Though he passed five years ago, Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen continues to have a profound impact on the music world. A member of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Cohen was also awarded the title of Companion of the Order of Canada (his native nation’s highest civilian honor). His song “Hallelujah” has been recorded over 200 times by different artists (making it one of the most covered songs in history) many new artists continue to site Cohen as an influence and inspiration.
During his lifetime, Cohen released 14 albums (the first of which came out when he was already 33 years old), with a 15th released posthumously. He also published books of lyrics and other writings that won him the 2011 Prince of Asturias Award for literature.
Among Cohen’s most noted sources were Jewish texts and songs and current affairs. Even in an age when many artists were still changing their names to disguise their identities, Cohen proudly bore the title of the ancient priestly class (going so far as to bless the audience at a 2009 concert in Ramat Gan) and even volunteered to join the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in 1973 to fight during the Yom Kippur War (during which he entertained the troops with a pair of well-received and greatly-appreciated performances). The opening of his album You Want it Darker featured the choir from his childhood congregation, Shaar Hashomayim (in whose cemetery he was buried amongst three generations of ancestors) and includes an incantation of the word “Hineni,” which was Abrahams’ response to God’s call to sacrifice his son and so prove his commitment and also the reply of Moses when he was similarly called to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt and to the Promised Land. Cohen’s song ”Who by Fire” recalls the pondering prayer Unetanneh Tokef that is recited in the Yom Kippur liturgy. Similarly, the hopeful premise of “Anthem” that there is a crack in everything” that lets the light in relates to the shattered vessels that Jews must try to reassemble through acts of tikkun olam (repair of the world).
Israeli singer-songwriter David Broza has often been compared favorably to Cohen. In fact, some call him “the Leonard Cohen of Israel.” As Cohen combined Jewish, Catholic, and Buddhist influences (having spent five years living at the Mount Baldy Zen Centre), Broza’s music combines influences from the nations in which he was raised – Israel, England, and Spain. As Cohen has collaborated and been covered by so many artists, Broza too has worked with the legendary likes of Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Steve Earle, Jackson Brown, Shawn Colvin, Van Morrison, and many more.
“Leonard Cohen has always been one of my favorite singer songwriters,” Broza explains, claiming that he followed Cohen’s career since the 1970s and recalling that his mother played Cohen’s music in their home when we has growing up.
“The house was full of his music and poetry,” Broza explains.
Perhaps this is why Broza was selected to headline a tribute to Cohen that is being hosted by the Jewish Arts Collaborative (www.JArtsBoston.org) on May 25.
“Two years ago, we worked with 10 diverse musical groups to reimagine the music Leonard Bernstein,” explains JArts Executive Director Laura Mandel. “In 2021, we reimagine another Leonard.”
According to Mandel, plans to honor Cohen had been in the works since his death in 2016 but it came together this past year
“In the thick of the dark Covid-19 winter,” Mandel recalls, “[Israeli composer] Mátti Kovler and I were talking about ways to support the musicians and artists who, at the time, were starving to perform, work, and connect since it was near impossible to play music together virtually. A week later, he sent me a short iPhone video [that showed] a rehearsal he was at with David Broza…. That was when we knew we had the basherte combination.
The combination of Cohen and Broza was even more appropriate when it was discovered that Broza’s mother had been close with Cohen.
“When David brought out the book that was signed in Cohen’s iconic handwriting to his mother,” Mandel recalls, “we got the chills!”
In addition to Broza, the performance will also feature Kovler, who originated the event and will serve as music director and Broza’s interviewer, as well as bassist Omer Avital, percussionist Itay Morchi, horn and wind players Eitan Gofman, Edo Gur, and Yonathan Peled, and string players Maya Lorenzen, Daniel Zinn, Michele Gardiner, and Christine Chen, many of whom are immigrant musicians who have collaborated with Kovler in his popular Floating Tower project.
“The program will feature…songs with Broza,” Mandel explains, adding that there will also be “stories, conversations, and some surprises!”
“I had a hard time choosing which songs to sing,” Broza admits, “as I never did cover his songs before…. It was challenging as I had to forget his voice and his timing and tell it from my point of view.”
The event is being presented in cooperation with the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco (https://thecjm.org).
“They have a complementary Leonard Cohen show opening post-Covid,” Mandel explains.
In addition to honoring Cohen, the event also serving as a tribute to entrepreneur Michael B. Rukin, who served as board chair for CJP in the 1990s and championed inclusivity in the Jewish community.
“Michael joined the board of the Boston Jewish Music Festival just before he passed away,” Mandel explains “His family…felt that an annual musical event would pay tribute to his life and passions perfectly.”
In bringing so many international stars together and honoring two great Jewish leaders who worked all their lives to promote inclusion, Mandel and her team have created an online event that will hopefully be shared by people around the world.
“This project has had so many special elements to it,” she observes, citing it as “a rare opportunity to share a unknown story of Leonard Cohen, to work with a musician and talented and kind as David Broza, to support artists in this moment of Covid, and to pay tribute to Michael B Rukin, whose family has made this project possible in his memory.”
As he continues to work on his latest album, Broza is also looking forward to sharing his interpretations of another great artist.
“I had a great time learning and finding my own voice [in Cohen’s songs], Broza says. “I hope the listener will enjoy!”
The suggested price of tickets for the Zoom event is $50, but no one will be turned away. To reserve tickets and receive the Zoom link, go to jartsboston.org.