A new and very Yiddish ‘Hallelujah’

A new and very Yiddish ‘Hallelujah’

Singer Daniel Kahn tells how he came to translate and perform the Leonard Cohen classic

White shirt. Black vest. Workmen’s cap. Black beard.

Except for the acoustic guitar, Daniel Kahn could be appearing in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

And then he starts to sing in Yiddish to a familiar tune: “Geven a nign vi a sod, vos Dovid hot geshpilt far Got.”

The subtitles translate: “There was a secret tune, that David played before God.”

Yes, it is a Yiddish rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

The Forward recorded the video in September and posted it to its website last Wednesday morning.

That night, word came of Leonard Cohen’s death.

“It was sadly serendipitous,” Mr. Kahn said.

Like many of Mr. Cohen’s songs, “Hallelujah” uses biblical imagery. It refers to David explicitly. Bathsheba, implicit in the original, is named in the translation. In Yiddish, everything becomes a bit more Jewish. “The dove” becomes the Shechina, the kabbalistic feminine aspect of God. The informality of the rhymes of “do ya” and “knew ya” are replaced by the more resonant Hebrew-rooted words like “geula,” redemption; “yeshua,” salvation; and “refuah,” healing.

“You always lose something and gain something in translation,” Mr. Kahn said. “I call it tradaptation: adaptation and translation. I try to approximate the gesture of the original.”

If you enjoy the Yiddish rendition, you can thank Frank London of the Klezmatics. Mr. London asked Mr. Kahn and a couple other Yiddish songwriters to translate “a verse or two of the song” for the choir of KlezCanada, an annual Yiddish retreat.

“I reluctantly agreed to give it a shot,” Mr. Kahn said. “Once I got into it, the task didn’t let me go, and I ended up translating all seven verses of the song that we have.” (Mr. Cohen performed different versions of the song over the years, and said he had notebook pages of unpublished, unsung, verses.)

Mr. Kahn recorded the song in the Forward’s studio, after someone at the paper’s Yiddish edition heard him play it at a party for a Yiddish journal. He comes to New York often, but he lives in Berlin, where he is “pretty involved with the Yiddish culture movement.”

He has recorded four albums with his band, Painted Bird, which he describes as “a combination of punk, folk, and klezmer” and he is working on a fifth. He also works in the theater.

He grew up in Detroit. “I come from an Ashkenazi family,” he said. “My grandmother spoke Yiddish.”

Interest in klezmer music led him to the study of Yiddish. “At some point I got into learning the songs, translating the songs,” he said.

Why Berlin?

“I couldn’t afford to take Manhattan, so I took Berlin,” he said, paraphrasing a Leonard Cohen song. “That’s the short answer.

“I’ve lived in New Orleans. I’ve tried many places. I love Detroit, I’m still connected to the folk scene there. But Berlin is a very special city. I moved here in 2005. I figured it was a good time to broaden my scope and to live among the nations, to put myself in a kind of double diaspora.

“I fell in love with the city, the music here, the patchwork of cultures and the kaleidoscope of languages.

“Berlin is a truly cosmopolitan city in the way it hasn’t been since the 1920s. Unlike Paris or London, it’s a city where artists can afford to be creative and not make a ton of money. As a base it’s been wonderful. It’s allowed me to travel all around Europe and still travel to North America. I’m always touring. When I’m not doing that I’m working on theater projects.

“Berlin is a great town for that. For now. I’m well aware of how precarious the comforts of civilization are.”

Mr. Kahn approached “Hallelujah,” the translation and particularly the performance, “with some trepidation. Because it’s a cliche at this point that people feel the song shouldn’t be covered any more. It’s become a standard, used for purposes counter to the nature of the song itself.

“People think of it as a very straightforward spiritual song in a vague way because it has all these resonant images that convey biblical meaning. The text of the song contradicts that on its own terms. It’s a song where every verse contains the word ‘but’ or ‘though.’ It’s all about contradictory juxtapositions, the holy and the profane, profound doubt, God and sex, and the lack of both. It contains within it the depth of humor and irony and ambivalence and circumspection and hesitation and thought and consideration that was in so many of Cohen’s lyrics.

“He was not a dogmatic poet. He didn’t offer easy answers. His poetry illuminated very complicated truths.”

That’s why in the recording, he skips the “Hallelujah” chorus until the very end of the song.

“For me it’s all about the verses.”

His albums with Painted Word mix songs in English, Yiddish, and other languages. “Unfortunately, Yiddish is often relegated into the realm of kitsch or nostalgia or comedy,” he said. “Which if you know anything about Yiddish literature or modern Yiddish culture, you know it’s not. When you read Yiddish literature, it’s not all folky little wisdoms. It’s a deep culture.

“I try to focus on the sides of the culture that are unexpected when I translate out of Yiddish and into Yiddish. You can sing a Beatles song in Yiddish and it can be funny because it’s Yiddish. I try to find things that have other levels of relevance.

“‘Hallelujah’ is essentially a Yiddish song Leonard Cohen wrote in English, by which I mean it’s Jewish. It’s like the Song of Solomon, the double working of devotion to God and devotion to a lover, the juxtaposition of eroticism and spirituality. These are all, to my opinion, very Jewish themes. To do it in Yiddish made sense.”

Mr. Kahan has been to four Leonard Cohen concerts. “I’ve been a fan and student of his since I was a teenager,” he said. “I’m in my later 30s now. I wouldn’t be a songwriter without him.”

At the same time that the Forward posted the video of Ms. Kahan playing “Hallelujah,” it also put up another, where he was playing a Yiddish revolutionary song from the 1890s, called “Working Women.”

“I had planned to put it out as a celebration of Hillary’s victory,” he said. “I decided to put it out anyway.

“I was taken aback by the number of people who responded to both songs.”

“‘Hallelujah,’ a song that has nothing to do with politics, was a kind of solace for so many wounded people right now. I’m honored that people got that through my version of it.

“That speaks to the deep healing quality of a truth teller and true artist like Leonard Cohen.”

read more: