- Tell us about your grandfathers. We understand they
wrote some books.
- Both my grandfathers were distinguished. My mother's
father, Rabbi Solomon Klinitsky-Klein, was known as Sar haDikdook,
the prince of grammarians. He wrote a thesaurus of talmudic
interpretations and a dictionary of synonyms and homonyms.
- Are they still available?
- They are, at least they were, used in institutions of
higher learning until Israel took over the grammatical
institutions. My grandfather was a wonderful man. My mother
always used to tell me that people came from a hundred miles to
hear him speak. He was a disciple of Yitzhak Elchanan. In
fact, he closed his teacher's eyes when he died. He was the
principal of a yeshiva in Kovno. He also had a very strong
secular side to him. He was a confrontational teacher, especially
when he got to New York. He became part of The Forward and that
group of Yiddish writers.
- And your other grandfather?
- My other grandfather was also a very distinguished man who
founded many of the institutions that defined Jewish life in
Canada. He was vice president of the first Zionist organization
in Canada. He also made a trip to the Holy Land. He met Baron de
Hirsch, and planned and established the first Colonization
Society for Canada, whose aim was to settle the Jewish refugees
in the prairie provinces and on farms. He was also the founder of
the first Anglo-Jewish newspaper in North America. I think it was
called the Anglo-Jewish Times in Montreal. And he was one of the
founders of the Shaar Shamayim synagogue in Montreal.
- Was he also involved int he Jewish Public Library?
- Yes, he was although that was a different branch of
Montreal, a different expression of Montreal Judaism. I remember
reading speeches of his where he spoke with great pride that the
Jewish community of Montreal had absorbed its refugees from
Kishinev without ever asking the municipality or the government
for a single cent. Montreal Jewry was very well organized, and
I'm proud to say he was one of the organizers of these
institutions. The Baron de Hirsch Foundation was one of his
undertakings, as well as the Zionist Organization, the B'nai
B'rith, the founding of the Jewish General Hospital,the Hebrew
Free Loan Society, and all the institutions connected
with Shaar Shamayim.
- I have a second cousin who grew up in Budapest. when I
met her for the first time, in Budapest, she spoke English to me.
I asked her where she had learned it and she said, "Cohen." She
showed me your albums and said that was the way she learned
English. Then I went to Warsaw, where I met a young woman whom I
spent the day with. I asked her, "What kind of music do you
like?" She said, "Cohen." Why do you think it is that you have
this following in Eastern Europe?
- I did a tour of Poland before the solidarity government
was established. I discovered that Poland was probably my largest
audience in the world. Unfortunately, they paid me in zlotys,
which were, as you know, not transferrable. At times when my
so-called career in the West almost evaporated in most places,
there was always this following in Poland and Eastern Europe.
I don't know why. My great-grandfather came from Wylkowyski,
which was part of Poland at the time. I was very pleased to be
able to say that I came from Poland, although they really didn't
think of me as Polish. It was very interesting to go there. I
grew up out of that world in some way. Actually, when I arrived
in Greece in 1959 or 1960, I really did feel I'd come home. I
felt the village life was familiar although I'd had no experience
with village life.
- Some of the articles about you over the years have
indicated that you've dabbled or more than dabbled in various
kinds of spiritual paths. Is the line, "Did you ever go clear?"
from Famous Blue Raincoat a Scientology reference?
- It was a Scientology reference. I looked into a lot of
things. Scientology was one of them. It did not last very long.
But it is very interesting, as I continue my studies in these
matters, to see how really good Scientology was from the point of
view of their data, their information, their actual knowledge,
their wisdom writings, so to speak. It wasn't bad at all. It
is scorned, and I don't know what the organization is like today,
but it seems to have all the political residue of any large and
growing organization. Yes, I did look into that and other things.
from the Communist Party to the Republican Party, from
Scientology to delusions of myself as the High Priest rebuilding
- Where does Judaism fit in?
- Well, I became a student of a Zen monk. I remember Allen
Ginsburg saying to me at a certain point, "How do you reconcile
this with Judaism?" I said that I find no conflict myself. As you
know, there are Jewish practitioners in the Zen movement. I don't
think the two are necessarily mutually exclusive, depending on
your position. As I have received it from my teacher, there is no
conflict because there is no prayerful worship and there is no
discussion of a deity in Zen.
- So, there is room for it.
