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HOW THE LIGHT GOT IN

December 23, 2016

 

The story of Leonard Cohen's immigrant ancestral roots in rural eastern Ontario, a modern Jewish back-to-the-land echo, and newcomers from darkness to light.

 

Of all the facts and feelings shared by friends in response to Leonard Cohen's death in November, one struck me as particularly poignant.

 

When Lazarus Cohen, Leonard's great grandfather, disembarked a trans-Atlantic ship in an east coast port two years after Canada's Confederation, he wasn't bound for Montreal, the city where Leonard would rise as a poetic patron saint.

 

No, Lazarus was heading for a pioneer settlement in eastern Ontario.

 

"My great grandfather, Lazarus Cohen, came to Canada in 1869, to the county of Glengarry, a little town in Maberly," Cohen told an adoring crowd at the Canadian consul general's residence in Los Angeles on the occasion of his 2010 Grammy award.

 

The dharma-meets-kabbalah poet, singer and sage known globally as the consummate fedora doffing Montreal hipster got the details wrong, as we tend to do with our family story. Yet, in spirit he was spot-on.

 

The Cohen's story began in the pioneer village of Maberly, in Lanark County, in the Ottawa Valley about 100-kilometres west of the nation's capital. (Glengarry is a nearby County in Ontario's southeast corner.)

 

It's a fact that struck me because I've driven by Maberly hundreds of times; glanced from Highway #7 at the remaining knot of modest buildings and homes as evocative of the past as present.

 

It's here that Lazarus' first lit shabbat candles in North America, amid the white pine and granite, the birch and running waters. An area that evokes biting blackflies, deep snow and stellar dark night skies more than urbane odes to love, loss and longing.

 

It's here that holds the story of how, in Cohen terms, the family's light first got in. The story of the transition from new Canadians to a Canadian icon.

 

And it's here that almost 150-years later a great lyrical wheel continues to spin as a new generation of Jews is drawn to the rugged beauty of Lanark County, and where another generation of global migrants are leaving darkness and finding the light of a new home.

 

---

What We Remember

 

I've learned this year that history is less what happened and more what we remember as individuals, a culture and a civilization. Recalling our great poet's rural roots has poetic, historic and political importance.

 

According to one genealogical sleuth, Lazarus Cohen was the first in his family to leave Budviecai a Lithuanian shtetl or small Jewish village, about 150 kilometres from Vilna in current day Lithuania, then part of Poland.

 

(Cohen's genealogical background is wonderfully rich, including a connection to actor William Shatner, making for, as one commentator noted, the confluence of the masters of outer and inner space. )

 

It's not known why Lazarus left, or how or why he chose Maberly, at the time a burgeoning village with several saw mills cutting the Ottawa Valley's legendary white pine and hemlock. He probably arrived by train; the Canadian Pacific Railway mainline passed nearby. Regardless, it was an experience of transformation.

 

"Lazarus was from a devout and scholarly family, a rabbi who reinvented himself as a businessman in the new world," writes Ira Nadel in the Leonard Cohen biography Various Positions of the great grandfather who found himself in the backwoods of a new nation.

 

On arrival this 25-year-old Jew from the Russian Pale of Settlement would have been an oddity. Did he speak English? He would have been feared by some, but he was also probably helped in small and important ways. Otherwise he wouldn't have survived. This is still the way of the Ottawa Valley; there's a good dose of distrust of the other, but more often than not it's overcome by the human demands of mutual neighbourly aid. At it's best, this is what it is to build a country.

 

According to author Nadel, two years later Lazarus was joined by wife Fraidie (Frances) Garmaise and their son Lyon, born the year before Lazarus' departure.

 

Their presence is recorded in the taciturn poetry of the 4,278,327 souls listed neatly in Canada's 1881 census. There alongside the McVeigh's, Wesley's and Halls in the South Lanark District are listed Lazarus Cohen, 34, Fanny (sic), 33, Lyon 12, and Abraham, one-year-old. Under the heading "Country or province of birth" only beside the infant's name is there the letter "O", for Ontario. Abraham, the aptly named first Cohen born in Canada. All their religions are listed as "Isrealite" and Lazarus' profession as "shopkeeper".

 

Their neighbour and fellow shopkeeper was the single, 38-year-old Isrealite Jacob Goldberg, immigrated from Sweden.

