Leonard Cohen was born and raised in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

Cohen was raised in a traditional Jewish family. His maternal grandfather was a rabbi and Jewish scholar with whom the songwriter studied in his childhood.1 And that should be no surprise to Cohen fans. His music and poetry are laced with biblical references that go far beyond that of your average musician, delving deeply into Bible stories and biblical metaphor.2

He’s carried his Jewish faith with him throughout his life, regularly observing the Sabbath.3 Even after he started studying Zen Buddhism he said,

I’m not looking for a new religion. I’m quite happy with the old one, with Judaism.4

And Cohen’s study of Zen wasn’t just a weekend project. He lived at a Buddhist monastery for five years5 and became a fully ordained monk in 1996.6

About reconciling Buddhism and Judaism, Cohen said,

Well, for one thing, in the tradition of Zen that I’ve practiced, there is no prayerful worship and there is no affirmation of a deity. So theologically there is no challenge to any Jewish belief.7

Politics in Song

As far as politics go, Cohen does not often insert himself overtly into political discourse, but he hasn’t completely removed himself either. His song “Story of Isaac” is commonly viewed as a criticism of the Vietnam War,8 admonishing fathers for sacrificing their sons to the war just as Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son:

You who build these altars now/ To sacrifice these children,/ You must not do it anymore./ A scheme is not a vision.9

His most overtly political song, “Democracy,” which came out in 1992, is a tribute to the messy, ugly, and beautiful process that is modern democracy. Cohen manages to stay neutral to partisanship however:

I’m sentimental, if you know what I mean/ I love the country but I can’t stand the scene./ And I’m neither left or right/ I’m just staying home tonight,/ getting lost in that hopeless little screen.10

Cohen’s most focused political action is centered on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, which is no doubt a personal cause for him as a Jew. The musician spent time with the Israeli army playing performances for troops during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Then in 2009, he returned to the country to play a show billed as “A Concert for Reconciliation, Tolerance and Peace.” Cohen donated the proceeds from his concert to groups working to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians.11

  1. The Childhood Of Leonard Cohen. Heck of a Guy. []
  2. Leonard Cohen: Poet, Prophet, Eternal Optimist. My Jewish Learning. []
  3. Leonard Cohen: Poet, Prophet, Eternal Optimist. My Jewish Learning. []
  4. Leonard Cohen: Poet, Prophet, Eternal Optimist. My Jewish Learning. []
  5. Leonard Cohen’s Zen Sensuality. The New Yorker. []
  6. The Ordination of the Artist Formerly Known as Leonard Cohen. Leonard Cohen Files. []
  7. Leonard Cohen Returns to the Road, for Reasons Both Practical and Spiritual. New York Times. []
  8. Songs from a Room. Wikipedia. []
  9. Leonard Cohen – Story of Isaac. Song Meanings. []
  10. LEONARD COHEN LYRICS – Democracy. AZ Lyrics. []
  11. Leonard Cohen’s Legacy for His Concert in Israel. New York Times. []