Adrienne Cooper: A Yiddish Light Goes Out

Adrienne Cooper Khane-freyde bas beyle-buni z”l.

Adrienne Cooper (1946-2011), a leading light of Yiddish song died early last night, December 25, of cancer in Roosevelt Hospital in NYC. She was surrounded by her family and friends. Ms. Cooper, one of the world’s top figures of Yiddish music, brought Yiddish folk and theater music to modern audiences. She was a valued performer, not only for her impressive vocal qualities, but her masterful interpretive style and tremendous stage presence. She presented Yiddish song in such an expressive way that any audience could understand and appreciate it. Along with her feminist social conscience, she was a mentor and leader to thousands of musicians and students. She helped co-found “Klezkamp” and spread Yiddish culture throughout the world. She is survived by a daughter, Sara Gordon, and partner Marilyn Lerner, two brothers and her mother.

Adrienne Cooper was born September 1, 1946 in Oakland, California. Her grandmother made homemade wax discs of Yiddish folk and liturgical music, and her grandfather was a baritone ba’al t’fillah. Adrienne’s mother was an opera and musical theater performer, and a prominent concert performer of Yiddish and Hebrew music. Cooper began studying voice in her late teens with her mother’s teacher, Mary Groom Jones. She continued studying classical art song with Mina Lief at the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem. She then attended Hebrew University and received a BA in history. Later she continued voice training with Jennie Tourel and Simon Sargon.

After returning to the United States, she studied at the University of Chicago, where she received an MA in history. She first performed Yiddish songs in graduate school.

In 1975, Cooper moved to New York and was coached by Lazar Weiner, the prominent composer of Yiddish art song. She also studied with Yiddish poet and lyricist Wolf Younin. After taking summer courses in Yiddish language, she became an assistant director at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. In 1985, she co-founded with Henry Sapoznik the multi-generational Yiddish Folk Arts Program, popularly known as “Klezkamp”. Klezkamp successfully trains upcoming music professionals and others interested in folk education.

Cooper concertized internationally throughout Europe in such diverse places as Russian, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Poland, Germany, along with Israel, Canada and throughout the US. She performed and recorded widely with top klezmer bands such as the Klezmatics, Kapelye, and Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band, Frank London’s Klezmer Brass AllStars, and performers such as David Krakauer, Zalmen Mlotek, and DJ So-Called. In recent years, she also participated and recorded in all women’s groups such as Mikveh and a group calling themselves “The Three Yiddish Divas”. Her success was also due to the exploration and expansion to new repertoire, as in her CD “Ghetto Tango” and her participation in a newly written theater piece, the critically acclaimed “The Memoir of Gluckl of Hameln (with Jenny Romaine and Frank London/Great Small Works Theater).” She also starred in “Esn: Songs from the Kitchen” with Frank London and Lorin Sklamberg.

One of her strengths was bringing intellectual as well as musical force to bear in her amazing collaborations in a wide variety of styles. With Marilyn Lerner, she composed new music to Yiddish poetry, “Shake My Heart Like a Copper Bell: On the Poetry of Anna Margolin” and collaborated with other women composers writing new Jewish music, such as Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman. Other works included the 1989 Partisans of Vilna and her 1995 solo debut cassette with Joyce Rosenzweig, Dreaming in Yiddish which was reviewed onThe KlezmerShack . Her most recent solo CD was Enchanted: A New Generation of Yiddishsong (Golden Horn Records, 2010). She is featured on film (most recently in the documentaries “Wrestling with Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner” and in “Making Trouble! Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women”) and her recent writings on Yiddish culture have appeared in Lilith Magazine and the journal Bridges.

Cooper served as Executive Officer for Cultural Programs and Jewish Journeys at The Workmen’s Circle for over a decade, where she produced programs in Jewish literacy and culture, following on the groundwork that was started by her as a leader in the revival of Yiddish culture.

Cooper received many awards and honors in her lifetime, including commissions from University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Center and UCLA, The Jewish Museum, United Synagogue, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National and New York State Endowments on the Arts, the New York Council for the Humanities, and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. She is the recipient of Klez Canada’s Lifetime Achievement Award in Yiddish Arts and Culture. In December 2010 she also received the Marshall T Meyer Risk-Taker Award by the Jews for Racial and Economic Justice society.

On a personal note, 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.