Leonard Cohen won a Grammy last night.
Yes, he died in October 2016. It was a posthumous Grammy. Cohen won the award for best rock performance for “You Want It Darker,” the title track of the album of the same name, which would was his last.
If only he had lived to see it.
Cohen wasn’t the only Jew to be so honored. The late Carrie Fisher won best spoken word album for “The Princess Diarist.”
But, for Cohen — well, this was one for the Jews.
As far as I can tell, this is the only time in popular music history that a song with Hebrew lyrics has won a Grammy.
…Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the help that never came
You want it darker
I’m ready, my lord
First, the words to Cohen’s song come straight out of Jewish liturgy. Cohen translates and mischievously re-interprets the words of Kaddish, the traditional Jewish statement of faith that has come to be associated with a prayer for the dead.
“Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name. Vilified, crucified, in the human frame.”
Why “crucified?” Because for a huge number of people on this planet, “crucified” is the epitome of suffering.
Violence to human beings “vilifies” and “crucifies” God, as well.
Second, he adds the word Hineni — one of the most powerful and evocative words in the entire Bible.
It serves as Abraham’s response to God’s demand that he sacrifice his son, Isaac — which Jews hear during theological “prime time” on Rosh Ha Shanah — and which Cohen has already “covered” in his song “Story of Isaac.”
Hineni means: I am here, I am ready. RASHI, the medieval commentator, says that hineni implies an absolute commitment to spiritual preparation.
In fact, for what was Leonard Cohen ready?
When you consider the fact that he died shortly after the release of the album, hineni was a shoutout to his impending mortality.
Third, his backup singers are the choir of Shaar Hoshamayim in Montreal — the Orthodox synagogue where he grew up, and the synagogue where his father and uncles had been lay leaders. The cantor of that synagogue, Gideon Zelermyer, is a featured singer on the song.
So, Cohen is not only writing a piece of liturgical music.
He is nodding, lovingly, to the Jewish roots of his Montreal childhood — roots that have always sustained him, despite his various spiritual wanderings.
But there is another piece to the Jewish puzzle in “You Want It Darker” — and I don’t know how many people have noticed it.
They’re lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle class and tame
I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim
If you are the dealer, let me out of the game…
I’m ready, my lord
“They’re lining up the prisoners.” The lyric seems to be referring to the Shoah (as in the earlier reference to “a million candles burning for the help that never came”).
The Grammys came on the heels of Holocaust Remembrance Day.
It wasn’t only the Hebrew language that won a Grammy.
It was the modern Jewish historical experience.
Somewhere in heaven, Leonard Cohen is smiling.
May his memory continue to be a blessing.