A 22-story tall portrait of Leonard Cohen on the side of a building on Montreal’s Crescent Street. (Photo: Robert Sarner/Times of Israel)
A year after native-son’s death, the city venerates its Jewish icon with concerts, virtual reality exhibits.
By ROBERT SARNER, The Times of Israel, Nov. 17, 2017
MONTREAL — One of Montreal’s nicknames is City of Saints, due partly to the high number of streets named after canonized figures. Based on how Montrealers are now venerating Leonard Cohen a year after his passing, it may be only a matter of time before Saint Leonard appears on local city maps.
Visitors there this month could easily think the predominantly Catholic city was in the process of canonizing its most famous Jewish native son: Cohen’s image now looms large, literally and figuratively, in his old stomping grounds in ways never seen before in Montreal — or in the rest of Canada.
Initiatives include two gigantic wall murals; a prominent decoration at the city’s airport; ballet performances; nocturnal projections of his words on a grain silo in the old port; a star-studded tribute concert; roundtable discussions of his work; a dance homage; a major museum exhibition; a series of musical performances, each focusing on a different Cohen album; a public karaoke happening in a local subway station and many other projects.
The multi-pronged tribute by the mostly francophone city to its much-loved anglophone poet, singer, songwriter, novelist and artist has some people scratching their heads in wonderment. But it’s also a source of great pride, especially to the city’s Jewish community.
“I wasn’t surprised by the initial intensity of people’s sadness in Montreal when Leonard died but I wasn’t expecting the reaction to be so sustained to the point where we are today,” says Eddie Singer, 71, a retiree and lifelong Montreal fan of Cohen. “It seems like it may go on forever and Leonard will never be forgotten.”
Singer is one of 18 men chosen by the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC) for a video tribute to Cohen by artist Candice Breitz as part of its just-opened multi-disciplinary exhibition.
To apply, candidates had to be male, at least 65 years old and had to write about how Cohen influenced their lives. Some 200 people applied. Those selected were then filmed separately singing and recording their own version of the singer’s 1988 “I’m Your Man” album. The life-size clips are featured in Breitz’s 19-channel video installation.
The exhibit runs until April as part of the city’s poignant posthumous salute to Cohen. Viewed together, the initiatives show the depth of Montreal’s appreciation for him.
Never before has Quebec’s cultural and business capital mounted such a glorification.
“Several people who knew Leonard have told me he’d be embarrassed by everything Montreal is doing in his honor,” says Singer, who spoke to The Times of Israel during a commemorative sing-along of Cohen songs at The Main, one of the singer’s favorite local restaurants.
“A few days ago, on CBC Radio, a guy said, ‘I’m all for celebrating the memory of Leonard Cohen but who ever had their image plastered 22 stories high on the side of a building?’ I asked my daughter, ‘Was Frank Sinatra ever honored like this?’ It’s such incredible adoration. What Montreal is doing for Leonard is next to sainthood,” Singer says.
Larger than in life
The laudatory treatment Cohen is receiving goes far beyond what mere saints enjoy. He’s now truly larger than life thanks to two massive outdoor portraits of him that ensure his oversized presence in the city for years to come.
Last week, municipal officials inaugurated the bigger of the two, 22-stories high on the side of an apartment building on Crescent Street on the city’s west side.
The image of Cohen looking serious in his trademark fedora is based on a photo by his daughter Lorca. Across town, just off Saint Laurent Boulevard, a more diminutive — a mere nine-stories tall — depiction of the vaunted troubadour has him peering over his former haunts.
The murals may be the boldest testament to Cohen’s popularity seen by this reporter in Montreal during a four-day visit there last week but many other manifestations caught my eye.
For the month of November, travelers at the city’s international airport are greeted by an unusual sight. The main terminal is literally tipping its hat to Cohen. On its facade, a large, commemorative fedora, like the one he wore on and off stage, sits atop the airport sign.
Given how the city has embraced his legacy, he was often on people’s lips and almost ubiquitous. So many Montrealers have their own Leonard Cohen stories, based either on a strong association with one of his songs or books, or from having actually met him at places he frequented in the city. People seem to genuinely enjoy speaking about him and his work, many referring to him endearingly just by his first name.
