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.
"… I had the deep pleasure of studying with Adrienne Cooper as a student in her Yiddish song classes in the Zumer-progam by YIVO Max Weinreich Center for Advanced Jewish Studies held at Columbia in 2001. I also saw her perform many, many times in different venues, and each time was something very special. She made Yiddish song come alive, be an immediate presence, and have meaning in the modern world. We will miss this interpreter of dreams. Mit Liebshaft un sholem," from Adrienne Cooper: A Yiddish Light Goes Out," by Judith Pinnolis
Elsewhere on the web
- Adrienne Cooper's website
- Video of Adrienne Cooper interviewed at KlezKamp 2010 (from the National Yiddish Book Center series)
- Adrienne Cooper, Yiddish Singer, Dies at 65, Joseph Berger, NY Times
- "Remembering Adrienne Cooper" by Zalmen Mlotek
- "Adrienne Cooper, Mother of Yiddish Revival Movement" by George Robinson in Jewish Week
- "Remembering Adrienne Cooper," by Debra Cash in ArtsFuse
- "Beloved Yiddish Singer Adrienne Cooper Mourned by Colleagues" by Jon Kalish, WNYC
- "Adrienne Cooper's Musical Life" (excerpts from Memorial Service, 1/1/12), by Jon Kalish, Forward podcast
- The Three Yiddish Divas mourn the passing of Adrienne Cooper, z"l, by Joanne Borts
- Adrienne Cooper performs "A meydl in di yorn", KlezKamp, 1989, YIVOSounds podcast, uploaded by Lorin Sklamberg
Adrienne Cooper Embodied Progressive Spirit
by Jeffrey Shandler
This article first appeared in the Jewish Daily Forward, December 26, 2011. Used by permission.
It is hard to imagine the world without Adrienne Cooper, a friend said to me on learning that she was near death. As she did for so many others, she enriched my life for decades with thrilling song, wise words, and trenchant humor.
She is perhaps best known as a concert and recording artist, one of the great interpreters of Yiddish song of her generation, both on her own and in collaboration with leading lights of Yiddish music and theater, including Josh Dolgin, Sara Felder, Beyle Schaechter Gottesman, Marilyn Lerner, David Krakauer, Frank London, Zalmen Mlotek, Jenny Romaine, Joyce Rosenzweig, Henry Sapoznik, Eve Sicular, Lorin Sklamberg, Alicia Svigals, Josh Waletzky, Michael Winograd, among many others. Based in New York, she performed at Carnegie Hall, the Public Theater, and LaMama, among other venues. Adrienne also appeared in concert in Canada, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine. Deeply informed by traditional Jewish practices of making music, Adrienne pushed the envelope of what Yiddish song might be through a prolific output of recitals, recordings, and music theater pieces.
Beyond her extraordinary artistic accomplishments, Adrienne was a mentor, resource, and role model to so many who have lived, or at least sojourned, in Yiddishland. I first met her, as did many hundreds of other students, when she worked at the YIVO Institute in the 1970s and ’80s, running the Yiddish summer program (then held at Columbia University) and the Max Weinreich Center for Advanced Jewish Studies. She played a pivotal role in guiding us on our way to engaging Yiddish culture as part of our futures, whether as scholars, writers, performers, filmmakers, or activists.
Adrienne also taught us to sing. At the time, I didn't think it was all that remarkable that someone who was such a gifted musician was also so able a teacher and advisor. Perhaps it was because Adrienne could move from administrator to intellectual to artist so naturally. She taught students around the world that music provided an essential point of entry into Yiddish culture and that the insights of scholars nurture and enrich a musician’s performance. Her many Yiddish musical projects integrated a joyous talent for making music with a deep knowledge of the cultures that engendered these songs and stories. Her passionate performances were rooted in an approach to Jewish culture in which heart and mind are closely coupled.
Adrienne seemed to have inherited a gift for making music; both her mother and her mother’s parents were talented singers. But she did not simply continue a dynasty of Jewish musicians. She charted her own course as an artist, as has her daughter, Sarah Gordon, who is a smart and ardent musician very much in her own right. Mindful of the great Jewish cultural past, Adrienne was committed not to its preservation in a narrow sense, but to its animation through intelligent, creative, and sometimes subversive, engagement.
