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Leonard Cohen remembered, by his Cantor: ‘Home was where Eliezer’s heart was pulled’

Music

Leonard Cohen's Temple of Song

Cantor Gideon Zelermyer, of the Shaar Hashomayim congregation in Westmount, is seen in the Sanctuary of the Shaar on Oct. 25. Zelermyer collaborated with Leonard Cohen on two songs from his most recent album, You Want It Darker.

Cantor Gideon Zelermyer, of the Shaar Hashomayim congregation in Westmount, is seen in the Sanctuary of the Shaar on Oct. 25. Zelermyer collaborated with Leonard Cohen on two songs from his most recent album, You Want It Darker.

The Cantor of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Westmount, Montreal remembers his relationship with the musician


'May your voice reach that Place and bring down the blessings."

Never had a member of my Montreal congregation summarized so elegantly my role as Cantor of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Westmount. But I shouldn't have been surprised. This congregant was unlike any other: the grandson and great-grandson of presidents of The Shaar, a Companion of the Order of Canada, and a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was Eliezer ben Nisan HaKohein u'Masha, also known as Leonard Cohen.

Leonard wrote me last November asking, "Would you be interested in working with me on a new record?" My first response was an ecstatic scream, followed by a feeble attempt to appear nonchalant by writing back, "Hallelujah! I'm your man!" Then I heard: "Hineni, Hineni / I'm ready, my Lord." My exuberance morphed into something more subdued, more sober, more solemn. This would be more than just a recording. This might be Closing Time.

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When I heard a rough draft of the title track for what would be Leonard's final opus, my liturgically attuned instincts sensed a foreboding tone. "Magnified, sanctified be Thy Holy Name," the words of the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning. I heard "Hineni," a reference to the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac, the ultimate test of faith.

Gideon Zelermyer poses with portraits of Lyon Cohen and Lazarus Cohen, respectively grand-father and great-grand-father of Leonard Cohen, who were both presidents of the Shaar in their time.

Gideon Zelermyer poses with portraits of Lyon Cohen and Lazarus Cohen, respectively grand-father and great-grand-father of Leonard Cohen, who were both presidents of the Shaar in their time.

SARAH MONGEAU-BIRKETT/For the Globe and Mail

I heard "out of the game … broken and lame … mine must be the shame." Yet I hoped, as we all did, that Leonard would live till 120 as he quipped at a launch for You Want it Darker not three weeks before his passing.

For me, the surest sign that Leonard was indeed ready came in an e-mail that I received from him in mid-September, just weeks before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. In keeping with the strong Jewish tradition to visit the graves of loved ones prior to the High Holy Days, Leonard wrote asking me to visit his late parents at our congregation's cemetery on Mount Royal. Within a few days, I replied with a picture, letting him know that I had put in a good word up above and had placed a stone on their graves. He replied: "That picture, and your visit are precious to me."

Now, Leonard lies at rest atop Mount Royal in the city he loved most, buried beside his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents in the cemetery of the congregation with which he maintained a lifelong connection. Through all his spiritual peregrinations, Leonard Cohen remained a Jewish Montrealer till his last breath. "I'm not looking for a new religion," he said to The Guardian in 2004. "I'm quite happy with the old one, with Judaism." And in reflecting on the invitation he extended to me and the choir to appear on his latest album, Leonard wrote that "our work together reflects our love for the place, the people and the tradition."

Every man of faith needs to make a pilgrimage and for me and Rabbi Adam Scheier, our Shaar clergy experience would remain incomplete until we saw Eliezer lead his adoring flock in song. When Leonard went back on the road in 2008, then in his mid-70s, we were determined to catch one of his local shows, all of which were sold out. Timidly, I sent Leonard an e-mail saying that we would like to buy tickets were he able to procure them for us, "the operative word being buy." Within hours, Leonard instructed his tour manager to leave comps for "his Rabbi and Cantor" at will-call. I immediately replied that the word "complimentary" was not part of the original request. His response: "Given my connection to the shul [synagogue], and my appreciation for your work there, I was more than happy to gift them." I then asked where I could direct a charitable contribution in his honour. "Any food bank. The closer to home, the better."

Leonard Cohen inscribed and gave this self-portrait to Cantor Gideon Zelermyer.

Leonard Cohen inscribed and gave this self-portrait to Cantor Gideon Zelermyer.

Home was where Eliezer's heart was pulled, and his Jewish home was always at Shaar Hashomayim. Since 1887, the rites of our synagogue have revolved around Cantor and male choir, following in the tradition of the great Choral Synagogues of Western Europe. Elaborate compositions and rich harmonies illuminate the prayers and their meaning. This musical tradition – especially when combined with the canonical robes, high ornate ceiling, rich dark wood and stained glass windows – clearly made an impression on young Leonard, as he said: "Even as a boy I loved their singing. It is what made compulsory synagogue attendance enjoyable." When Leonard invited us to participate in You Want it Darker, he said that he was "looking for the sound of the Cantor and choir of his youth." In one of his last interviews, he shined an even brighter light on the reason for reaching out to us. "I've wanted to work with the Cantor and the choir for a long time. There are times when you want to show the flag, when you want to indicate that there is nourishment to be had from this culture."

Simchat Torah marked the last Jewish Festival that Leonard could observe in an earthly sense. The Festival of Rejoicing with the Torah marks the close of the High Holy Day period when, after weeks of weighty liturgical offerings, Simchat Torah offers the community a chance to celebrate, to dance and even to be a little silly. Our Shaar Hashomayim tradition is to close the service with a whimsical setting of the closing hymn, Adon Olam. The choir and I have sung the text to the music of Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Star Wars, Frozen and other "profane" tunes, but this year's edition was a tribute to Eliezer: Tower of Song.

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After the holiday, I sent the sheet music of our choral arrangement to Leonard with a note giving him the context. His response came a few hours later, in Hebrew, with the words: "Chazak, chazak v'nitchazeik! – Be strong, be strong and let us strengthen one another!" These are the words said in unison by Jewish worshippers when the reading of a book of the Torah is concluded. They are an affirmation of the power of God's word in our own lives. Leonard knew that we say these words on Simchat Torah and he used them to compliment our humorous homage. These holy words were also the last that we exchanged. He died less than two weeks later.

Musician Leonard Cohen tips his hat to the audience as he accepts the 2012 Awards for Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence, which was awarded to both he and Chuck Berry at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. on February 26, 2012.

Musician Leonard Cohen tips his hat to the audience as he accepts the 2012 Awards for Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence, which was awarded to both he and Chuck Berry at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. on February 26, 2012.

Jessica Rinaldi/REUTERS

Leonard's invitation to collaborate on You Want It Darker changed my life, and has caused a surge of pride within our community. When the initial sense of disbelief died down, I kept asking myself: "Why us?" Leonard Cohen could go to anyone in the world for some male backing vocals. Why did he contact Shaar Hashomayim?

Eliezer Cohen first heard the words "Who by Fire?" in our sanctuary. The same place that he first heard a choir sing "Hallelujah!" and a cantor sing "Hineni." He remembered his roots and remained proud of his heritage as a Jew, a Montrealer and as a member of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim. Leonard's high fidelity to the aforementioned makes his loss especially painful for our community, and for me personally.

"We are so lightly here.

It is in love that we are made; In love we disappear."

Godspeed, Eliezer. May God lift up His countenance to you and grant you peace in the penthouse of the Tower of Song.

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