Adrienne Cooper

Performer, Interpreter of Yiddish Song
1946 – 2011
by Michael Wex

Adrienne Cooper performing with Mikveh.

Photo: © Lloyd Wolf / http://www.lloydwolf.com.

Used by permission.

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.

15 Comments

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

I had a great privilege and pleasure to work with Adrienne at the WorkmenÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s Circle/ Arbeter Ring from 2002. She was my dear mentor and friend, always ready to extend a hand with a generous eytse (advice) and shtitse (support). I will always cherish the time spend with her in work and joy at Arbeter Ring and Circle Lodge, Klezkanada and numerous visits of our shuln (schools).

She taught me so much and so many various things, but the most important was Ì¢‰â‰ÛÏ how to remain a mentsh no matter what. She is an emeser (true) symbol of social justice in my eyes. I will never forget, how working on shule curriculums: Yiddish language and culture, Jewish holidays, etc, she would always look for and find an appropriate spot for the social justice element, which would resonate with kids and adults.

She was a tayere neshome, a precious person you could share anything and always get encouragement and support you needed. There was not a single program or problem, including personal ones (sometimes you need to kvetsh) I did not share with Adrienne and itÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s hard to believe I wonÌ¢‰â‰ã¢t be able to do it anymore.

She passed away on the 6th day of Khanike but the likhtlekh (lights) of her inspiration and love for people will always be with us.

Zol zi hobn a likhtikn gan-eydn!

I had a great privilege and pleasure to work with Adrienne at the WorkmenÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s Circle/ Arbeter Ring from 2002. She was my dear mentor and friend, always ready to extend a hand with a generous eytse (advice) and shtitse (support). I will always cherish the time spend with her in work and joy at Arbeter Ring and Circle Lodge, Klezkanada and numerous visits of our shuln (schools).

She taught me so much and so many various things, but the most important was Ì¢‰â‰ÛÏ how to remain a mentsh no matter what. She is an emeser (true) symbol of social justice in my eyes. I will never forget, how working on shule curriculums: Yiddish language and culture, Jewish holidays, etc, she would always look for and find an appropriate spot for the social justice element, which would resonate with kids and adults.

She was a tayere neshome, a precious person you could share anything and always get encouragement and support you needed. There was not a single program or problem, including personal ones (sometimes you need to kvetsh) I did not share with Adrienne and itÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s hard to believe I wonÌ¢‰â‰ã¢t be able to do it anymore.

She passed away on the 6th day of Khanike but the likhtlekh (lights) of her inspiration and love for people will always be with us.

Zol zi hobn a likhtikn gan-eydn!

The untimely death of Adrienne Cooper, Yiddish diva and mentor to generations of Yiddish singers, has left the Yiddish world grieving. Her incomparable musicianship, warm stage presence, intelligent and imaginative performances, and support of Yiddish songwriters and other artists will be greatly missed. Adrienne appeared at the Book Center many times, was a board member from 1994-1997, and was interviewed a year ago at KlezKamp for our Oral History Project.

Adrienne touched my life deeply. I was looking for the personally most meaningful way forward as a musician, and given my family's history, decided to be a Yiddish singer. As my Czech family fully assimilated generations ago and there was not a word of Yiddish in my background, this was chutzpah. After I heard Adrienne perform in Toronto, I approached her and asked for help. She told me to come to New York. This was probably 1995. I spent two life-changing weeks with her with intense, 2 or 3 hours long daily lessons in her Manhattan apartment She listened, and once we got my poor Yiddish under control, focused on the spirit of the songs we studied. She made me see each song as an important story that urgently must be told, so much more than words and music. In this, Adrienne was so kind, never questioning my minimal Yiddish knowledge, just helping me along patiently and giving me a piece of herself in the process. What a remarkable human being, and of course, artist and a teacher. Thank you so much, Adrienne, live in light and rest in peace.

Adrienne touched my life deeply. I was looking for the personally most meaningful way forward as a musician, and given my family's history, decided to be a Yiddish singer. As my Czech family fully assimilated generations ago and there was not a word of Yiddish in my background, this was chutzpah. After I heard Adrienne perform in Toronto, I approached her and asked for help. She told me to come to New York. This was probably 1995. I spent two life-changing weeks with her with intense, 2 or 3 hours long daily lessons in her Manhattan apartment She listened, and once we got my poor Yiddish under control, focused on the spirit of the songs we studied. She made me see each song as an important story that urgently must be told, so much more than words and music. In this, Adrienne was so kind, never questioning my minimal Yiddish knowledge, just helping me along patiently and giving me a piece of herself in the process. What a remarkable human being, and of course, artist and a teacher. Thank you so much, Adrienne, live in light and rest in peace.

I had the pleasure of performing with Adrienne a few times over the years in NY. A sincere, lovely person and a fine performer whose voice will live on through her work.

I had the pleasure of performing with Adrienne a few times over the years in NY. A sincere, lovely person and a fine performer whose voice will live on through her work.

I had the privilege, honor and pleasure to know her, to work with her, to sing with her and to learn from her. Adrienne - with her incredibly inspiring yiddsh singing - was a real MENTSH. She taught me how to teach the young generation and to enthuse young people for yiddish...

Du bist geven a yiddishe neshume Mit a grois harts, mit faynem intelekt. In feld fun yiddishkeyt - undzere shenste blume... Host itst oyf eybig shlofen zikh gelegt.

Du zolst nor hobn a likhtign Gan-Eydn; Mir veln keynmol nit fargesn dayn gezang. Di gantse velt hert dayne lider, Khane-Freyde, Di gantse velt shikt dir dem letstn dank.

