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Culture & Entertainment Nov 10, 2017

Archbishop, rabbi find harmony in Leonard Cohen songbook

By Frank Flegel

Rabbi Jeremy Parnes and Archbishop Donald Bolen discuss Leonard Cohen Oct. 26 in Regina.  (Frank Flegel / The Prairie Messenger)

REGINA (CCN)—"A rabbi and a bishop walked into a synagogue," began Beth Jacob Synagogue president Barry Braitman as he welcomed a full house for an evening of Leonard Cohen's as reviewed by Regina Archbishop Donald Bolen and Rabbi Jeremy Parnes.

The two men are fans of Cohen's music and, at the invitation of Archbishop Bolen, he and Parnes presented videos of Cohen's music and took turns analyzing and discussing what influenced Cohen's music and lyrics. It is of particular interest to the two because Cohen, an observant Jew, composed lyrics and music that often contain Christian themes and symbolism.

The evening began with Hallelujah, one of Cohen's best-known compositions. 

"I hadn't paid much attention to his music until I heard k.d. lang sing Hallelujah at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics," Parnes admitted.

Parnes and Archbishop Bolen talked about the verses as reflections of human frailty, brokenness, hope, and praises to God, ending with allusions to Psalm 150. Archbishop Bolen commented that Cohen is said to have composed over 80 verses to the song, most of which were never made public. 

They continued with The Window (1979), Come Healing (2012), Who By Fire (1974), Treaty (2016), and You Want it Darker (2016), which Parnes said was Cohen acknowledging that he was coming to the end of his life. There was also an excerpt from Book of Mercy (1984), which Archbishop Bolen called "a stunningly beautiful prayer."

The event was held Oct. 26, the first anniversary of Cohen's death according to the Jewish calendar. When the discussion was finished everyone was asked to stand. Parnes then chanted a traditional memorial prayer, following which everyone sang Hallelujah.

A reception with light refreshments ended the evening. Audience member Lyn Goldman said the evening gave her a much broader understanding of Cohen's work: "It certainly enlightened me about Leonard's work and his deeper thoughts." Goldman said she wasn't familiar with the biblical context or prayers, "but you can see they are actually relevant all the way through." 

Dave Bamford, another audience member, said there was a religious element in all Cohen's writing, "going way back," especially in his final album: "You can tell he is talking about bringing all religions together. He speaks not as a Christian or a Jew; he is everything."

In an interview with the Prairie Messenger following the presentation, both the archbishop and the rabbi described Cohen as an ordinary, humble man of faith who used his music to speak to the world. 

"To speak to us not only about meaning but also calling us to ask questions, pointing to darkness, and calling us to light. There is a deep hope embedded in his writings. He is a person of faith," said Archbishop Bolen. 

Parnes commented: "He really needed, first of all, to make some meaning of life and a big part of that meant challenging and accepting the Higher Authority and understanding it's not just the good and the bad but all of it together; he embraced all of that. It is remarkable."

The Prairie Messenger