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Jewish-Canadian Identity in Leonard Cohen’s “The Last Dance At The Four Penny”

By Sam Shepherd

Between 1947 and 1952, several thousand Holocaust survivors, many of them children, arrived in Montreal, Quebec and settled in the working-class wards of the Lower Plateau. The existing Jewish population established social services, such as the Jeanne Mance House and the Jewish Public Library, to integrate these refugees (Sheftel and Zembrzycki 20). Later in the decade, Jewish-Canadians who had arrived earlier in the century began migrating westward in the city. With more financial capital, more established Jewish families resettled in Montreal suburbs, like Westmount and Côte Saint-Luc (Troper 42-43). Amidst these changes in the Montreal Jewish community, poet Leonard Cohen began composing many of the poems that would eventually make up his first published book of poetry, The Spice Box of Earth, in 1961 (Simmons 76). Cohen’s poem “The Last Dance at the Four Penny” demonstrates the Montreal Jewish community’s connection to their heritage in the aftermath of immigration, the Holocaust, and assimilation into Canadian culture. By writing a text that celebrates Eastern European Jewish culture in a Canadian setting, Cohen asserts that the Jewish people have preserved and revived their traditional identity in the modern world. 

The speaker begins each stanza by addressing Irving Layton by a different name, which illustrates how Canadian Jews are connected to their past. Poet Irving Layton was born Israel Lazarovitch in an insular, Romanian small town in 1912. When he was a baby, his family immigrated to Montreal, where they anglicized their names to assimilate into the immigrant community of Saint-Urbain. During Cohen’s time at McGill University in the early 1950s, he befriended Layton, who was working for McGill at the time as a member of faculty (Simmons 42-43). In the first stanza, the speaker refers to his friend as “Layton,” which establishes the initial setting of the poem as the present day. However, as the poem progresses, Layton gradually transforms into his former, Eastern European self in the eyes of the speaker. In the second stanza, the speaker refers to his friend as “Layton, my friend Lazarovitch,” which confirms that Layton still possesses traces of his Jewish roots. The subsequent line “no Jew was ever lost” corroborates that Layton has still retained his innermost religious identity after decades of assimilation. Then, by the third and final stanza, the speaker has envisioned Layton as his past self wholeheartedly, as the speaker exclaims, “Reb Israel Lazarovitch / you no-good Roumanian, you’re right!” By referring to Layton directly in his complete Hebrew name, the speaker communicates that Layton has totally transitioned into his former self. The Hebrew prefix “Reb” denotes an Orthodox man of honour, which implies that Layton has maintained his high esteem and proud connection to his Jewish spirituality. Likewise, the speaker refers to Layton as a “no-good Roumanian.” The spelling of “Roumanian” as opposed to the more modernized “Romanian” indicates that Layton is connected to a distinctly historical vision of Judaism belonging to Eastern European tradition. In a similar vein, the term “no – good” evokes the attitude of a parent scolding a child for being transgressive, as if the speaker is teasing Layton for attempting to abandon or hide his heritage. The gradual, reverse name-change in the poem acts as a slow unravelling of Layton’s Jewish identity. While the speaker begins the poem seeing Layton as a secular man and poet in Montreal, he ends as a religious man of honour in Eastern Europe. Cohen writes this poem in the context of attending a prestigious Canadian university alongside Layton, a fellow English-speaking academic, generations after his family immigrated. Layton’s immigration also occurred during a tremendous wave of immigration of Eastern European Jews to Montreal during the early 1900s, many of whom settled in Saint-Urbain (Gililand and Poutanan 8). Through the line “No Jew was ever lost,” Cohen’s implies that Layton’s transformation is similar to the process of many Jewish Canadians who migrated. Cohen therefore uses Layton’s transformation in the poem as an example of how Jewish immigrants in Montreal, no matter how integrated into dominant Canadian society, are still bound to their Eastern European heritage. 

Cohen also uses descriptive imagery throughout the poem to fuse the Montreal setting with elements of traditional Judaism, which highlights how Jewish Canadians are connected to their ancestral roots and have resisted total assimilation. On the one hand, Cohen clearly sets the poem in downtown Montreal during the winter. The title of the poem references The Four Penny Art Gallery on Stanley Street. Cohen founded the gallery with his friends Mort Rosengarten and Leonore Schwartzman during the 1950s within a boarding house, and the gallery showcased works by emerging artists until they were damaged by a fire later in the decade (Nadel 109). The downtown Montreal setting resonates through lines like “sausage-hung kitchens” that reference the interior of the boarding house. The speaker also mentions how “…we two dance joyously / in the French province / cold and oceans west of the Temple,” which establishes that the two men are meeting in Quebec during wintertime.

On the other hand, Cohen also uses anachronistic imagery of nineteenth-century Eastern European Jewry to intertwine the modern, Montreal setting with elements of the past. As the speaker and Layton dance, “the miracle Rabbis of Prague and Vilna / resume their sawdust thrones.” Since medieval times, the city of Prague has contained one of the largest Jewish communities in all of Europe as it was a major site of the Haskalach, or Jewish enlightenment, in the nineteenth century (Pařík). Historians have also referred to the city of Vilna as “the Jerusalem of Lithuania” for its vast, intergenerational Jewish community (Zalkin). Both Vilna and Prague came under Nazi occupation during the Holocaust, and many refugees from both cities immigrated to North America throughout the twentieth century (Pařík; Zalkin). By describing Rabbis from these historically significant Jewish cities as they “resume their sawdust thrones” in Montreal, the speaker conveys how the dancing has transformed Canada into a site to rebuild the formerly vibrant Jewish community of Europe in the aftermath of immigration and the Holocaust. The speaker goes on to liken “the snow canyoned on the twigs” to “forbidden Sabbath manna.” In the Hebrew bible, G-d fed the Hebrew people a flakey, white bread called manna while they were wandering in the desert (Exodus 16:31). By comparing the snow on Quebec trees to a divine bread, Cohen illustrates how Jews have rediscovered some of the most sacred elements of their faith in the unfamiliar Canadian terrain. 