Roman (Rachmiel) Grinberg, Vienna, Dec. 26, 2011

I had the privilege, honor and pleasure to know her, to work with her, to sing with her and to learn from her. Adrienne - with her incredibly inspiring yiddsh singing - was a real MENTSH. She taught me how to teach the young generation and to enthuse young people for yiddish...

Du bist geven a yiddishe neshume Mit a grois harts, mit faynem intelekt. In feld fun yiddishkeyt - undzere shenste blume... Host itst oyf eybig shlofen zikh gelegt.

Du zolst nor hobn a likhtign Gan-Eydn; Mir veln keynmol nit fargesn dayn gezang. Di gantse velt hert dayne lider, Khane-Freyde, Di gantse velt shikt dir dem letstn dank.

Roman (Rachmiel) Grinberg, Vienna, Dec. 26, 2011

After producing nearly 1000 Cds, I was introduced to Adrienne Cooper by Alica Svigals. Adrienne wanted to record the songs sung in make shift-cabarets, which were set up in concentration camps. The album was recorded and called Ghetto Tango. Adrienne wrote the liner notes which turned out to be a mini dissertation on the subject, including rare photos of the performers and composers and even a shot taken by a Nazi propaganda photographer, depicting the wonderful treatment of the Jews in the concentration camp cabaret. As I said, I had already produced 1000 recordings, but I could not stop crying during one of the recording sessions. I still remember the 3 songs, "Mazl" "Friling, and "Fun der Arbet"...and I had even learned yet what the Yiddish words meant. The sound was so "heavy" that I could not get the mental images of what these performers must have been experiencing, out of my mind. Zalmen Mlotek played the piano so "in-tune" with Adrienne's singing that I doubt that a more sensitive partnership exists in any musical genre. I still listen to these tunes and cry. Thank you Adrienne for sharing your life long work in Yiddish song with the world. Adrienne was a true performer and one of the few Yiddish/Klezmer musicians I have met who truly understood how to make music at its highest level.

After producing nearly 1000 Cds, I was introduced to Adrienne Cooper by Alica Svigals. Adrienne wanted to record the songs sung in make shift-cabarets, which were set up in concentration camps. The album was recorded and called Ghetto Tango. Adrienne wrote the liner notes which turned out to be a mini dissertation on the subject, including rare photos of the performers and composers and even a shot taken by a Nazi propaganda photographer, depicting the wonderful treatment of the Jews in the concentration camp cabaret. As I said, I had already produced 1000 recordings, but I could not stop crying during one of the recording sessions. I still remember the 3 songs, "Mazl" "Friling, and "Fun der Arbet"...and I had even learned yet what the Yiddish words meant. The sound was so "heavy" that I could not get the mental images of what these performers must have been experiencing, out of my mind. Zalmen Mlotek played the piano so "in-tune" with Adrienne's singing that I doubt that a more sensitive partnership exists in any musical genre. I still listen to these tunes and cry. Thank you Adrienne for sharing your life long work in Yiddish song with the world. Adrienne was a true performer and one of the few Yiddish/Klezmer musicians I have met who truly understood how to make music at its highest level.

I encountered Adrienne at the old YIVO when I first got drawn into Yiddish culture studies in the early 1970s. It was quite the circle of smart, dedicated, and knowledgeable people, many of whom have gone on to real stature in the field. But Adrienne was different-- she was the one who SANG, not just at gatherings, but all over the place, wherever it was either a good idea or a brave new idea to embody that amazing wellspring of songs. There really were not many people like this in those days, particularly ones imbued with the sense of both artistry and social justice that Adrienne brought to her projects. As I recently wrote in a talk I haven't yet delivered, Adrienne was both in a lineage and started a new one. Thanks in part to her efforts, that line will keep on unfolding, but without her expressive, dedicated, and even passionate participation--it's a real loss.

I encountered Adrienne at the old YIVO when I first got drawn into Yiddish culture studies in the early 1970s. It was quite the circle of smart, dedicated, and knowledgeable people, many of whom have gone on to real stature in the field. But Adrienne was different-- she was the one who SANG, not just at gatherings, but all over the place, wherever it was either a good idea or a brave new idea to embody that amazing wellspring of songs. There really were not many people like this in those days, particularly ones imbued with the sense of both artistry and social justice that Adrienne brought to her projects. As I recently wrote in a talk I haven't yet delivered, Adrienne was both in a lineage and started a new one. Thanks in part to her efforts, that line will keep on unfolding, but without her expressive, dedicated, and even passionate participation--it's a real loss.

All those years ago when Sruli and I made our first CD... I had just a few more hours til we were due at the studio and I was nervous about my Yiddish pronunciation and phrasing on one of the songs. Adrienne offered to let me stop by her place--"We'll sing it together," she said. I didn't know her very well then, but I knew that if she gave me her blessing it was going to be-- blessed. I am a Yiddish singer today-- and I bet many other Yiddish singers say the same-- because of Adrienne Cooper.

All those years ago when Sruli and I made our first CD... I had just a few more hours til we were due at the studio and I was nervous about my Yiddish pronunciation and phrasing on one of the songs. Adrienne offered to let me stop by her place--"We'll sing it together," she said. I didn't know her very well then, but I knew that if she gave me her blessing it was going to be-- blessed. I am a Yiddish singer today-- and I bet many other Yiddish singers say the same-- because of Adrienne Cooper.

Donate

Help us elevate the voices of Jewish women.

donate now

Get JWA in your inbox

Read the latest from JWA from your inbox.

sign up now

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Adrienne Cooper, 1946 - 2011." (Viewed on May 25, 2024) <http://jwa.org/weremember/cooper-adrienne>.