petty. She doesn’t work nearly as hard as they do. And the output isn’t exactly on par. Isn’t it a little ironic (Alanis Morisette was further down the list) that the capitalist society which has propelled the likes of Brittney to the top is the same one that is so adamant about the notion that you have to work hard to be deserving of money? Judgement: AMAZING

2. Reform and Chabad are Friends!… in China…
Read the article. It’s enlightening. Perhaps there is something that America and Canada can learn from China. Judgement: AMAZING

3. Anti-Islam film ‘Fitna’ draws Dutch Jewish condemnations.
The newly-released anti-Islam film by right-wing Dutch legislator Geert Wilders drew condemnations from the Netherlands’ Central Jewish Board, which Friday called the film’s focus on anti-Jewish preachings by Muslims “counterproductive” and “generalizing.” Just one question: When was the last time we heard a reciprocal condemnation of pervasive anti-Jewish propaganda? Judgement: a tie between AMAZING and FUCKED UP

4. Stuff White People Like
If you’re a wordpress-er like me, then you’ve likely already seen this blog. If not, you must head over to it immediately. It is a humourous and surprisingly (perhaps frighteningly) accurate portrayal of white society. Some of my favourites from the list: #88 Having Gay Friends, #75 Threatening to Move to Canada, #68 Michel Gondry, #67 Standing Still at Concerts (I dance like hell, though), #26 Manhattan (now Brooklyn too!), #87 Outdoor Performance Clothes. Judgement: Overall it’s AMAZING. Some of them are STUPID or JUST PLAIN ODD

And the Kicker… the piece de resistance, the one that floored me tonight…

5. The Quantum Sleeper
“What is the Quantum Sleeper?” you ask… While you must go to the website and look at the pictures to truly appreciate the absurdity of this item, here’s a quick rundown of the features it contains:
– Protection from bio-chemical terrorist attack
– Protection from natural disasters (earthquakes…?)
– Protection from kidnappers / stalkers (“What’s that giant object in the bedroom…?”)
– Toiletry system
– CD Player & AM/FM Radio

JUDGEMENT: The Quantum Sleeper is the culmination and supreme iconic indicator of post-9-11 society. It is simultaneously amazing, stupid, f’ed up, and just plain odd. Mostly though, it’s a piece of shit.