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Shouting for Peace

Rokhl’s Golden City: Vocalist Adrienne Cooper united the fractious Yiddish world

Rokhl Kafrissen
December 02, 2022
Inset image from the cover of Adrienne Cooper's record 'Dreaming in Yiddish'
Adrienne CooperInset image from the cover of Adrienne Cooper’s record ‘Dreaming in Yiddish’
Inset image from the cover of Adrienne Cooper's record 'Dreaming in Yiddish'
Adrienne CooperInset image from the cover of Adrienne Cooper’s record ‘Dreaming in Yiddish’

At the end of October I got some wonderfully overwhelming news. Sarah Gordon, daughter of the late vocalist and teacher Adrienne Cooper, called to tell me that I had been selected to receive the Adrienne Cooper Dreaming in Yiddish award for 2022. That put me in the company of past awardees like Josh Dolgin, Michael Wex, Shane Baker, and Irena Klepfisz. Sure, most of the past honorees are friends or acquaintances. But they’re also people I admire tremendously and who intimidate me just a teeny bit.

In the years since its establishment in 2012, the Dreaming in Yiddish concert and award presentation have become one of the most joyful nights of the year, a raucous, affirming evening of art and community support. I felt more than slightly unprepared for such an honor, which will take place during the Yiddish New York festival, on Dec. 28.

In the weeks since I got the call, my mind has repeatedly returned to memories of Adrienne Cooper. First and foremost, what I recall is a mentsh, a woman for whom kindness was always the easiest path. I met her in my first year or so on the klezmer scene, when I was at my early cringe fangirl peak. She never once made me feel silly or unwelcome, though I’m sure I provided plenty of reasons. From then on, she was always in my life, one way or another: a warm, brilliant, reassuring, but formidable presence. Our paths most often crossed at the old Arbeter Ring building on East 33rd Street, where she was an executive at the Workmen’s Circle.

After she passed in December 2011, a small group of close friends and family established the Adrienne Cooper Fund for Dreaming in Yiddish, to “support artists as they embark on the timeless, boundless, utterly unexpected adventure of working in Yiddish.” Dreaming in Yiddish was the name of her first CD. But it is also suggestive of an entire ethos. As Frank London told me, when the fund’s committee looks at candidates for the prize, they want to know, “Does this person not only dream in Yiddish, but have they done something with those dreams? That’s what’s important about the prize—the expansion and vitality of the culture.”

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve also realized just how much Cooper has been missed, how much I’ve missed her. So, I called up some of her closest friends and loved ones and asked them to tell me what they wanted to remember about her.

Marilyn Lerner is a musician and psychotherapist in Toronto. She and Adrienne started as musical collaborators, then became partners, in a relationship that endured until Adrienne’s death in 2011. (And in many ways, still endures today.) I first heard Marilyn play at one of the Klezkanada evening concerts. In a room full of extraordinary talents, she was extra extraordinary. But in the klezmer world, Marilyn’s primary role was not renowned jazz piano soloist, but accompanist to Adrienne Cooper. Here’s what she told me:

I came from a certain jazz classical background in which I didn’t want to play what wasn’t me. I was given a fair amount of freedom to frame things how I felt and Adrienne was really great about that. … The thing about playing for Adrienne was, you never knew where you were going to end up; it was always an adventure. She was one of those performers who didn’t have any hang-ups in terms of expression. It was one of those pure music experiences with her every time. There was no barrier between her and the audience and the music. To make music with someone who is at that place, what else do you want?

Here Marilyn Lerner and Adrienne Cooper perform one of Adrienne’s signature songs, “Borscht,” in 2003, at the start of their journey as collaborators

Here’s Marilyn again:

On stage, Adrienne could give you the intimacy and passion that made you feel like she was singing to you only … and that’s not hooked into her being easy to know. And that’s the paradox. It’s like that for any great artist. People think they know, and want to know, and feel they have a claim to them. … It’s an interesting conundrum for an artist. Singers can’t hide behind anything; they are their instrument. … She used to say she felt like she was a late bloomer and a junior singer and at some point, she was not a junior singer. She knew she had what to say.

In this clip from 2009, Marilyn and Adrienne joined an international group of musicians for some Hanukkah-themed tunes. Adrienne’s singing of the blessing alone is a showstopping moment.

In the late 1990s, Adrienne began a collaboration with theater artist Jenny Romaine and trumpet player-composer Frank London, on a new show based on the memoirs of Glikl (or Gluckel, in their spelling) of Hamel. I saw the show when it played at LaMaMa in 2000 and it was everything you would expect it to be: innovative, challenging, fun, and provocative. Demonstrating yet more of her talents, Adrienne wrote the English lyrics for the show’s songs, which were then worked into Yiddish verses by Michael Wex, a peerless creator of new Yiddish songs. Unfortunately, as with many of Adrienne’s projects, there was a lengthy delay before those songs would be recorded and brought out on CD.

