When Adrienne Cooper died Sunday night, Dec. 25, she left a gap in the world of Yiddish that no one person could possibly fill. Yet she had filled it for decades.
Cooper, 65, was a brilliant singer, a composer of new Yiddish song, an excavator of the Yiddish musical past, an administrator of great skill, an organizer, a teacher and writer. She was a key figure at YIVO and Workmen’s Circle, co-founder of KlezKamp and an unofficial parent to the whole Yiddish revival.
“She was a global figure,” Moishe Rosenfeld, her agent and friend, told The Jewish Week in a phone interview. “She developed an entire generation of Yiddishists, singers and musician. The fact that there is now a generation of people in their 20s who are devoted to reviving Yiddish as a living language is in large part thanks to her.”
There is a moment on Cooper’s CD, “Enchanted: A New Generation of Yiddishsong,” that sums up for me the nature of her impact on the Jewish music world. It is an album that already spans three generations when you get to the piece, “A Song-book.” The cut opens with a wax disk recording of Cooper’s grandfather singing a cantorial piece and her grandmother singing a version of Sholem Aleichem’s lullaby. You can hear baby Adrienne gurgling in the background, already a musician.
“She never cared for divisions of age,” her close friend Alicia Svigals, the renowned klezmer violinist, said. “She liked young people,” as befits someone whose mission included a profound desire to teach and a gift for it.
Cooper was the human bridge that linked her own teachers, including her grandparents and her mother — a prominent concert performer of Yiddish and Hebrew music — as well as Mina Lief, Lazar Weiner and Wolf Younin. Her students, friends and collaborators include almost every figure in Yiddish music and literature in America today (not to mention all over the former Soviet Union, Europe and Israel). Just as her own teachers included her family, a list of her students would have to include her daughter Sara, 31, co-leader of the band Yiddish Princess. (Cooper is survived, as well, by her partner, the superb pianist-composer, Marilyn Lerner.)
“She was the glue that held together a whole community,” Svigals said. “She was the mother of the revival. She had a depth of knowledge, her writing was nuanced and scholarly, and she took it with her.”
“Mother” is a good word for Cooper. She not only was a great talent but she was also blessed with a warmth and generosity of spirit so that people flocked to her instinctively. In a community fortunate to have many strong personalities and sources of emotional support, she was the one that they all turned to.
“She had a tremendous magnetism,” Rosenfeld said.
She also had a great musical talent, one that is underappreciated outside the Jewish music world.
“She was a world-class artist,” noted Svigals. “The depth and power of her artistry, she was generous as an artist, she would open herself up. She gave people chills.”
Eve Sicular, the drummer and founder/leader of Metropolitan Klezmer and Isle of Klezbos, who worked with Cooper on several projects, said, “I was very inspired by her musicality. It’s just so wonderful the way her feeling for Yiddish culture was imbuing her vocals, her way of presenting stories, presenting so much about the way this culture tells a story, through the way she sang.”
For this critic, Cooper’s great learning and the way she passed it along were inevitably secondary to her powerful performing presence. Her instrument was a rich and powerful one, pliant and emotionally expressive in the way that great singer’s voices are. I have written that she belonged among the very greatest women performers in world music, alongside women like Cesaria Evora (who, ironically, died eight days before Cooper), Amalia Rodrigues and Marta Sebestyen.
That’s how good she was.
But her overall impact was greater. As Sicular said, “She wore so many hats, she held it all together. She was able to combine all these amazing arts and her personality. That’s why there is such a hole in the Yiddish universe today.”