Although the Yiddish community is a comparatively small one, Adrienne Cooper, who was 65 when she succumbed to cancer Sunday, was a giant in it.
“We are deeply saddened over the passing of the great Yiddish singer, teacher, community leader and wonderful friend to countless people,” announced Moishe Rosenfeld, head of the Golden Land Concerts & Connections booking agency that worked with Cooper’s many performing entities for years.
“Her passion for Yiddish song was transmitted to students and musicians worldwide, and a whole generation of Yiddish artists has been touched by her heart and soul. Our culture has lost a true leader and visionary. May her memory be a blessing.”
Rosenfeld’s words were echoed by Zalmen Mlotek, artist director for America’s longest continuing Yiddish theater company, The National Yiddish Theatre–Folksbiene.
“A singer, a writer, an educator, a poet, a master communicator–a pioneer,” Mlotek said in a statement. “Adrienne was one of the most popular and significant interpreters of Yiddish song over the last 50 years.”
Cooper, Mlotek said, “understood the power of the Yiddish songs and saw the need to contextualize them for new, young audiences for whom Yiddish was not a nostalgic exercise but an avenue of exploration–unlike previous Yiddish singers of the past.” He cited her role as co-founder of KlezKamp–the Yiddish Folk Arts Festival where for nearly 30 years thousands of young singers and instrumentalists have attended Yiddish/klezmer song workshops and solidified their commitment to maintaining Yiddish culture; Cooper was also a key figure in numerous KlezKamp-spawned festivals and gatherings.
Mlotek recalled his 20-year musical collaboration with Cooper, which took them all over the world in making Yiddish music relevant to varied audiences. They put together her In Love And In Freedom CD of Jewish labor songs, and their joint album Ghetto Tango, a collection of war-time Yiddish theater songs.
“She had a unique effect on audiences–always uplifting them musically, always teaching them, always entertaining them, but never in a didactic way,” Mlotek said. “For the last 11 years of her life, Adrienne was the cultural and educational leader of the Workmen’s Circle, where she worked for social justice and Yiddish causes, always looking for alliances and opportunities to promote the younger generation of Yiddish artists. For the Folksbiene, Adrienne co-created a Jewish food show called Esn with Frank London and Lorin Sklamberg, of the [top klezmer group] Klezmatics. At every performance the audience was treated to an entertaining concert of Yiddish song, and ending with a delicious snack cooked fresh by Adrienne.”
Indeed, Cooper, who sang on several Klezmatics recordings, was “a great cook,” says London, and so much more.
“She was both a full-time artist and singer and full-time social activist, working with radical and progressive causes for social justice, the labor movement, LGBT rights, all sorts of social issues,” says London. “She was also an educator and a teacher of Yiddish song and the language itself, and a fluent person in all things Jewish culture. She was all these things, and each informed each other.”
Citing Cooper’s “cross culturalism,” London further notes her service as the assistant director at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and program director for the Museum of Chinese in the Americas.
“She was one of the most amazing people any of us will ever meet,” he says, “a total intellectual every moment, a feminist, a pre-eminent Yiddishist, a humanist in the broadest sense. A mensch. She influenced generations of Yiddish singers, not only in America but Europe and Russia–legions of people all over the world who learned from her or were inspired by her. Many of the songs in the earliest Klezmatics repertoire we learned from Adrienne, and that’s true of so many others who do Yiddish music.”
Michael Winograd, a young klezmer clarinetist/composer who produced Cooper’s last album Enchanted: A New Generation of Yiddishsong, confirms London’s observations as a member of the new generation of Yiddish musicians.
“It was important for her to be working with younger people,” says Winograd. “Her daughter [Sara Gordon, who sang on Enchanted] and a lot of my contemporaries are in their late twenties and early thirties and were all mentored by her as well. She had a great respect for the generational aspect of the music that was very important for all of us.”
Winograd notes that Cooper’s varied repertoire had both a “kickback nostalgia that we love about Yiddish music in general,” and a contemporary relevance socially and politically.
“There was a magic about the stuff she worked with, and it came through in the way she performed it and spoke about it,” concludes Winograd. “She owned everyone she knew, and everyone she knew will be under her influence forever. It’s a blessing to have been in her grasp.”