Exhibit explores how Leonard Cohen embraced Buddhism, Judaism and wit
An interviewer once asked Leonard Cohen if he ever thought about changing his name. It was 1966, when ethnic wasn’t exactly in.
The singer/songwriter told her he liked the sound of September.
“Leonard September?” the prim blonde guessed.
No, he replied: “September Cohen.”
For a man who spent half a decade as a Buddhist monk, Cohen never forgot his roots. Nor, apparently, has the Jewish Museum. It’s filled three floors with “Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything,” featuring works inspired by his songs, poems and philosophy, as interpreted by artists from Hong Kong to Haifa, Paris to Berlin.
The show is a sprawling one — literally. Beanbag chairs lie here and there for you to flop into, most of them on the third floor, where you’ll hear Moby, Jarvis Cocker, Sufjan Stevens and others put their singular spin on “Suzanne,” “Take This Waltz” and more.
Although he embraced Zen — something he considered a discipline, rather than a religion — many of Cohen’s songs have Old Testament themes and the occasional Hebrew word or phrase. On “You Want it Darker,” the last album he recorded before his death in 2016, at 82, Cohen asked the cantor from his childhood synagogue to sing backup vocals.
“Bob Dylan at one point [said] Cohen’s songs were like prayers,” senior museum curator Ruth Beesch tells The Post. “Being Jewish was hard-baked into his DNA.”
So was wit. In the multi-channel video, “Passing Through” — a smorgasbord of five decades of concerts, projected on three walls at once — you’ll hear him as a 60-year-old calling himself “a kid with a crazy dream . . . I studied philosophy,” he adds, “but cheerfulness kept breaking in.”
Elsewhere, a dozen microphones dangle from the ceiling, letting you join a chorus of voices humming his “Hallelujah.” There’s also a vintage Wurlitzer organ that two artists turned into “The Poetry Machine”: Press any key, black or white, and you’ll hear Cohen read a poem from his “Book of Longing.” Press two or more keys at once, and you’ll invite a layered chorus of different poems, recited in that well-worn, sandpapery voice.
You’ll need a timed ticket to enter “Depression Chamber,” a five-minute experience geared to just one person at a time. Lying down in a small, dark room, you’ll see your image projected on the ceiling. Soon you’re immersed in Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat,” the lyrics dancing on the walls around you, the words morphing into animated fish, swimming women, Jewish stars and other favorite Cohen tropes. Up they rise, onto the ceiling, until they cover your image completely.
Depressing? Hardly. This is the rare museum show you’ll leave singing. Hallelujah!
“Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything.” Through Sept. 8 at the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave., at 92nd Street; TheJewishMuseum.org
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