Who By Fire?
It seems only too appropriate as we near Rosh Hashana tonight (Friday night) and contemplate the past and coming year, that we consider Leonard Cohen’s version of the U’Netaneh Tokef prayer which he calls, Who by Fire? Considering last year’s war on Gaza and the possibility of an Israel-Iran conflagration this year, “fire” seems an entirely apt element for us to consider:
And who by fire, who by water,
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
Who in your merry merry month of May,
Who by very slow decay,
And who shall I say is calling?
And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate,
Who in these realms of love, who by something blunt,
And who by avalanche, who by powder,
Who for his greed, who for his hunger,
And who shall I say is calling?
And who by brave assent, who by accident,
Who in solitude, who in this mirror,
Who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand,
Who in mortal chains, who in power,
And who shall I say is calling
Thanks to Rabbi Brant Rosen for coming up with this brilliant video of Cohen performing the song live TV in 1989. The performance has an absolutely scorching solo by Sonny Rollins (alav ha-shalom) on sax which opens and closes the song (the closing solo is the real scorcher). This is righteous music, Jewish soul music.
Unless you are of a certain age, Story of Issac may be less well known to you. It is one of his earlier ones (it’s on Songs from a Room, which came out in 1969 during the height of the Vietnam war) and recounts the story of the Akedah as only Leonard Cohen can. Since we read the Akedah as the Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashana, I thought it appropriate to dig up the above video.
These are the critical lyrics sung with great passion and moral conviction:
You who build these altars now
To sacrifice these children,
You must not do it anymore.
A scheme is not a vision
And you never have been tempted
By a demon or a god.
You who stand above them now,
Your hatchets blunt and bloody,
You were not there before,
When I lay upon a mountain
And my fathers hand was trembling
With the beauty of the word.
And if you call me brother now,
Forgive me if I inquire,
Just according to whose plan?
When it all comes down to dust
I will kill you if I must,
I will help you if I can.
When it all comes down to dust
I will help you if I must,
I will kill you if I can.
And mercy on our uniform,
Man of peace or man of war,
The peacock spreads his fan.
When I was a UCLA grad student in the late 1970s and helping produce a campus Jewish culture festival, I approached Cohen’s manager as I thought he would be a perfect choice to do a concert for the festival. But then I heard he was actually a practicing Buddhist. At any rate, he was somewhere off living on a mountain in Greece at the time and the concert never happened.
Cohen has gotten himself into hot water by planning to perform at a concert in Israel in violation of the cultural boycott. He tried to make amends by offering a concert in Ramallah, but the Palestinians weren’t buying and it was cancelled. He decided to go ahead with the Israeli concert and donate the proceeds to Amnesty. But when Palestinians protested this move, that group backed out. So Cohen is in the unlikely position of wanting to support Israel-Palestine peace financially in order to soothe his guilty conscience. But no one will have his lucre.
Leonard Cohen has always been an artist who stood, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes gracefully, on the cusp of political consciousness and personal, spiritual (almost mystical) introspection. It is one of the most compelling aspects of his songwriting and persona. You can even hear this in the lyrics of Who by Fire and Story of Isaac, in which he comments knowingly and wryly on humanity’s moral failings.
But the problem with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that it is far too gross and in your face for the likes of Cohen. His medium is subtle, knowing lyrics and he is the coolest of the cool. Unfortunately, when two peoples war for as long as Israelis and Palestinians have–there is no longer any subtlety. It’s all death, all blood.
Cohen is not an artist who feels comfortable choosing sides. His outlook is far too diffuse for that. He doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed as being pro or anti-anything except humanity in general terms. Yes, this is frustrating for those fighting a political battle to the death. But Cohen chooses not to join the fight. He observes it as an artist.
In all this I’m trying to give my impression of what may be at work in his mind. I am not justifying or defending. But despite any criticism that may be leveled, it doesn’t lessen him, in my view, as a seminal performer who embodies a powerful Jewish ethos in his lyrics.
So to Leonard Cohen and all my readers: Shana tovah u’metukah. A good and sweet New Year and may the peacock spread his fan.
7 thoughts on “Who By Fire? – Tikun Olam תיקון עולם إصلاح العالم”
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“Unfortunately, when two peoples war for as long as Israelis and Palestinians have–there is no longer any subtlety. It’s all death, all blood.”
I disagree. There is also much subtlety, complexity, nuance, poignancy and compassion in this conflict. And I feel that your blog often lacks this depth and perspective in its righteous anger and condemnation of Israel.
Wishing a shana tova, Ira
Of course there is that. I’m afraid it is you who is lacking subtlety in characterizing my views. You’ve been reading this blog long enough to know that there is much about poignancy & compassion in this blog. But you have to look for it very carefully in this conflict. And it isn’t prevalent. What is prevalent is the murderous rage of Lebanon & Gaza. For every Parent’s Circle there are 100 Gazas. And nothing is stopping you fr. presenting here anything you feel is missing fr. my portrait. But when you do comment you invariably don’t do that.
i’m not sure i understand the parents circle vs 100 gazas thing?
