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Harry Freedman on Leonard Cohen: The Mystical Roots of Genius

Leonard Cohen's music is rich with allusions to Jewish, Zen Buddhist, and Christian traditions. In this virtual conversation co-presented with City Lights bookstore, author Harry Freedman discusses his new book Leonard Cohen: The Mystical Roots of Genius with Dan Libenson from the podcast Judaism Unbound. Journey with them as they explore the ethos, origins, and traditions of Cohen's lyrics, and look deep into the soul and imagination of one of the greatest singers and lyricists of our time. 

This program was presented partnership with City Lights and JArts Boston and was originally presented via Zoom on January 30, 2022. 

About the speakers
Headshot of Harry Freedman
Harry Freedman

Harry Freedman is a Jewish and Aramaic scholar who has a passion for the music and lyrics. He is the author of The Talmud: A Biography and Kabbalah: Secrecy, Scandal and the Soul.

Headshot of Dan Libenson
Dan Libenson

Dan Libenson is the founder and president of Judaism Unbound, a digitally driven, radically open center for education, experimentation, and connection, serving as a catalyst for an entirely new era of Judaism. Since 2016, Dan has co-hosted the Judaism Unbound Podcast, one of the most-listened-to Jewish podcasts with over 1.5 million downloads to date, which promotes and explores creativity and innovation at the cutting edge of American Jewish life. Dan also directs Judaism Unbound’s newest project, The UnYeshiva, a center for Jewish learning and unlearning, which offers live and asynchronous classes and workshops on a wide variety of Jewish topics, aimed at empowering a new creative class of Jewish laypeople. Dan also co-hosts a weekly videocast called The Oral Talmud and is the translator of The Orchard by renowned Israeli novelist Yochi Brandes, a novel about the early days of Rabbinic Judaism. He spent over a decade working with Jewish students on campus, at Harvard and at the University of Chicago, for which he received numerous awards, including Hillel’s Exemplar of Excellence Award and an AVI CHAI Fellowship. Dan is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, and he taught law for five years. He lives in Chicago with his wife, two children, and two dogs.

About the Exhibition

Through his poetry, novels, songs, and lyrics, Leonard Cohen expressed the complexities and desires of body and soul—a compelling metaphor for the twenty-first century Jewish experience. An observant Jew, Cohen also deeply explored Buddhism and various other worldviews. His commitment to questions of spirituality and existence shines through in songs such as “Suzanne,” “Bird on a Wire,” and “Hallelujah,” which masterfully combine mystery and universality with sacred and profane, and are now imprinted on our collective memory. Experience Cohen’s legacy like never before—through the eyes of contemporary artists George Fok, Judy Chicago, Candice Breitz, and Marshall Trammell.

Black-and-white image of Leonard Cohen, sitting on a train and looking towards the camera
Courtesy Old Ideas, LLC


Lead Sponsorship of Experience Leonard Cohen is generously provided by Craig Newmark Philanthropies.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum (The CJM) thanks Maribelle and Stephen Leavitt, The Bernard Osher Foundation, Suzanne and Elliott Felson, the Irving and Eleanor Jaffe Foundation, the John Pritzker Family Fund, Taube Philanthropies, Kendra and Tom Kasten, and Jessica Silverman for generously supporting the exhibition.

Media Sponsorship is provided by the San Francisco Chronicle. In-kind support is provided by Where the Buffalo Roam.

Public Programs at The CJM are made possible thanks to generous support from Grants for the Arts and the Walter & Elise Haas Fund.