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Dahlia Scheindlin

Dahlia Scheindlin

Posted: September 23, 2009 01:34 PM

The Holy and the Broken

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Here is a little known fact about Israel: the country is mad about Leonard Cohen. One sweaty summer night, 47,000 tickets sold out in two days. The online ticket site crashed. And most importantly, I didn't get a ticket.

Now, the concert is 24 hours away. Lost in frustration in those days after the ticket trauma, I fell into some deep thinking about Cohen's music (which I do given almost any excuse). I wondered: What can he contribute to this region of fast-growing hopelessness? His music is already played routinely, almost ritually on Israeli radio stations. With the same songs heard year after year, they can become transparent. Like prayer (as the less reverent among us are reminded during the Jewish High Holidays) we may mouth the words without bothering to hear what they actually say.

But Israel is a particularly receptive ground for the Leonard Cohen state of mind. Folks here are hyper attuned to the Judeo-Christian tradition that drives many of his best oevres, to put it mildly. Out here, those sources are routinely perverted, plumbed for their inspiration to violence -- or as Cohen says in "Lover, Lover, Lover," they "use it for a weapon," rather than for love.

Leonard Cohen, like most of us, would prefer otherwise. In his arresting rendition of "The Story of Isaac," the narrative told by the young almost-victim and the hypnotic rhythm captivates the listener. Just when we are almost lulled, he shatters the complacency of uncritical faith with a stinging call: "you who build these altars now, to sacrifice your children, you must not do it anymore(!)" The line is sung gently -- the exclamation point is my experience of it. Then in a turn of the lyrical blade, the boy pleads to future generations by summoning the pathos of his utter, naked helplessness: "you who stand above them now, your hatchets blunt and bloody, you were not there before/when I lay upon the mountain and my father's hand was trembling, with the beauty of the word."

Who beats Israel and the Palestinians at sacrificing their children for the "beauty of the word"? Which nations are better versed in Cohen's vision of human relations, in bible-like chiasmus : "when it all comes down to dust, I will kill you if I must, I will help you if I can; when it all comes down to dust, I will help you if I must, I will kill you if I can."

Is it a coincidence that he will sing in Israel on the heels of the Jewish New Year -- when the faithful read the binding of Isaac? Or that Cohen is performing during the Days of Awe, when people are called upon to reflect on their sins, then "turn back" to righteousness?

The audience can listen, be entertained, go home and forget. But if we fail to let the ideas penetrate, we can expect more killing, more death. "Who By Fire," asks how death comes. Will our two warring nations rot with the "very slow decay" of a protracted conflict to which we are stubbornly addicted, like the barbiturate junkie in the song? Will we do it "by [our] own hand," by perpetuating these wars? As our national leaders meet with US President Obama this week to talk about talking about peace, they should hear these words - and talk faster.

Cohen once said that "who shall I say is calling" refers to the uncertainty of who brings death. And who is responsible for all the death here? Is it really the unstoppable, omnipotent "god on our side," as per Cohen's southern counterpart Bob Dylan, or is this plain old human agency?

Don't forget: "Who By Fire" is a masterful take on the prayer for the Jewish Day of Atonement (just days after the concert). Leonard lore links the song to his visit to Israeli troops in Sinai following the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Will we be singing it wistfully in another 36 years, wondering why nothing has changed?

But Leonard Cohen also wrenches goodness from the caked layers of despair. In "Democracy" he tells us that it's coming, this something-good: "From the wells of disappointment where the women kneel to pray for the grace of God in the desert here and the desert far away."

But it is the great towering song, his musical and metaphorical crescendo, the Biblical medley "Hallelujah," that holds one of the most important lessons. Hallelujah, we are told, is "cold and broken." It will not arrive after we've "seen the light," but after we have been shorn and decimated. It will rise from humanity's dirtiest moments -- with the blood-drenched war in Gaza, this year has had enough of them. Anyone waiting for some sort of "victory march," before getting to peace must face reality: this conflict cannot be won militarily or triumphantly. It will be a broken joy when it ends, but ending it is the only way to restore any erstwhile holiness to this land that we have poisoned with war.

Oh, and by the way, I was miraculously granted two tickets just weeks before the show. Instead of taking a friend, I gave the other one to a young, aspiring singer I heard one night, after she told the audience she didn't get a ticket -- then proceeded to sing the most beautiful "Hallelujah."


Dahlia Scheindlin is an international public opinion researcher and political strategist living in Tel Aviv. She is also a free lance writer and columnist for the Jerusalem Report magazine.