Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen has died, age 82

leonard-cohen On Monday 7 November, one of music’s most eloquent and able songwriters passed away. Leonard Cohen was 82 when he died peacefully at his home in southern California earlier this week. His son Adam said touchingly in an interview with Rolling Stone, “My father passed away peacefully at his home in Los Angeles with the knowledge that he had completed what he felt was one of his greatest records. He was writing up until his last moments with his unique brand of humour."

The record Adam is speaking about is You Want it Darker, which was recently released (21 Oct) and effused the sincere, gravelly tones and orchestral movements he was so well known for. 

Born in Westmount, Quebec on 21 September 1934, Cohen grew up in a middle-class Jewish family. Marsha Klonitsky, his mother, was the daughter of a rabbi, while his father, Nathan Cohen, had Polish heritage – his father Lyon Cohen having emigrated from Poland in 1871 and later founding the Canadian Jewish Congress.

While at high school Cohen picked up an appreciation of poetry and by age 20 had published his first poems in a magazine called CIV/n. It wasn’t until the 60s, however, that Cohen began life as a musician. In 1967 he moved to New York, befriended Andy Warhol and penned the song Suzanne, which was to be his first successful foray into the world of music.

Despite a prolific, 60-year career, Cohen never charted highly in the mainstream. His highest ranking song in Canada, Closing Time, reached Number Five, while in the UK it was only the reissue of Hallelujah that ever charted at position 36.

Originally released in 1984, Hallelujah has become the song Cohen is most renowned for. The singer never had much success with it himself, but it was remarkably covered over 300 times, most notably by the late US singer Jeff Buckley, who scored a Number One hit with it.

As well as music, Cohen was also known as an accomplished author. Over the years he published two novels – The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966) – and 13 anthologies of poetry. 

Eleven albums down the line, in 2005, Cohen was in the public eye for something other than his art after his close friend and manager Kelly Lynch was exposed for misappropriating over $5m from Cohen’s accounts. This hefty loss formed a big part of Cohen’s reasons for writing new music and touring again.

Earlier this year Cohen’s former lover Marianne Ihlen died. She was the Marianne of the song So Long, Marianne, which Cohen wrote about her when the pair dated and lived in Hydra, Greece for much of the 60s. Shortly before Marianne passed Cohen penned her a heartfelt letter saying: “Marianne it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.”

The world has lost a truly talented spirit that will live on in Leonard Cohen’s songs, poetry and legacy.

By Danielle Goldstein

British playwright Sir Arnold Wesker died aged 83 on April 12th: JR's arts editor Judi Herman recalls the pleasure and privilege of sharing lunch and confidences with the great man

Sir Arnold Wesker Sir Arnold Wesker, who has died at the age of 83, first came to prominence in the late 1950s as one of the playwrights dubbed ‘Angry Young Men’, though he later rejected this label. I would say advisedly so, for his famous trilogy of plays drawing on his background in the Jewish East End and upbringing in a family with a strong Communist identity, introduced one of the most memorable positive heroines of post-war literature. Beatie Bryant, the Norfolk-born heroine of the middle play in the trilogy, Roots (the first being Chicken Soup with Barley, and the last is I’m Talking About Jerusalem).

I was lucky enough to meet Sir Arnold when Roots was wonderfully revived at the Donmar Warehouse in 2013 and I was invited to meet this great, delightful and erudite man at the Brighton home he shared with his beloved wife, the supremely resourceful and devoted Dusty, on whom the radiant Beatie was modelled. I say invited, because the hugely hospitable Dusty made what she called "a light lunch", to which my husband Steve was also invited and it was truly memorable – both for Dusty’s cooking and for the conversation over lunch. And that’s on top of what I was privileged to record for JR OutLoud with Arnold while lunch was cooking, when he spoke at length about the inspiration for Roots and much more about his life and work.

Arnold was still supremely articulate despite the Parkinson’s Disease that dogged his later years. I had also had the pleasure of speaking to him on the phone some years before about Shylock, his take on The Merchant of Venice, in which Shylock and the Merchant of Venice are close and supportive friends and the pound of flesh the result of a nonsensical bond, genuinely made as a gesture to the draconian Venetian authorities, that goes horribly wrong. But meeting him in person and being welcomed into their home by this wonderfully complementary pair will always be a very special memory for me. My heart goes out to Dusty and I am sure all readers will join with me in wishing her long life.

By Judi Herman

Listen to Sir Arnold Wesker discuss his life and works in 2013 on JR OutLoud.