“There was a time when Leonard Cohen wasn’t as recognized in Quebec as he is today,” says Zev Moses, 34, founder and director of the Museum of Jewish Montreal (MJM), on Saint Laurent Boulevard, near the home Cohen kept since the 1970s. “He was seen as this Anglo poet and singer but over the decades he became so popular around the world that he’s now known as a Quebec artist, he’s known in Montreal as a Montreal artist, he’s known across Canada as a Canadian artist, he’s everything to everyone to a certain degree. For the Jewish community here, he’s part of us and the city’s celebration of him is the source of great pride to us.”
The MJM mounted its own commemoration, a photo exhibition called Leonard Cohen: Rituals of Absence. Standing next to the exhibit’s images of impromptu memorials people created outside Cohen’s home last November after he died, Moses cites one main reason why local Jews feel such kinship to their legendary landsman.
“Leonard Cohen’s relationship with his Judaism is relatable for many Montreal Jews,” says the New York-raised Moses, who’s lived in Montreal for the past 20 years.
“He was someone who struggled with his religion and traditions quite a bit and there are a lot of people in the Jewish community who experienced that or experience it today.
“But ultimately as Leonard came through his life, his writing and music were more deeply Jewish and by the time of his last album, he’s using the choir from the Shaar Shamayim synagogue, one of the bastions of traditional Judaism in Montreal to make his art,” Moses says.
While in Montreal, I visited Shaar Shamayim, situated in Westmount, the well-heeled neighborhood where Cohen was born in 1934 and spent his formative years. Along one of the main floor walls adorned with class photos is one from 1949 in which Cohen appears in a double-breasted blazer and tie. Near the main sanctuary are portraits of his grandfather and great-grandfather, both past presidents of the synagogue.
An employee shared with me that although Cohen rarely attended in his later years, he kept his membership active until his death despite spending most of his time in Los Angeles or on tour.
Shaar Shamayim is also feeling the outpouring of emotion and interest in Cohen. Cantor Gideon Zelermyer, who performed on Cohen’s final album, told me it’s now common for strangers — Montrealers and tourists, Jewish and non-Jewish — to come to the synagogue for its connection with Cohen. Some even ask if they can attend a service where he had his bar mitzvah 70 years ago.
‘Montrealers like a winner’
Montreal documentary filmmaker Eric Scott, who has researched past French-Canadian anti-Semitism for one of his films, is not surprised the city is showing such effusive praise and affection for a Jew.
“Montrealers, even anti-Semitic ones, embrace Montreal smoked meat and Montreal bagels,” says Scott, 65.
“Why? Because they’re delicious and world class. Montrealers like a winner. And Cohen was a winner, just like the city’s hockey team in its heyday. He ‘made it’ on the international scene with music and poetry that transcend linguistic barriers.
“He didn’t piss off Quebec nationalists. He never got involved in that debate. He sang the odd song in French and spoke French to his Montreal audiences. ‘Suzanne’ [his famous song] was about Suzanne Verdal, one of theirs. What’s not to like?” Scott says.
Although her first language is French, Montreal-born Josée Plamondon has had a decades-long affinity for Cohen dating back to her days as a college student. She too is not surprised her city is embracing so warmly someone from a minority community.
“Except for a few bigots, I don’t think Montrealers define themselves by their faith,” says Plamondon, 55, a digital content and metadata specialist who’s always lived in Montreal and last year visited Cohen’s grave in the cemetery not far from her home in the Mile End neighborhood.
“He’s part of Montreal’s history as a great artist, both reflecting and adding to the city’s rich cultural mix,” she says. “Many prominent Montrealers who’ve contributed to the academic, commercial, artistic and scientific development of the city and who we’re proud of have come from the Jewish community, like Cohen.
“That community, originally mostly immigrants from Eastern Europe, has made a positive impact, even on what we eat. Many French Canadians have adopted Jewish foods like stuffed cabbage, smoked meat sandwiches, and pickled cucumbers and beets,” says Plamondon.
A major museum exhibition and tribute concert
Nearly three years in development, Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything is a collection of new works by local and international artists inspired by his life and work. The show’s name is derived from his 1992 song, “Anthem,” which includes the oft-cited line, “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
Filmmaker Ari Folman is the lone Israeli represented at the exhibition.
During a media preview, Folman told journalists of his initiation to Cohen’s work in 1972 when he was nine years old growing up in Haifa.
“One day, when my oldest sister was 18, her boyfriend dumped her and she went into a deep depression,” said Folman, best known for his 2008 animated film, “Waltz with Bashir.” “She locked herself in a room for weeks and played one record on her turntable incessantly: ‘Songs of Leonard Cohen,’ his first album.
