Adrienne Cooper’s strong voice—musically, linguistically, and as a vibrant feminist presence—shaped the revival of klezmer music in the 1980s and beyond, but her legacy is diffuse.
By Debra Cash.
In an essay Adrienne Cooper wrote to accompany a translation of a Yiddish poem by turn-of-the-20th-century writer Anna Margolin, she described a life that “didn’t fit the cramped contours associated with the lives of Jewish women.”
Adrienne Cooper’s life in Yiddish song expanded those cramped contours too. Born in California, she was the fourth generation Yiddish singer in her family—demonstrated, most sweetly, through a 1949 wax disc recording her father made that captured her grandfather chanting a passage from the Yom Kippur liturgy, her grandmother singing a lullaby with words by Sholem Aleichem, and her mother singing a Russian tune her mother had taught her. Those remnants were remixed into a sound collage by Cooper’s partner, Marilyn Lerner, on what would turn out to be her last CD, Enchanted: A New Generation of Yiddishsong. Cooper died of cancer on Christmas Day; she was only 65.
Cooper’s strong voice—musically, linguistically, and as a vibrant feminist presence—shaped the revival of klezmer music in the 1980s and beyond, but her legacy is diffuse. Her singing encompassed everything from the brassy, vaudevillian jokiness at the Mickey Katz edge of Jewish theatre music spectrum to fraught lullabies adapted to whisper truths in cabarets and ghetto hiding places.
A longtime staff member at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, officer for cultural programs at the Workman’s Circle, a co-founder, with musician Henry Sapoznik, of the winter cultural intensive known as KlezKamp, Cooper always made it a point of honor to distinguish anonymous folk songs from the work of composers and lyricists whose artistry could be named and analyzed in terms of their own artistic lineages. She explored the musical value of anthems of underground partisans and labor movement activists alongside art songs and ballads that exposed domestic violence in the Jewish community and framed them in the context of distinct prewar, besieged, and immigrant communities.
Cooper went further, to trace the influence of Jewish music on the artistic achievement of its English-speaking sons and daughters in North America. In the liner notes to “Dreaming in Yiddish,” Cooper described imagining people dreaming in Yiddish on every continent, from her own Litvak relatives and then-young daughter—who has grown up to be a Yiddish singer and researcher in her own right—to “farmers in the Argentine, Belgian chocolatiers, Soviet gangsters and Israeli physicists.” Each journey carried with it a distinctive story, and she never blurred those idiosyncracies or conflicts with cheap sentimentality.
I heard Cooper sing dozens of times and caught the delicious theater piece she created with Great Small Works, The Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln, which brought an enterprising 17th-century heroine to life in live action and puppetry. One of my favorite of her recordings, an intimate version of Abraham Sutzkever’s “Unter Dayne Vayse Shtern” (“Under Your White Stars”) is easily downloadable online.
But one performance Adrienne Cooper gave in, I think, 1999, stands among one of the great artistic experiences of my life. Every other Labor Day weekend, Toronto hosts Ashkenaz, a broadly defined festival of Yiddish and Jewish culture—and believe me, you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen a bunch of lefty Jews marching down the streets of Chinatown accompanied by stilt-walkers and paper mache floats made to look like giant boxes of matzah and vintage, Singer sewing machines. That year, Ashkenaz fell on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, a night which among Jews of Eastern European descent is marked by a ceremony call Slichot, when penitential prayers are recited.
Adrienne Cooper sang traditional liturgy through the prism of Leonard Cohen, the Canadian songwriter. “Who by fire/who by water,” she sang, with increasing fierceness into the dark hall. Everybody stopped talking, eating, drinking. Within Cooper’s incantation the inventory of possible deaths was palpable, real. Every person in that room might be dead next year. Every person might remain alive. Our lives and how we intended to live them were on the line, and Adrienne Cooper was singing it.
May her memory be a blessing.
C 2011 Debra Cash