Books | Biography, new translation offer backstory on prophets

In the preface to “A Broken Hallelujah: Rock ’n’ Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen,” author Liel Leibovitz bestows the heady designation of prophet on the Canadian singer-songwriter. “Millennia ago, as we began asking ourselves the same fundamental questions we still ponder,” he writes, “we called men like him prophets, meaning not that they could foresee the future, but that they could better understand the present by seeing one more layer of meaning to life. The title still applies.”

The title was hard-earned. Perhaps Leonard Cohen was born harboring a need to question what meaning might lie within the chaos of life. It’s possible that his father’s untimely death, when Cohen was 9, jump-started a somewhat premature search for meaning. But it’s likely that it would have commenced soon enough.

From the start of his lifelong pursuit of the big questions, the ancient teachings of Judaism traveled with him. Along the way, he was influenced by many other writings, the ever-changing culture and politics of the times, and eventually, a deep commitment to Zen Buddhism.

After starting out by writing poetry and  a novel, Cohen made the fateful decision to put his words to music. Something magical happened when he combined his melancholy tunes and often enigmatic lyrics. His renditions of those songs resonate deeply with a loyal and still developing fan base, growing to an unexpected crescendo during his seventh decade.

 “A Broken Hallelujah: Rock ‘n’ Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen” by Liel Leibovitz (288 pages, W.W. Norton, $25.95)


Robert Alter, a distinguished Bay Area scholar and literary critic who has published over two dozen books, continues his journey through the Hebrew bible with “Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings,” a translation with commentary. Recently retired from U.C. Berkeley, the protean Alter made his reputation studying European literature, but ultimately came back to his first love, Hebrew literature and the Bible. His 1981 study, “The Art of Biblical Narrative,” and its subsequent companion, “The Art of Biblical Poetry,” revolutionized how scholars read the Bible.

Each of the Bible’s many translations is also a commentary. Alter’s is no exception. He argues that the others fail to convey in English the refined narrative style and linguistic rhythms of the Hebrew original. The argument is all the more persuasive because it is backed by his scholarship on the literary artistry of the Bible.

This work on the early prophets follows his translations of the Five Books of Moses, Psalms, the Wisdom Books and other works of biblical scholarship. He not only translates but supplies copious notes to buttress his interpretations as he weaves the biblical stories’ narratives. Each book’s introduction offers Alter’s view of the personalities we’ll encounter. His depictions of Samuel, David and Saul, among others, may not be traditional but they are engaging.

Among the many fascinating tidbits in this work are his grammatical analysis of Deborah’s song in Judges 5:1 and his depictions of the main characters in the books of Samuel. Alter has provided a fresh look at old texts and breathed into them a new vitality. We look forward to his translations of the remaining prophets.

“Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings” by Robert Alter (880 pages, W.W. Norton, $35)

Reviews provided by the Jewish Book Council,