Michael Epstein, San Francisco, USA

1972. Nixon was in China, and I, on a late evening train from Copenhagen to Elsinore, Denmark, am sitting across from a young woman, who ecstatically tells me she’s just been part of an incredible concert event. The power had gone out, plunging the auditorium into a Nordic winter’s darkness. But magic had been afoot: people lit candles, and the performer had insisted the concert go on, inviting the audience to share the stage with him.

She says this is no ordinary man, but a magical poet-singer who speaks to her soul. She implores me to listen to his music especially the words. I, who never like anyone telling me what to do, never regret taking her advice that long ago night.

Forward 28 years. It is September 2000. I am with my father Joseph, who lies dying in a hospital bed, whispering the Yiddish of his parents. My sweetheart Suzanne Holland is next to me, holding Joseph’s hand, comforting us with a tender Hebrew folk song. Now it is I who invite Leonard Cohen onto that darkened stage: Again and again, his voice reassures from the CD player; “If It Be Your Will, that I speak no more, and my voice be still, as it was before” It brings these sad and holy moments strength, solace and wisdom as graceful and green as a stem.

Back three months. Suzanne Holland is on the stage at McGill University bringing tears to the eyes of Montreal Eventgoers, with a magical performance of “Suzanne”. She becomes the symbol of the Event, of beauty and longing, perseverence and transcendence, and we all want to travel with her, and we want to travel blind.

After Montreal, Suzanne and I visit my father in Connecticut. He wants to know more about “this Cohen guy”. In the last video of my father, he is reading out loud a newspaper description of the Montreal 2000 Event.

Now, mind and memories are in full, delicious retreat:

In the 60’s. I learned everyone was chosen --. The Jews, the Germans, the Americans, the South Vietnamese. I felt very unchosen. Later, I would read in a poem,“History is a needle, for putting men asleep. Anointed with the poison of all they wish to keep”, As it did during my father’s death, Leonard Cohen’s needle of black ink had again pierced below the surface into the marrow of truth. For me, the black ink whitened and lightened my soul, its insight and comfort helping me stay awake and honest during trying times.

Further back. The early 60’s. I was the smallest, and maybe shyest kid in my Hebrew School class, terrified that I wouldn’t remember my Bar Mitzvah chanting, whose Hebrew had never been explained to me. Today I know better, and hum “It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift”, and am comforted in knowing that even King David could be baffled when singing Halleluyah before the Lord.

Finally, the late 50’s. I was nine years old, and the story of Abraham and Isaac confused and frightened me. Today, as the seas of violence again turn red in the Holy Land, Leonard Cohen speaks clearly and compassionately to me and my beloved, estranged Islamic, Jewish and Christian brothers and sisters: “You who build these altars now, to sacrifice the children, you must not do it any more. . . mercy on our uniform, man of peace, man of war.”

Bob Dylan sang “Lenny Bruce was bad, he was the brother you never had.”, I second this affirmation of goodness with my own verse: “Leonard Cohen is bad. He is the Rabbi I never had”.

Peace and good cheer to us all in Hydra 2002, and beyond!

Photos © Jarkko Arjatsalo (Espoo, Finland, July 2002)

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