 

In 1883 the Cohen's moved to Montreal beginning the family's deep connection with the city. There Lazarus started a dredging business, which at the turn of the 20th century deepened St. Lawrence River tributaries; he helped bring over two brothers, including  Tzvi-Hirsch who became Montreal's Chief Rabbi.

 

Fradie and Lazarus also watched a series of begats: their son Lyon begat Nathan, who grew to father a dark-eyed boy and future literate, sexual, spiritual hipster Leonard.

---

 

The Cohen's migration to Montreal was part of a trend as 19th century Jewish (and other) immigrants moved from first stops to Toronto and Montreal. And it appeared that the flame was put-out on the story of Jews in rural eastern Ontario.

 

But beginning in the late 1960s, this land that had first welcomed Lazarus from Lithuania, beckoned to a new generation drawn not in spite of the wildness, but because of it. A back-to-the-land migration that included a notable number of the descendants of those Toronto and Montreal Jews who moved to the area around Perth, Ontario a short drive east from Maberly.

 

These include Hinda Goldberg and David Poch. In Montreal in the 1930s and 40s, Poch's father was good friends with Leonard Cohen's literary (and perhaps relationship) mentor, the poet Irving Layton.

 

In 1993 the couple moved from Toronto, Goldberg's hometown, to Lanark County's distinctive Brooke Valley, a 10-minute drive east of Maberly. The Poch-Goldberg's  bought land and built a home as part of a second-wave of modern urban refugees, the first of whom had eked-out back-to-the-land existences growing organic veggies and making crafts starting in the 1960s.

 

"We both thought Oh, there's a great community here," says Goldberg, who worked for the North Lanark Community Health Centre.

 

Poch learned that, in fact, he was retracing a family route.

 

"After we  moved to Brooke Valley my mother told me she would come to Perth in the summer to visit her Levine cousins who had a dry goods store on Foster St. where McLean’s Insurance is now," says Poch, and environmental lawyer.

 

Similarly, composer Michael Leibson hopscotched from a childhood in Montreal, to Toronto and now to his home a 10-minute drive from where the Cohens first lived in Maberly.

 

Leibson, who teaches advanced jazz theory internationally via Skype, shares Cohen's Sephardic good looks, reflective insights and joy in language and women. (At one point Cohen and Leibson briefly had a common love interest.)

 

Leibson's settling in 1997 along a gravel-road "suburb" of Maberly was sparked by his guitar student, the former federal leader of Canada's New Democratic Party Jack Layton, who encouraged Leibson to explore eastern Ontario.

 

"It's a beautiful area, I could afford it and of course I could sense the ghost of Lazarus Cohen, but it was at an unconscious level," says Leibson with an ironic laugh.

 

And in the kind of twist that makes poetry sing, the federal Member of Parliament today for the riding that includes Maberly is Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston Conservative Scott Reid, who according to his Wikipedia profile has a Jewish mother. In 2009, with Montreal Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, Reid co-chaired a House of Commons committee studying anti-Semitism.

 

"The greatest tolerance, openness and acceptance for Jews is actually in our rural areas," Reid told a reporter at the time. "And I can say for my own constituency, for nine years now as the Member of Parliament, I've never encountered an anti-Semitic incident in the counties I've represented."

 

Who knows the range of receptions Lazarus Cohen experienced, but he survived and eventually thrived and it was something that his great grandson Leonard carried with him, an awareness of how he was shaped by a place, and its mix of people.

 

"It's customary to thank people for the help and aid they've given," Leonard Cohen told the L.A. crowd celebrating his Grammy award. "On this occasion, because of the great hospitality that was accorded my ancestor who came here over 140 years ago, I want to thank this country, Canada, for allowing us to live and work and flourish in a place that was different from all other places in the world."

 

It's a gratitude that will echo in future generations remembering how their families   pioneered lives in Canada.

 

One of the biggest Canadian news stories of 2016 was the arrival of 25,000 Syrian refugees. With the help of inspired community sponsors, four Syrian families came to our town of Almonte, population about 5,000, about an hour drive east of Maberly. This is how the light gets in: people helping other people; love, compassion, caring and fellowship across language, skin color, religion and culture.

 

And as Leonard Cohen's life and work so eloquently attests, soon the light begins to shine back out, brighter than ever.

 

As we light candles and Christmas lights let us remember that poetry is the resonance of the eternal in the now. The mysterious emergence of the forgotten past in the flesh of the present.

The lyrical carrying forward of a light that will not die.

 

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