Montreal cantor helps Leonard Cohen on road back to his Jewish roots
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'He is realizing that there is more road behind him than there is ahead'

Montreal cantor helps Leonard Cohen on road back to his Jewish roots

With back-up singers including Cantor Gideon Zelermyer and the Congregation Shaar Hashomayim men's choir, the soon-to-be-released 'You Want It Darker' is 82-year-old songster's most Jewish -- and some say best -- work

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Leonard Cohen in concert at London’s O2 Arena, September 15, 2013. (Brian Rasic/Getty Images/JTA)
Leonard Cohen in concert at London’s O2 Arena, September 15, 2013. (Brian Rasic/Getty Images/JTA)

What critics and fans are calling Leonard Cohen‘s darkest song yet has turned out to be a bright spot in a Montreal cantor’s career.

“You Want It Darker” — the first track released this week from the 82-year-old Cohen’s new album of the same name — features the voice of Cantor Gideon Zelermyer of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, the oldest and largest traditional Ashkenazi congregation in Canada.

While the 40-year-old Zelermyer told The Times of Israel he was astounded to have been personally asked by the legendary poet and singer-songwriter to sing on the album, the collaboration did not come totally out of the blue. Cohen and the cantor have been corresponding for the past eight or nine years, mainly exchanging birthday and holiday greetings. The epistolary relationship began after Cohen’s aunt sent him some of the cantor’s CDs with Shaar Hashomayim’s professional all-male choir’s music. Cohen sent Zelermyer his compliments.

“He always signs his notes to me, ‘Fraternally, Eliezer’ — Eliezer being his Hebrew name,” the cantor shared.

Cantor Gideon Zelermyer (Dominic Fulzzotto)
Cantor Gideon Zelermyer (Dominic Fulzzotto)

According to Zelermyer, Cohen was clearly looking to literally return to his own Jewish roots with this album. While in the past the Montreal-born Cohen has backed up his gravelly vocals with female voices, this time he wanted the sonorities of the male cantors and choirs he heard in his youth to match his new lyrics, drawn from traditional Jewish liturgy such as the Kaddish and Selichot prayers.

“‘You Want It Darker’ has the word ‘Hineni’ [‘I am here’ — Abraham’s words to God at the binding of Isaac, a motif seen before in Cohen’s work] in it. The first place Leonard heard a cantor sing ‘Hineni’ or ‘Who By Fire,’ or a choir sing ‘Halleluyah,’ was at Shaar Hashomayim,” Zelermyer said.

Cohen’s family has long been involved at the synagogue, and some of its members still attend services there. His grandfather and great-grandfather served as presidents of the congregation, which was established in 1846. Cohen himself had his bar mitzvah ceremony there, and a photo of him with his 1949 Hebrew school class still hangs in the synagogue’s building in Westmount, Quebec. After his father died, Cohen recited Kaddish for him at Shaar Hashomayim.

Zelermyer, an American who studied in Israel and has lived in Montreal for 15 years, told The Times of Israel that he met Cohen in person only once, at Cohen’s uncle’s funeral some years ago.

They did not meet while working on “You Like It Darker,” as Cohen recorded the album in Los Angeles, while Zelermeyer and the Shaar Hashomayim’s choir recorded their part in a Montreal studio under the supervision of Cohen’s son Adam, who served as the project’s producer.

From left: Roi Azoulay, Adam Cohen and Cantor Gideon Zelermyer (Courtesy)
From left: Roi Azoulay, Adam Cohen and Cantor Gideon Zelermyer (Courtesy)

Following Cohen’s request to Zelermyer for a moody, dark atmosphere for the backup vocals for the song, Shaar Shomayim choir director Roi Azoulay and the choristers put together a musical arrangement based on the lead vocals and basic melodic chords provided them by Cohen. Zelermyer offered a dramatic cantorial improvisation, which ended up being placed at the end of the final version of the song.

Zelermyer and the choir also appear on another of the new album’s tracks, “It Seemed the Better Way.” This, too, is a rather dark track, on which the Shaar Hashomayim musical team matched a violin motif to the traditional Priestly Blessing.

“It’s an homage to Leonard’s being a kohen. He often holds his hands out Spock-like to the audience at his concerts,” Zelermyer said, making reference to the Star Trek appropriation of the traditional Jewish benediction.

“You Want It Darker,” in which Cohen addresses God directly, takes him and his listeners to a very dark place. The chorus goes as follows:

If you are the dealer
I’m out of the game
If you are the healer
I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory
Then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame

Zelermyer, who is proud of Shaar Hashomayim’s rich and long musical history and of the way cantorial music can provide spiritual uplift, said he nonetheless completely understood where Cohen is coming from with this title track, and indeed the entire album. The timing of the album’s release in this season is obvious to him.

‘We are about to enter the period of the Jewish year with the darkest, most fatalistic liturgy,’

“We are about to enter the period of the Jewish year with the darkest, most fatalistic liturgy,” said Zelermyer about the High Holidays.

“We all go through dark times. Leonard is facing old age and the end of his career. Perhaps he is having health problems, but I won’t speculate about that. He is realizing that there is more road behind him than there is ahead.”

The cantor also understands Cohen’s sentiments in the song given the current state of the world.

“The song is about God wanting it darker, but it also says that we are responsible for what happens, for killing the flame,” Zelermyer asserted.

Cantor Gideon Zelermyer and Adam Cohen (first row, second and third from left) in Montreal recording studio with Shaar Hashomayim choir, working on new Leonard Cohen album, 'You Want It Darker.' (Courtesy)
Cantor Gideon Zelermyer and Adam Cohen (first row, second and third from left) in Montreal recording studio with Shaar Hashomayim choir, working on new Leonard Cohen album, ‘You Want It Darker.’ (Courtesy)

There is no talk yet about any further collaboration between Cohen and the cantor, who enjoys stepping off the from the bimah from time to time to record movie soundtracks, and to perform in venues such as the United Nations or with mainstream musical bodies such as Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal.

However, in the meantime, Zelermyer is enjoying the widespread attention this project has generated.

“I’m in Rolling Stone, Billboard, and Maclean’s — it’s amazing. I was just interviewed for the radio. I never expected this would be so big. The song has received a universal positive response,” he said.

Zelermyer believes that with “You Want It Darker,” Cohen, who may have just recorded his final album, is making a clear statement that he is a son of Montreal and of Shaar Hashomayim.

The cantor couldn’t be prouder to have have done his part to amplify the message.

“You Want It Darker” will be in stores on October 21.

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