If you’ve heard klezmer music, been drawn to Yiddish, or thought about women’s engagement with social causes in Eastern Europe, you’ve likely been affected by the work of Adrienne Cooper, the influential singer and Yiddishist who died in December. Cooper said of interest in Yiddish music, language and culture among younger generations: “This culture belongs to them. They have a right to take it, to create something of their own in it.
The only way it’s going to persist is in that courage and recklessness to just throw themselves at it and to own it.” She was an extraordinarily forward thinker about both Jewish music and Jewish politics — and the intersections between the two.
Through her concerts, recordings, theatrical works, writing and teaching, she reframed Jewish women’s experiences. After her death, radio station WNYC quoted her saying: “My approach to all music is kind of the same. I have an enormous interest in the psychology behind the song and in language. The stuff of the texts was always what I was about.” Her music and her politics were intimately connected — not least in her passionate work around women’s music. A few months before she died, she wrote, with her daughter Sarah Gordon, a powerful article for Lilith that investigated domestic violence in Yiddish women’s songs and “the relentless truth-telling that runs through Yiddish culture and the institutions that have taught its values.” She noted, “When we strip away our sentimental notions and look at the content of the songs, the complicated world that our families come from is revealed. In these songs we hear the clarion voices of our mothers’ grandmothers.
Their experiences and stories empower us to face our own lives as Jewish women. Against the historical odds, Yiddish culture equips us to act in the present.”
In an unusually long obituary in the New York Times, Adrienne Cooper was named a “pioneer… blessed with a lush, expressive mezzo-soprano and a crusader’s fervor [who] shepherded dozens of young performers into Yiddish music and its bedrock culture.”
Cooper herself wrote that she and her friends embraced Yiddish for its “hard-to-describe delights, for the rage it brings to injustice, for its wonderful weight on the tongue, for the arc it forms between poles of Jewish identity — from other worldly to this worldly, from grit to grace — and for the astonishing ushpizin, unexpected guest spirits, who show up and have what to say.”
At her packed memorial service in New York, lines from the poet Wallace Stevens were read aloud: “Then we, as we beheld her there along, /Knew that there never was a worldfor her / Except the one she sang and, singing, made.”
Visit Lilith.org to read Adrienne Cooper’s insights into family violence in women’s Yiddish song, and go to www.forward.com/articles/148921/ for a moving audio tribute.