Fifty years ago, Yiddish was generally considered a dying language or one that was already dead if still upright. The Shoah and the Gulag had taken a dreadful toll on Yiddish speakers, readers and writers. Isaac Bashevis Singer was much feted as the last of his tribe (although the brilliant poet Abraham Sutzkever would live until 2009), and Yiddish-based musical forms were considered museum pieces.
But Jewish history is a wildly unpredictable creature. Almost no one foresaw the klezmer revival or the burgeoning interest in Yiddish literature, theater, folklore, etc. that has become more than a small boomlet. “We’ve been trying to create continuity,” says the outstanding Yiddish diva Adrienne Cooper. “In the process, we created new creators.”
Cooper’s newest project, which will be showcased in a concert on Aug. 3, is an ongoing celebration of a most unexpected phenomenon, the flowering of a contemporary Yiddish song movement. Her new CD, “Enchanted,” which will be released at the end of the month on the Golden Horn label, features a concatenation of outstanding musicians and new Yiddish songs, produced and arranged by Michael Winograd, with such luminaries as Frank London and Winograd himself in the band. The concert will, of course, be similarly graced.
The result spans generations, drawing on Cooper’s daughter Sarah Gordon (who works with Winograd in a Yiddish-rock band Yiddish Princess) as well as recordings of Cooper’s grandfather singing at home.
Cooper explains it with typical eloquence.
“My conversation has expanded to a group of artists the age of my daughter, including my daughter — informed and unafraid, fast thinkers, fast talkers, fine musicians, fine friends. Like me, they embrace Yiddish as self-expression, for its hard-to-describe delights, for the rage it brings to injustice, for its wonderful weight on the tongue, for the spectacular arc it forms between poles of Jewish identity — from otherworldly to this worldly, from grit to grace — and for the ushpizin/unexpected guest spirits who show up.”
It is a conversation that has been going on in Yiddish for centuries, as Cooper notes. And it is within the context of that still evolving culture that she places her own work.
“I sing Yiddish very informed by the past and where I am,” Cooper says. “There is an enormous amount of new arranging [of older material] which is part of what Michael brings. But there are [also] new songs being written; I’ve done pieces, Josh Waletzky writes Yiddish songs, Frank London writes, my daughter writes for Michael Winograd’s band.”
One fertile source of new Yiddish song is a most unexpected one, the former Soviet Union. Cooper has been teaching Yiddish workshops in Moscow “for the past few years,” and the new record and the upcoming concert feature songs by some of her students, including Fima Chorny, about whose work she is particularly enthusiastic.
“In the past 10 years they’ve gone from being my students to my colleagues and collaborators,” she says with a chortle.
Winograd is equally enthusiastic.
“We started recording in 2009 and did it over the course of six or seven months,” he says. “It was 90 percent finished a year ago, mixed and everything, but now we get to be performing the stuff.”
The concert is scheduled for Damrosch Park in Lincoln Center. Does playing outdoors present any unusual challenges?
“Well, for a long time I thought I was the bearer of bad luck, because it used to rain at every single outdoor concert I did,” Winograd says dryly.
“Seriously, though, if you’re working at a good venue indoors or outdoors, its better than working at a bad venue regardless. Damrosch is a very solid place to play,” he pauses, then adds, “assuming that it’s not going to rain.”