Pioneering Jewish historian David Cesarani passed away aged 58 this week – JR editor Rebecca Taylor recalls their first meeting

David Cesarani 2015 We were so sad to hear of the death of the pioneering historian David Cesarani on October 25. He contributed over the years to Jewish Renaissance, but here JR editor Rebecca Taylor recalls her first meeting with him at the legendary Kosher Luncheon Club in London's East End.

I first met David Cesarani in the late-1980s. I must have been about 20-years-old and was writing my final-year dissertation for my English degree at Cambridge University. I had chosen a geekily obscure area of literature to focus on – a body of work with political leanings that emerged from the Jewish East End in the 1930s. It focused on novels such as Simon Blumenfeld's Jew Boy and William Goldman's East End My Cradle, which grappled with relating the immigrant experience alongside experimenting with the new forms of modernist writing, and pitched all this against a background of political debate about how the 'working class' should best be represented artistically.

David suggested we meet at the Kosher Luncheon Club canteen on Whitechapel's Greatorex Street. With its mix of customers in cloth caps or kippah, brusque waiters and sky blue paper tablecloths, the canteen was an East End institution – and something of an eye-opener for a girl from the deepest depths of south London.

Over plates of fried fish I explained to David what I wanted to explore and he patiently and kindly listened. Already at the forefront of work with the All-Party Parliamentary War Crimes Group that was investigating Nazis who had come to live in the UK, and a leading figure in Holocaust education, he was just about to take up the post of director of the Weiner Library. But he treated my half-formed theories and un-focused questionswith absolute seriousness.

He had already written an insightful essay on the East End background to Blumenfeld's Jew Boy, which had appeared in the London Journal, and he was a wealth of information on the period (his excellent book, The Making of Modern Anglo-Jewry appeared soon after we met), but more than that he encouraged me to interview the writers – Willy Goldman was still alive at that time – and speak to others such as the historian Professor Bill Fishman who had also lived the period. He was generous with his ideas and contacts, afterwards sending memos and notes with follow up information. Looking through my old college folders recently I found a detailed list that David had carefully written up for me of books and archives that I should pursue, as well as contacts for historians such as Ken Worpole and Brian Cheyette.

And arranging the meeting in the canteen was genius – the perfect antidote to long days of locking myself away in the university library, picking through treatise on social realism in yellowing 1930s copies of the Left Review. Like all the best historians, David knew how to bring the past to life – and just in time – the canteen closed down a few years after our fried fish meal.

I only encountered David again years later when I became involved in JR in 2014. He had written for the magazine on a number of occasions on subjects such as funding for Jewish studies, and the Jewish involvement in World War I. But he was one of the first people I commissioned for the magazine, when I asked him to write about the rise of the far right in Europe in 2014. As ever he was the voice of reason and rationality, refusing to take the knee-jerk reaction that European antisemitism was unequivocally on the rise.

His last piece for us was an eloquent and affectionate obituary in April's issue following the death of Bill Fishman. I never imagined that I would soon be writing one for David. He will be sadly missed by the Jewish community and far beyond.

By Rebecca Taylor

You can read more about the life and work of David Cesarani on The JC, Guardian and Forward websites.

"An extraordinary man" – Judi Herman reports on the sad passing of humanitarian Sir Nicholas Winton

sir nicholas winton Sir Nicholas George Winton MBE 19 May 1909 – 1 July 2015

At the age of 106, Sir Nicholas Winton peacefully passed away in his sleep at Wexham Park Hospital on 1 July 2015. The poignant day also marked 76 years since 241 children – of the 669 Sir Nicky saved from Czechoslovakia – evacuated Prague by train. Sir Nicky was a true humanitarian; on the eve of the Second World War he instigated the Czech Kindertransport, which saw hundreds of children escape safely to homes that Sir Nicky had arranged for them in Britain. For this selfless act Czech President Miloš Zeman awarded Sir Nicky the highest honour of the Czech Republic, the Order of the White Lion (1st class).

In May 2003 I had the honour of meeting this extraordinary man. Sir Nicky was in his mid-90s at the time and I was lucky enough to be asked to make a feature for BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour with Sir Nicky and the daughter of one of his "children", pilot Judy Leden, a world champion microlight flyer. She had planned a very special treat for his 94th birthday – a spin in a microlite aircraft. It made Sir Nicky the oldest person to fly in a microlight and by doing so he raised money for one of his favourite charities, Abbeyfield, who provide housing and support for the elderly.

Recording their in-flight conversation as they circled his Berkshire home was quite a challenge, but a total joy. I got to record him at his home afterwards too and he was witty, charming and welcoming – a truly great human being.

By Judi Herman