“The whole family stood outside her bedroom day after day for hours, afraid she’d harm herself. As long as she kept playing the record, we knew she was alive. Eventually, she came out. Ever since, I’ve associated Cohen with an all-embracing, even sweet, melancholy that gives you a feeling of home and of ‘leave-me-alone-for-a-while, I-need-some-time-to-myself,’” Folman said.
As such, maybe it’s not surprising Folman called his contribution to the exhibition Depression Chamber. It’s in the first room on the right before entering the exhibition. Visitors experience it one-at-a-time in a closed, darkened space. Lying on their back, they listen to Cohen’s 1971 song “Famous Blue Raincoat” while viewing an animated black-and-white interpretation of its lyrics on the ceiling.
“I chose ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ because I felt it’s Cohen’s most depressing song,” says Folman, 55. “While the text may not be that depressing, the way he sings it and the composition make the song a real downer.”
The idea for the exhibition dates back to 2014, when Cohen was still very much alive. At the time, the committee planning Montreal’s 375th birthday events for 2017 approached the MAC to see if they could mount something special as part of the anniversary celebrations.
“I was wracking my brain,” MAC’s Chief Curator and Director John Zeppetelli told The Times of Israel a few days before the opening. “Who could we celebrate in the museum that met the committee’s criteria — Montreal, building bridges and a global perspective. I couldn’t think of another figure who was so identified with Montreal but also as planetary as Leonard Cohen.
The show has attracted considerable interest and attendance from both French- and English-speaking Montrealers, reflecting his cross-cultural appeal.
Unlike fellow prominent Montreal Jewish writer Mordechai Richler (who died in 2001), Cohen was not a divisive figure. Richler, who angered some Jews by his portrayal of his co-religionists in his novels, was famously outspoken against Quebec nationalists, earning the ire of many French Canadians.
“Leonard is loved universally by all communities,” says Zeppetelli, 56, a native Montrealer. “I can’t quite put my finger on it. It’s just the way he incarnates a certain kind of Montreal. He’s a kind of cosmopolitan figure who’s comfortable in both languages and has a certain elegance in his manner and the way he’s become almost an ambassador of Montreal. We take great pride in the fact he’s an international icon.”
His iconic status was evident on the eve of the first anniversary of his death when numerous Canadian and international musical luminaries took part in a sold-out tribute concert at the Bell Center. More than 17,000 people packed what is normally a hockey arena, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard and Valérie Plante who made history the night before when she was elected Montreal’s first-ever woman mayor.
The concert seemed as emotional for the audience as for the performers who included Sting, Elvis Costello, Courtney Love, Feist, k.d. lang and Lana del Rey. Often accompanied by a 25-piece orchestra and three female back-up singers, they performed 22 songs from Cohen’s illustrious repertoire spanning the past 50 years. All sang with passion and great reverence, giving the distinct impression they were honored to be part of the event.
Cohen dominated the evening through his songs, recorded spoken words, and photographs, videos, paintings, poetry and self-portraits projected on screens above and next to the stage.
His 45-year-old son, Adam, a gifted singer and musician in his own right, co-produced and performed at the event which he said represented the end of a year of mourning in keeping with Jewish tradition.
Five songs into the concert, Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie appeared onstage. They spoke with great respect for Cohen, the most famous and internationally admired Jew Canada has ever produced.
“Leonard was an extraordinary Canadian but he was a giant of Montreal,” Trudeau said before Sophie added, “As Montrealers, we like to think Leonard belongs to us, but let’s remember he belongs to the world.”
Such an evening wouldn’t have been complete without some lighter moments given how humor was an essential part of Cohen’s sensibility. Several video clips highlighted his self-deprecating wit and comedian/actor Seth Rogen generated much laughter with his monologue.
Although Cohen lived for many years in Los Angeles, which is where he died at age 82, Montreal remained an inseparable part of his being. His son has said his father was always suspicious about people who didn’t like Montreal.
In 2006, Cohen told an interviewer, “I feel at home when I’m in Montreal in a way I don’t feel anywhere else. I don’t know what it is but the feeling gets stronger as I get older.”
That enduring passion for his hometown was a part of a beautiful love story that helped define him. Today the city is reciprocating that emotion, exalting one of its nice Jewish boys to a near-holy stature.