Similarly, as Adrienne worked tirelessly within a number of institutional settings, including Arbeter-Ring, KlezKamp, YIVO, among others, she invested her creative talents in testing their notions of the possible. In her own way, she followed the precedent of the great Yiddishkultur-tuers of yore like Y. L. Peretz, S. Ansky, and Max Weinreich by integrating art, scholarship, institution building, and political action in all phases of her professional life. In concerts such as “Ghetto Tango,” a suite of songs from the Lodz Ghetto or “Lost In the Stars: Jewish Song after World War II in Hebrew, English, and Yiddish,” she delivered emotionally compelling music and at the same time offered original, incisive surveys of cultural creativity at threshold moments in Jewish life.
Adrienne used other performances to champion the Jewish commitment to redressing economic inequality (In Love and Struggle: Songs of Jewish Labor) or celebrated LGBT rights (Queer Wedding). Her feminism informed all her undertakings: her activism, her writing and translating, and her singing. Fittingly, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice recently honored Adrienne with its Marshall T. Meyer Risk Taker Award for her contributions as a performer to movements for social change.
One of the last times I saw Adrienne sing was at an Arbeter-Ring outdoor summer concert, at which she exhorted the audience to make this a besere un shenere velt, or a better, more beautiful world. The words were delivered with the same emotional force as her singing. In a world without Adrienne, without her voice, her wit, her imagination, her intellect, her fervor, her convictions, it will be that much harder to do so.
Jeffrey Shandler is Professor of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University.
Mourning the loss of Adrienne Cooper
JFREJ established the Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer Risk-Taker Award in 1995 to honor those who have taken extraordinary risks in the pursuit of justice. Every year in the fall we find a new risk taker and honor them at a fundraising gala.… [more]
The following e-mail was sent by JFREJ Executive Director Marjorie Dove Kent in memory of Adrienne Cooper:
With deep sorrow, we mourn the passing of Adrienne Cooper. Adrienne was a board member and long time friend of JFREJ. She was honored at the 2010 Meyer Awards just last year for her work pursuing justice through music and other inspiring cultural work. Below is the citation presented to her at the ceremony, written by Jenny Romaine and Jenny Levison. May her memory be for a blessing.
Adrienne Cooper has the voice of a diva, and the soul of a Bundist. She is an interpreter, teacher, and translator of Yiddish song who, for decades, has gifted thousands of us with the re-awakening of beauty and music. Her service has been not just to generations of students, but to music itself—music that holds the experience of diasporic peoplehood.
In her work with Yiddish music, Cooper continues a political vision begun by cultural radicals in Eastern Europe. These activists built institutions like the YIVO (Yidisher Visenshaftlekher Institut)—the priceless archive of Ashkenazi Jewry where Adrienne worked throughout the 1980s.
During her decade of service to the YIVO, Adrienne was mentored by Bundist survivors who believed in an integrated Jewish culture that lives in the real world, and who were committed to the betterment of people in and outside of the Jewish community. Adrienne was mentored in this model, and she now embodies it, as a mentor and educator for young cultural workers and activists across the world. She is part of the legacy of Jews who re-wrote history by building power and institutions, grounded in what people were abundantly rich with: culture. Adrienne’s movement is a political work of art, in which every fragment of what folk “do,” can be used to chart a new political course.
The list of Adrienne’s organizational commitments is long; here are just a few highlights: the Museum of Chinese in America, Jewish Currents magazine, Living Traditions/KlezKamp, Bridges Magazine—and until this past summer, the board of directors of JFREJ. For the past ten years she has been a leader in the Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring's renewal in Jewish education for progressive activism, steering the organization back to its roots of meaningful political engagement and away from the politics of nostalgia.
Adrienne Cooper is a fearless guide to the cultural commons, who has made sure no one is excluded from this resource, and that no power can silence it. She brings people, ideas and buildings together to create spaces for unimaginable political and artistic joy. She is a forest of Jewish sound: a joyous crowd, a resistance fighter, a lover, a screaming rhetorical street poster, and a tsadek.
For all of this, and for never working from a place of chosen-ness or nostalgia but from a place of justice, empathy, and complex Yiddish polyphony, JFREJ is deeply honored to present the 2010 Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer Risk Taker Award to Adrienne Cooper.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Adrienne Cooper, 1946 - 2011." (Viewed on February 19, 2019) <https://jwa.org/weremember/cooper-adrienne>.