Adrienne Cooper was born on September 1, 1946, in Oakland, California to a musical family. Her mother performed in opera and musical theater as well as giving concerts in Yiddish and Hebrew; her grandfather was a synagogue prayer leader and her grandmother made wax discs of Yiddish folk songs. Adrienne began taking voice lessons in her late teens and studied classical art song in Jerusalem. After receiving a BA in history from Hebrew University, she returned to the U.S. and enrolled in graduate school in history at the University of Chicago. It was while earning an MA in history that she first performed Yiddish songs. In 1975, she moved to New York, where she worked with Lazar Weiner, the prominent composer of Yiddish art song, and with Yiddish poet and lyricist Wolf Younin. In 1985, she co-founded with Henry Sapoznik the multi-generational Yiddish Folk Arts Program, popularly known as "Klezkamp," which trains music professionals and others interested in folk education. For more than a decade, she served as Executive Officer for Cultural Programs and Jewish Journeys at The Workmen's Circle .
I first met Adrienne on erev Nitl, Christmas Eve, 1987, and saw her for the last time on khamishi shel khanike, the night of December 24 of the calendar year just ended. Jeffrey Shandler has written in an obituary that he published last week that “Adrienne taught us all to sing.” I was one of her less successful experiments. I don’t sing, I could speak Yiddish long before I met her. What Adrienne and I did was hang out—as long and as often as possible—quite often at events like this, where, if neither of us had to be up front, we’d be sitting in the back, making smart remarks and rolling our eyes. The difference is that everybody expected me to be doing so; no one would have believed it of Adrienne. We watched zombie movies on television with Sarah. We’d go to Yiddish-themed events and speak to each other in Hebrew just so the Yiddishists couldn’t understand us. And mostly, though, we spent most of our time laughing, sometimes with pleasure and as often as not in dismay at the growing amaratses, the growing ignorance, that has besieged the Jewish world.
That isn’t to say that I didn’t learn from Adrienne, but I think she might have given me something different from what she gave many other people—of course, she gave everybody something different. In my case, it was to remind me that maybe, just maybe I don’t really know it all. You can get an idea of what I mean from one of her signature pieces—we’ll be singing it together in a few minutes—Ven ikh volt gehat koyekh, If I only had the strength. This was a song that for probably a century or so had been the sole possession of the same people who like to throw rocks at cars that have the chutzpah to drive by them on Saturdays in certain places. The words mean: if I only had the strength, I’d run through the streets and yell shabbes, Sabbath, at the top of my voice. What did Adrienne do with this song? She saw that the word shabbes, the Sabbath, which is supposed to connote peace and harmony and unity had become a slogan in the service of hatred and division. A song that we should all be singing had been taken away from us, and Adrienne—whose life was defined by her inability to tolerate lies and injustice—was determined to get it back.
And what she did, so far as I’m concerned, is the essence of who Adrienne is. She only needed one Hebrew syllable to turn hatred into love, to take division back to unity. By changing shabbes to sholem, to peace, she didn’t change the song, she repaired it, she gave it its tikn—its tikkun, its repair—by bringing it back to what it was supposed to be.
I grew up in the stone-throwing part of this world, on the other side of this cultural and religious divide. I grew up with this stuff; it was Adrienne who taught me to like it. She had a talent for subversion along with an innate sense of decorum that let her reverse a tradition, turn it inside out, before any of its guardians had actually noticed.
When a woman passes away, one of the things you say in Hebrew is tihye nafsha tsruro bi-tsror ha-khayim, which is usually translated, rather lazily, as “May her soul be bound up in the bond of life.” Those of you who know Hebrew, though, know that the word nefesh, which is often translated as soul, is more accurately rendered as élan vital, vital spirit, what we’d call in colloquial English “energy.” And it’s her spirit, her energy, that keeps Adrienne always present.
There’s a formula that is sometimes used on occasions like this in the non-Jewish world. It’s from the Odes of the great Roman poet Horace, who says, Non omnis moriar, I won’t die completely, multaque pars mei vitabit Libitinam, but the greater part of me will avoid the grave. If Rashi had written a commentary on Hoyrace in addition to writing one on the Toyre, he’d have told us that this phrase refers to the legacy of anybody who has changed the thoughts or behaviour of large numbers of other people. Klezkamp, Klezkanada, the Yiddish music camps and workshops in Europe and everywhere else in the world don’t really owe anything to Adrienne—insofar as they are successful, they are Adrienne.
I keep thinking about the first time that Adrienne hired me to work at Circle Lodge, the camp for adults that she was responsible for as part of her duties at the Workmen’s Circle. One of the other teachers whom she’d hired, our friend Steve Weintraub, who couldn’t be here today, is well-known in these circles for having a phobia about leaving his house without a martini kit. Up until this time, I’d never seen Adrienne drink more than an occasional glass of red wine or maybe a sloe gin. But after a couple of hours in the bungalow where Steve and his partner Paul were mixing martinis, Adrienne—Adrienne was shit-faced. She leaves to go back to her own cabin. Twenty minutes or half an hour later, she’s back at Steve and Paul’s bungalow. “I’m lost,” she said, but we already knew that. “Mike”—and I should say here that no one in the Yiddish world ever addresses me as anything but Wex. My older friends, though, people from school and yeshiva, from university and grad school all call me Mike. Adrienne was the only person in this world who called me Mike, and she did so from the moment we met, as if we’d known each other all our lives. “Mike,” she said, “take me home.” And I did.
We’re here to see Adrienne home one last time. They say in Hebrew, khaval al de-ovdin ve-lo mishtakhkin, Alas for those are gone and cannot be replaced. Adrienne will never be really gone. Vi nor a mentsh—makht nisht oys tsi a yid, tsi a goy—vi nor a ben-oder bas-odom efnt oyf a pisk un se falt fin dortn aroop a yidish vort, a posheter traf mame-loshn afile, iz ir nefesh, der leybediker mehus fin Khane Cooper, nokh faran. Adrienne can be anything; what she can’t be is replaced.
First delivered at a Memorial Service for Adrienne Cooper at Temple Ansche Chesed in New York on January 1, 2012. Used by permission.