Furthermore, the opening line of the poem, “Layton, when we dance our freilach,” is a direct reference to Ashkenazi Jewish klezmer music. In Eastern Europe, freilachs are a genre of fast-paced, syncopated dance music that are often performed during periods of celebration, such as Bar-Mitzvahs or weddings (Feldman). Cohen mimics the sound of a freilach within the metre and rhythm of the poem itself. The first stanza contains lines with eight to eleven syllables, the second stanza contains lines with six to ten syllables, and the third stanza contains lines ranging from five to ten syllables. The gradual shortening of lines as the poem progresses simulates the climax of a freilach, in which the music speeds up and the dancers spin in increasingly faster circles. 

Cohen also alludes to Jewish dance customs by providing the extended image of the speaker and Layton holding a “ghostly handkerchief” that changes shape as they dance. In traditional Ashkenazi Jewish weddings, it is customary for a bride and her father to dance in a counterclockwise circle while holding onto opposite ends of a handkerchief (Strom 22). By having the speaker and Layton mimic this custom, Cohen communicates both characters’ affectionate, celebratory connection to traditional Judaism. Later in the poem, the waving handkerchief expands into a “burning cloud / measuring all of heaven / with our stitching thumbs.” This “burning cloud” is a reference to the Story of Exodus, in which a large pillar of gas representing G-d guides the Hebrew people as they wander through the desert. The pillar takes the form of a cloud during the day and the form of fire during the night (Exodus 40:38). Therefore, the transformation of the handkerchief describes how the speaker and Layton have become so engulfed by the dance that they have moved into a more spiritual realm. Just as the cloud in Exodus moves the Jewish people through the desert to ancient Israel, the handkerchief cloud in “The Last Dance At The Four Penny” guides the speaker and Layton to a new, Jewish home in Canada. The handkerchief transforms again in the third stanza, in which it assumes the form of a “bright white flag.” A white flag often signifies surrender. The handkerchief’s transformation therefore shows how the speaker and Layton have surrendered their cynicism about faith to the joy and wonder of the freilach. The speaker remarks:

As for the cynical

Such as we were yesterday, 

Let them step with us or rot, 

In their logical shrouds. 

The speaker has become so enraptured by the wonder of the freilach that he reaches a state of enlightenment about religion.  While the line “such as we were yesterday” recognizes that he and Layton also used to feel ambivalent about the value of Jewish faith, dancing the freilach with Layton makes him feel emotionally fulfilled and full of life.  

In “The Last Dance at the Four Penny,” Leonard Cohen provides a snapshot of Eastern European Jewish traditions encroaching into a contemporary Canadian setting. By fusing elements of the Bible and traditional Jewish customs with the more secular, urban environment of Montreal, Cohen asserts that the core spirit of Judaism has survived persecution, immigration, and assimilation into Canadian culture. The speaker expresses amazement at the two men’s talent in dancing at the end of the poem, where he remarks, “we who dance so beautifully / though we know that freilachs end.”  Despite enjoying their dance together,  their enlightenment is only temporary, as the speaker and Layton must soon return to life on Stanley Street. Cohen’s poem therefore provides a brief moment of  fantasy in a contemporary setting that allows the speaker and Layton to escape modern life and embrace their ancestral Jewish identities. While the two men are meeting in twentieth-century Canada, they subconsciously remember the steps to the freilach dance perfectly. For the speaker and Layton, intergenerational Jewish tradition is encoded into their muscle memory. 

Works Cited

Cohen, Leonard.  “The Last Dance at the Four Penny” in The Spice-Box of Earth. 1961. Toronto: McClelland Stewart, 2018, pp. 113-114. 

Feldman, Walter Zev. “Music: Traditional and Instrumental Music.” YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, 3 September 2010. 22 January 2022. 

Nadel, Ira Bruce. Various Positions : A Life of Leonard Cohen. 1st University of Texas Press ed., University of Texas Press, 2007.

King James Bible, New York. 

Pařík, Arno. “Prague.” YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, 12 October 2010. 23 January 2022.

Poutanen, Mary Anne, and Jason Gilliland. “Mapping Work in Early Twentieth-Century Montreal: A Rabbi, a Neighbourhood, and a Community.” Urban History Review / Revue d’histoire Urbaine, vol. 45, no. 2, 2017, pp. 8.

Sheftel, Anna and Stacey Zembrzycki. “We Started Over Again, We Were Young”: Postwar Social Worlds of Child Holocaust Survivors in Montreal.” In Urban History Review, Encounters, Contests, and Communities: New Histories of Race and Ethnicity in the Canadian City, Part 2 Volume 39, no. 1, Fall 2010, pp. 20-30.

Simmons, Sylvie. I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen. First ed., Ecco, 2012.. 

Strom, Yale. The Book of Klezmer.

Tropper, Harold. “A Third Solitude.” in The Defining Decade: Identity, Politics, and the Canadian Jewish Community in the 1960s, University of Toronto Press, September 2010, 

Zalkin, Mordechai. “Vilnius.” YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, 2 November 2010. 23 January 2022.