In 1974, Leonard Cohen borrowed from the High Holy Day liturgy for his song “Who By Fire.”
This year, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin is returning the favor. He will bring Leonard Cohen songs into the High Holy Day services at Temple Beth Am in Bayonne – and chant Unetaneh Tokef to the melody of the song it inspired.
“So much of his music is rooted in Jewish thought and Jewish images,” said Rabbi Salkin of Mr. Cohen, who will turn 80 on Sunday. Two days later, on Tuesday, Mr. Cohen’s 13th studio album will be released. Rabbi Salkin believes that Mr. Cohen’s continuing relevance as he reaches what Pirkei Avot calls “the age of strength” provides an important role model for his congregation.
“Many of our most active members hover right around the 80-year-old mark,” he said. “To sing Leonard Cohen’s music is a testimony to ongoing creativity and vitality, and that message is essential to the High Holy Days.”
Rabbi Salkin developed his enthusiasm for Leonard Cohen at a very young age. He was in seventh grade when he first discovered Mr. Cohen’s songs as sung by Judy Collins. After hearing the music, “I went into a local bookstore and bought a book of his poetry,” he said. “I had saved my allowance. It cost $1.50.”
The song “Story of Isaac” particularly resonated with him. It “blew me away because I had been schooled on Abraham and Isaac and the sacrifice that had been averted. It tells it from the point of view of Isaac, and explodes it into a lesson that everyone must embrace,” he said.
(Last year, Rabbi Salkin published “The Gods Are Broken! The Hidden Legacy of Abraham,” a book looking at another piece of Abraham’s story, the midrash about his smashing his father’s idols.)
On the first morning of Rosh Hashanah, the three singers who provide most of the synagogue’s musical accompaniment will sing Mr. Cohen’s “Story of Isaac” before the story of the binding of Isaac is read from the Torah scroll. (Reform Jews hear that story on the first day of Rosh Hashanah; in Conservative and Orthodox synagogues it’s read on the second day.) Rabbi Salkin will explain the song.
The line in the song that resonates most strongly with Rabbi Salkin this year is this one: “You who build these altars now, to sacrifice these children, you must not do it any more.”
“It’s impossible not to hear it as about Hamas, who build altars of terror and sacrifice their children,” Rabbi Salkin said. “We’re up against the forces of a terrorist army that believes in child sacrifice. That God is not a savage god who desires human sacrifice must be repeated over and over again.”
The penitential season opens Saturday night with Slichot, and Rabbi Salkin plans to begin his Leonard Cohen season with the song “Anthem”: “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”
Rabbi Salkin explains: “One of the things that Elul” – the month before Rosh Hashanah – “tries to wean us from is the idea of perfection. At a certain point we learn to embrace our flaws and make artwork out of them.”
At the end of Yom Kippur, Rabbi Salkin will conclude the Neilah service with Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which combines biblical images of David and Samson with kabbalistic images of sparks within words: “There’s a blaze of light in every word / It doesn’t matter which you heard / The holy or the broken Hallelujah.”
“We’re all singing a broken Hallelujah,” Rabbi Salkin said. “What we want to do on the days of awe is to repair that Hallelujah, so our songs of praise are not broken but are in fact whole.
“The theme of the Days of Awe is to renew the holy and sanctify the new,” he said, quoting Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. “Leonard Cohen is simply giving us another entryway into the holy.”