- One of the patriarchs, when asked, "What is the essence of
Zen?" replied, "Vast emptiness and nothing special." So there is
not only room for it. There is boundless space available for
whatever mental construction you happen to wish to establish.
Some time ago I became intrigued with the incoherent
ramblings of an old Zen monk who just recently said to me,
"Leonard, I have known you for twenty-five years and never tried
to give you my religion. I've just poured you saki." And I lifted
up my glass to him and said, "Rabbi, you are indeed the
light of your generation." And that's the way I feel. There is
something nonnegotiable about the absolute, some refusal to name
qualities about the absolute that fits in with my most rigorous,
or I'd say my deepest, appetites about the matters of which I was
taught. This is the purest expression of that reality that is
expressed in the Shema -- that there is only one thing going
on and don't ever even suggest that there might be something else
going on. There is an absolute unity that is manifesting itself
on this plane and on all planes and nothing can compromise that.
So Zen seems to be able to provide, at least the lineage of
this particular teacher seems to provide, a landscape on which
Jewish practitioners can manifest their deepest appetites
concerning the absolute.
- In one of your recent songs you write, "There is a
crack in everything, that's how the light gets in." This seems
like such a Jewish idea.
- Yes, I think it is.
- Is it a Zen idea also?
- I can't even locate a Zen idea. I don't know very much
about Zen or Buddhism because I have never been interested in a
new religion. When I was young I investigated various forms that
were around, you know, stuff, because it was there. You know,
you'd meet a girl or someone and go on their trip.
I remember sitting with my grandfather studying the Book of
Isaiah. He would read a passage, speak about it, and sort of nod
off, and his finger would move back to the beginning of the
passage as he slept. Then he'd awaken and start fresh with that
same verse again, and he'd read it again, and expound on it
again, and sometimes the whole evening was spent on the
exposition of the verse.
So I had a good education. Not only that but I had a clear
idea of what the implications of a Jewish life were. I saw my
family was deeply involved in the organization of a community. It
was not a theoretical thing. At the Hebrew Free Loan Society,
people could get money for free. That's the translation of
a Jewish idea into action. I saw this all the time, all around
me. I also saw my family's business being conducted at a level of
ethics and honor that I couldn't help being impressed by. So I
saw it. As I say, the ideas in Zen, I'm not sure what they are
because I've only known one old man and I don't know how
authentically he represents his tradition. I just know that
he has provided a space for me to do the kind of dance with the
Lord that I couldn't find in other places.
- Why do you think that so many of us young Jews went to
the East? What was it about Jewish life that was bankrupt or a
turn-off in some way?
- I'm a member of my synagogue, and I light the candles on
Friday night. I feel very close to the whole trip. But I don't
think we were able to develop a mediational system that could
seize and address the deep appetites of our best young people,
the people that really had to have an experience with the
We didn't take that seriously. I think that our faith is
full of atheists and agnostics. I think there are a lot of
nominal Jews around, but I don't think they really believe. Not
enough of them have really had an experience, have really been
embraced, have really felt themselves dissolve in the midst of a
prayer and felt that the prayer was praying them. I think these
are things that just exist in our literature now, and we pick up
a book by Buber or a hasidic tale and these things are hinted at,
but in the mainstream these things had the status of
superstition. I think that was a very unsatisfying condition.
Many of our brightest and best looked for it but simply couldn't
It was only after studying with my old Zen teacher for many
years, when I broke my knees and I couldn't practice in the
mediation hall, that I began practicing Judaism. I began laying
tefillin every morning and going through the Shemoneh Esrai and
really understanding that there were these eighteen steps and
that they were a ladder and that these were a way of preparing
yourself for the day if you really penetrated each of those
paragraphs. It was like starting from a very low place; you could
put your chin up on the window and actually see a world that you
could affirm. Nobody had ever talked to me that way about
anything. that idea of something passionate and nonnegotiable,
that atmosphere did not touch me in all my education. And it has
to. It does touch other groups, but those other groups seem
to have forgotten the messianic implication, which is that we are
all part of a brotherhood under the Almighty. The exclusive
elements, the nominal elements, seem to be emphasized and a kind
of scorn for the nations, for the goyim, a kind of exclusivity
that I find wholly unacceptable and many young people I know find
wholly unacceptable, is expressed. A confident people is not
exclusive. A great religion affirms other religions. A great
culture affirms other cultures. A great nation affirms other
nations. A great individual affirms other individuals, validates
the beingness of others. That has also encouraged some of our
brightest and best into affirming this connection with groups
that at least have the fire going. The tradition itself has
betrayed the tradition. The messianic unfolding has not been
affirmed and we don't have teachers that are warm in their
invitation. The mercy f the Lord is not affirmed. One side of the
tree, justice or judgement, is affirmed strongly but the other
side is not affirmed. So we need a system that will provide
experience in these matters and that is not within the confines
of an exclusive vision that affirms one element of humanity and
scorns the rest.