“Gluckel’s Ballad of Mother Love” is a perfect example of what Adrienne did so well. She saw the text with fresh eyes, finding and framing Gluckel’s complicated relationship to motherhood. The song was recorded for her 2010 CD, Enchanted.

I spoke to Michael Wex about his decadeslong friendship with Adrienne, nurtured at Catskill hotel bars and in the back of countless klezmer festival halls. They first met in December 1987, at Klezkamp, where she was one of the co-founders of the weeklong festival. Wex had arrived not knowing a single person, but that would soon change. Here’s what he told me:

Adrienne wasn’t a career academic; you can’t get too lost in your own brilliance when you’re outside the university system. You’ve gotta be comprehensible to people who aren’t specialists. That’s one of the things that she did better than anyone. She could make people with limited exposure to this stuff feel like they’re part of it.
With Adrienne, you were dealing with a somewhat different effect on the audience and different image than the Klezmatics … she was a friend, lover, and mother, but it was all the same person. She was able to do that, code switching, she could do that in front of an audience. In performance, everyone thought they were getting the “essential” Adrienne, it wasn’t that she was withholding anything, but she tended to know what would move them.
The thing that Adrienne could and no one else could do—Jewlia Eisenberg might have been the closest—she could bring people from disparate parts of everything, from the crazy Yiddish world, which is fractious at times, and she could unite people. She could bring everyone together, so everyone could focus in on her … At her first memorial concert, people were fighting to get on the roster, some of whom don’t talk to each other, and yet everyone felt that they needed to be there.

This was a theme that came up with everyone who spoke about Adrienne. She had a special gift for bringing people together, for making everyone feel welcome. Everyone loved Adrienne, even when they hated each other.

Another of her other signature songs was “Volt ikh gehat koyekh (If I Had the Strength)”:

If my voice was louder
If my body stronger
I would tear to the streets
Shouting “peace, peace, peace”

It’s hard to think of anyone whose voice was stronger, or better suited, to shout for peace.

Artist and vocalist Tine Kindermann met Adrienne around 1990, when she first arrived in the East Village from Berlin. Years later, when Tine was getting ready to record her own album of German folk songs, she went to Adrienne for a vocal lesson. Here’s what she told me:

Very little with Adrienne was ever awkward. The relationships of “here’s my friend, here’s my teacher, here’s my mentor”—it was all very comfortably sitting on the same level. There were no uncomfortable boundaries, it was one stop shopping.

At other times Tine observed Adrienne with her many vocal students.

She would be teaching students who were on all levels of professionalism … she would be so generous and so welcoming and she would meet people where they were … I learned so much from seeing what she taught the other students. I also learned about teaching. How to use non-judgmental language, how to be gentle and kind, how to make people feel safe.

Sometimes, that ability to make people feel safe became quite literal, as Tine explained.

We were on the way to Boston where [Tine’s husband] Frank [London] and Adrienne were going to perform; in the Volvo with two little kids sleeping in the back. It starts snowing. We’re driving very carefully and slowly and we see the car in front of us start to slowly come toward us. And Adrienne is in the passenger seat and she says, calmly, “oh fuck.” And then we crashed on the shoulder and Adrienne says, calmly, “oh fuck.” And the kids slept through the whole thing. The car was totaled. But no one was hurt. Adrienne was a really good person to be in a car crash with. …
She was really a powerful presence and at the same time, a gentle presence and a nurturing presence. It was one of the reasons why she made such an intense impression on people as a teacher. She was professional, but never cold or distant.
It’s almost like she never allowed the thought of it being a problem, that she might be dismissed for being too maternal. She had what felt like an “easy authority” based on knowing herself and her strengths as a performer.

Trumpet player, composer, and co-founder of the legendary band the Klezmatics, Frank London moved to New York City in the mid-1980s, where he met Adrienne. They went on to collaborate on countless musical projects. Here’s what he remembered about her:

Adrienne was so generous and open and helpful, but not in a naïve way. She didn’t suffer fools gladly. Because she was so generous and not defensive, that doesn’t mean she didn’t have an edge, and that’s why we love her. And that’s also why she’s the mother of us all, in that sense.
One of the things she always was to us was Sarah’s mother. That was one of many things. Adrienne presents a much better stereotype of maternal. Not “baking pies and being subservient to a husband” maternal … Adrienne could do a strong reading and reinterpretation of Eyshes Khayil [A Woman of Valor, a text from Proverbs, praising the idealized Jewish wife, traditionally sung on Friday night by a husband to his wife] in all its complexity.
We explored this a lot when we worked on Glikl … Glikl as an eyshes khayil. Glikl knew how to go into the marketplace and negotiate a good deal. She learned how to be in the marketplace and take care of her kids. It’s OK to feel hesitant, but it’s OK to embrace that.