Parent’s Circle is an example of poignancy & compassion that Ira Moskowitz claims I overlook in this blog (at least if I understood his criticism correctly).
La shana tova to you too Richard.
I like that Leonard decided to perform everywhere, to take the stand that cultural boycotts are also persecutions, and determined to not participate in a persecution to protest persecution.
And, since oppression doesn’t take a holiday, make a phone call before sitting down to dinner:
At Tuwani Urgent Action: Israeli Military Fails to Protect Palestinian School Children from Settler Attack
Posted by: “CPT Tuwani” email@example.com cpt_tuwani
Thu Sep 17, 2009 7:00 am (PDT)
At-Tuwani Urgent Action:
Israeli Military Fails to Protect Palestinian School Children from Settler Attack
17 September 2009
[Note: According to the Geneva Conventions, the International Court of Justice in the Hague, and numerous United Nations resolutions, all Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) are illegal. Most settlement outposts are considered illegal under Israeli law.]
The school year in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) for 2009-2010 began on Tuesday 1 September. The school children who walk from the nearby villages of Tuba and Maghayir-al-Abeed to At-Tuwani’s elementary school continue to require a military escort in order to ensure their safety. On every day during the first three weeks of this new school year the Israeli army has failed to complete the escort as agreed in 2004, leaving the children to walk alone in an area where they have been attacked by Israeli settlers. Instead they complete only a little over half the distance of the escort.
Of the twenty-six journeys to and from school, soldiers have only walked with the children on six journeys, the other journeys they have remained in their vehicle. The soldiers have never completed the escort by escorting the children to and from the end of the Ma’on chicken barns. Remaining in their vehicle and not completing the escort leaves the children vulnerable to settler attacks and harassment. On one third of the journeys the army escort has been late, resulting in the children being late for school or having to endure a long wait after school.
The shortest route to school for the Tuba and Maghayir al Abeed children is a public road that passes between the Israeli settlement of Ma’on and the outpost of Havat Ma’on. For years, armed Israeli settlers have attacked, threatened, and harassed the children along this road. In 2004 the Israeli District Coordinating Office (the branch of the Israeli military that deals with civilian matters) agreed to provide the children with an armed escort. The Israeli Knesset (parliament) Committee for Children’s Rights endorsed the agreement.
The team now requests that concerned people make calls to the Communications office of the Southern District Commander of the Israeli Military, phone number (+ 972) 2 996 7200 *. Request Commander BenMoha to instruct the soldiers who perform the escort of the Tuba and Maghayir-al-Abeed school children to accompany the children all the way to the end of the Ma’on chicken barns and past any settlers present. Stress that this is particularly necessary because of the repeated presence of settlers in this area at the time of the children’s walk home, and remind the commander that settlers used violence against the school children on ten occasions in the 08-09 school year and already during this school year a settler has threatened the children in the area of the Ma’on chicken barns.
In addition to phone calls, the team asks that people send the IDF (Israeli army) Public Appeals office a simple message.
Please include Commander BenMoha’s name in the subject line.
Sample message: (no more than 75 words)
Subject: Request to Commander BenMoha
Palestinian school children from Tuba and Maghayir-al-Abeed must walk past militant settlers from Ma’on and Havat Ma’on to attend school in At-Tuwani. The Knesset recommended in 2004 that the IDF escort these children. In order to ensure the children’s safety soldiers must accompany them all the way past the Ma’on chicken barns and past any
settlers present. Currently soldiers are not escorting the children far enough to ensure their safety.
IDF Public Appeals Fax: +972-3-569-9400 *
IDF Public Appeals Phone: +972-3-569-1000 *
*Please check your own country’s dialing prefix for international calls.
ADDITIONAL BACKGROUND INFORMATION:
* This school year the children have been late for school on three mornings out of thirteen.
* This school year, on nine of the thirteen schooldays the children have had to wait after school for twenty minutes or more for the escort. On three days they had to wait a little over half an hour, on two days 45 minutes and on one day nearly an hour.
* On the morning of Thursday 10 September 2009, the children had to wait 20 minutes at the Ma’on chicken barns because the army escort vehicle diverted to chase Palestinian shepherds from a nearby valley. The children were late for school.
* On the morning of Monday 7 September 2009, at the end of the Ma’on chicken barns, an Israeli settler came towards the children yelling at them. The children ran part way to school.
* During the 2008-2009 school year settlers used violence against the children 10 times, two of these times the settlers threw rocks at the children.
* For a complete report on the school escort in 2007-2008, including maps, photographs and interviews with the children, please see “A Dangerous Journey” at http://www.cpt.org/files/Dangerous-Journey-Summary-2008.pdf
Great piece. I have nothing terribly deep to contribute, but wanted to let anyone interested know that Suzanne Vega did a gorgeous cover of “The Story of Isaac” that’s worth tracking down.