There was something in it [Judaism] for me. I still had to
go whoring after false gods, and maybe I'm still in the bed of
one, but there was something about what I saw. I grew up in a
Catholic city, and my Catholic friends have horror stories about
what Catholicism is, and my Jewish friends have horror stories
about what Judaism is. . .I never had them. I never rebelled
against my parents. Even when I was taking acid and living at the
Chelsea Hotel and feeling miserable about myself, it never
occurred to me once to blame my situation on my family, my city,
my religion, or my tribe. So, I always thought it was great --
what they were practicing -- and I've tried to keep it up in my
own half-assed way.
- In the Jewish Book Club, and in general, poetry is not
very popular. Why do you think that is?
- I don't think it's for everybody. In its pure form it's
like bee pollen. I feel that way about poetry. The honey of
poetry is all over the place. It is in the writing of the
National Geographic, when an idea is absolutely clear and
beautiful; it's in movies; it's all over because the taste of
significance is that which we call poetry, when something
resonates with a particular kind of significance. We may not call
it poetry but we've experienced poetry. It's got something to do
with truth and rhythm and authority and music.
I was completely hooked on the Stuff as a kid. I loved it
when I first came across it. When something was said in a certain
kind of way it seemed to embrace the cosmos. It's not just my
heart, but every heart was involved, and the loneliness was
dissolved, and you felt that you were this aching creature
in the midst of an aching cosmos, and the ache was okay. Not only
was it okay, but it was the way that you embraced the sun and the
moon. I went into pop music. I felt like that's where I could
manifest it. Just on the page wasn't going to do it for me
because I wanted to live it.
- So there's no difference between a poem and a lyric?
- It is the life that you want to lead. You can be the
subject, and poetry can be the object. You can keep the
subject/object relationship, and that's completely legitimate. It
is the point of view of the scholar. But I wanted to live this
world. When I read the psalms or when they lifted up the
Torah, that kind of thing sent a chill down my back. I wanted to
be the one who lifted up the Torah. I wanted to be in that
position. When they told me I was a Kohen, I believed it. I
didn't think it was some auxiliary information. I wanted to wear
white clothes and go into the Holy of Holies and negotiate
with the deepest resources of my soul. So I took the whole thing
seriously. I was this little kid and whatever they told me in
these matters resonated, and I wanted to be that figure who sang,
"This is the Tree of Life." I tried to become that, and that
world seemed open to me, and I was able to become that
in my own modest way. I became that little figure to myself. So
that was poetry to me, and I think it's available to everybody.
- There is a line in one of your other songs, "I'm the
little Jew who wrote the Bible."
- Exactly. You know that line rose spontaneously, and I
asked myself whether I wanted to keep it there. But this is the
way I feel.
- When we thought about inviting you to have this
conversation and we chose your book to be a selection in the
Jewish Book Club, we wondered whether you would object to being
identified as a Jewish poet. perhaps you would not want to be
"the little Jew who wrote the Bible." But obviously we are
hearing something very different.
- Oh, I am the little Jew who wrote the Bible. "You don't
know me from the wind/You never will, you never did." I'm saying
this to the nations. I'm the little Jew who wrote the Bible. I'm
that little one. "I've seen the nations rise and fall/I've heard
their stories, heard them all/But love's the only engine of
survival." I know what a people needs to survive. As I get
older I feel less modest about taking these positions because I
realize we are the ones who wrote the Bible and at our best we
inhabit a biblical landscape, and this is where we should situate
ourselves without apology. The biblical landscape is our urgent
invitation and we have to be there. Otherwise, it's really not
worth saving or manifesting, or redeeming, or anything. Now, what
is the biblical landscape? It's the victory of experience. That's
what the Bible celebrates. So the experience of these things is