The very first Eyshes Khayil I think I ever heard was the version Adrienne sang, most memorably with the magical all-woman klezmer supergroup Mikveh. Adrienne was the kind of artist who could study a text like Eyshes Khayil, internalize it, and transform it into a stunning performance like this. In under four minutes, Adrienne embraces tradition with all her might, stretching her powerful vocal arms ’round the glorious contradictions of modern Jewish womanhood.

London recalled:

One of the greatest experiences was Adrienne, Jenny and I creating Glikl. The musical connections, the feminist connections she made … As a performer, she was one of the few people who understood theory and practice. Some people only get one or the other. But she had it all … she had the breadth of knowledge and wanted to share it … Without Adrienne Cooper, the klezmer revival does not sing Ale Brider or Shnirele Perele. As a communicator of these songs, without her, we don’t know these songs. … The Klezmatics doing Ale Brider came from her teaching at YIVO’s summer program.

Thinking about Adrienne 11 years after her death, I am absolutely struck by how she was ahead of the curve on so many things, including the darkly sensual poetry of Anna Margolin, which has been undergoing something of a revival in the last few years.

One night in May 2007, I went over to Adrienne’s Morningside Heights apartment to interview her about her own Anna Margolin project, a song cycle with music by Marilyn Lerner, called Shake My Heart Like a Copper Bell. I learned that Adrienne had been one of the first researchers to use Margolin’s papers when they were acquired by YIVO in 1976. Marilyn recalled:

Adrienne was psychologically minded. She went to Israel and met Margolin’s son, who had been taken to Israel with his father. Adrienne interviewed the son in Israel. She was working on the poetry of Margolin, she had a whole box of her letters. She was an ethnologist: when she did a project, she researched it and wrote the liner notes herself, same with Ghetto Tango.

When we spoke recently, Marilyn told me that the Anna Margolin song cycle is finally mastered and almost ready to be released into the world. Readers are advised to watch this space for details.

Adrienne’s daughter is Sarah Gordon, a teacher, singer, and composer of excellent new Yiddish songs. I asked her what she wanted people to remember about Adrienne. She said:

The ongoing teaching that I get from her was her generosity. I think that she advocated for people, and for them to be who they were. She was so interested in people being themselves in Yiddish and through Yiddish. If she was meeting new people in the former Soviet Union, and learning their stories and teaching songs and hearing them take those songs on for themselves, that was huge for her.
When she worked at the very earliest JFREJ Purim shpiln—wild, queer, out there pieces, and a world that she wasn’t particularly connected with [yet]—she was also fascinated by them and their stories.

I loved those JFREJ Purim shpiln, and have vivid memories of Adrienne’s participation in the craziness over the years. When I think of her, I often take myself back to a sunny day in 2008, when I dropped by her office at the Workmen’s Circle seeking advice about my upcoming trip to Vilnius, Lithuania. Adrienne was, of course, incisive, informed, and exactly the wise friend I needed at that moment. But that Adrienne has been joined in my memories by the Adrienne at those JFREJ Purim parties. She is a woman who always had enough to share, a mentsh who built bridges across worlds and then danced across them.

Dreaming in Yiddish: Yiddish New York will take place Dec. 24-29. You can register for the full festival or buy individual event passes here … Purchase tickets to the Dec. 28 Dreaming in Yiddish evening concert and award here.

ALSO: Klezmer has returned to Harlem. The historic Old Broadway Synagogue has started hosting klezmer nights with New York’s top musicians. Coming up will be a trio with Di Naye Kapelye’s Bob Cohen (fidl), Jake Shulman-Ment (fiddle) and Pete Rushefsky (tsimbl) Saturday, Dec. 10, Old Broadway Synagogue, 15 Old Broadway between 125th and 126th streets. More information here … I had the great pleasure of meeting Sonia Kramer this summer when she was visiting from Brazil. She is a Yiddishist, teacher, and coordinator of the Núcleo Viver com Yiddish—Lebn far Yiddish Center in Rio de Janeiro. Sonia will be the featured guest at December’s YIVO Yiddish Club (in English), with host Shane Baker. More info here … Also on Dec. 11, Workers Circle will present the brilliant English researcher-musician Vivi Lachs at their Yiddish Schmooze: London Yiddishtown East End Jewish Life in Yiddish Sketch and Story. Register hereKlezmatics fans rejoice! The band is on a minitour for khanike, including stops in California, Nevada, and Washington state. Get all the details at their website … Is learning Yiddish on your New Year’s resolution list? The Yiddish Book Center is offering their Bossie Dubowick Yiddish School Online, “a week of remote language-learning, lectures, and workshops …” Jan. 8-13, 2023 … YIVO’s Eddy Portnoy (Bad Rabbi) has a new podcast called The Jewish Bizarre, with co-hosts Tony Michels (also a fave of the column) and comedian Jessica Chaffin. I’m sold. Peep the trailer here.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.