A Tribute To Adrienne Cooper — Beloved Yiddishist, Activist and Musical Star
“God’s bank vault is filled with tears shed for loss,” Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky said to a crowd of 900 at the January 1 memorial for Adrienne Cooper, held at the New York City congregation Ansche Chesed. Cooper, who died December 25 at age 65 of a rare aggressive cancer, was, as the rabbi noted, “a Yiddish singer, teacher, activist… a friend whose imperative was a shenere un a besere velt [a more beautiful and better world].” For Cooper, Kalmanofsky added, “It was not just about being Jewish, but being human…. She was not a [Yiddish] preservationist, but a creator of the present.”
When it was her turn at the lectern, Marilyn Lerner, a pianist and Cooper’s partner, looked heavenward and cried out: “It’s not f….. g fair! We were compatible comrades. I had never met someone who was not an immigrant and spoke Yiddish…. I was loved and will never be loved like this [again]! What was there not to love? She called me ‘refugee girl’ when I decided to clean house. She brought me to you, and I beg you to keep me!”
The program opened with an instrumental ensemble of Cooper’s friends providing the accompaniment for the mourners singing the traditional Yiddish song “A Gute Vokh’ [“A Good Week”], which Cooper had translated into English: “A good week, a healthy week; to each and everyone here. God grant the basics… at least clothing, shelter, enough to eat, health and long years… wine to drown our fears.” With a small razor blade in hand, Kalmanofsky shredded bits of cloth on several mourners “to express the symbolic sorrow of our life having been ripped apart.”
“She was my mom,” said Cooper’s daughter, Sarah Gordon. “Too many stories…. She was so much to so many people. As a child she’d wrap me in a blanket on the porch, and as I got bitten by mosquitoes she read me stories.” Jonathan Gordon, from whom Cooper was divorced in 1984, led the crowd in singing “Volt Ikh Gehat Koyekh” (“If I Had Strength”), a traditional song adapted by Cooper into English: “If my voice was louder, if my body stronger; I would take to the streets shouting ‘peace, peace, peace.’” One speaker recalled that following an interview between Cooper and Isaac Bashevis Singer, Singer proposed marriage to Cooper.
“Thousands will remember her concerts filled with renditions of loss and solidarity,” Forward Publisher Samuel Norich said. “She was a mentor in the U.S., in Canada, in Poland, Israel, Russia, Holland. In 1981 — when I was the executive director of YIVO [the Yiddish Institute for Jewish Research] — I hired her…. Klez Kamp, her inspiration, is a resource for klezmer musicians and wannabee klezmer which meets annually in the Catskills.” Norich lauded Cooper — whose official title was Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring’s executive officer for external affairs — as “an inspiration for young generations [who] can’t take it as it is [but] want to make [the culture] their own…. It took courage in the 1980s — with most survivors gone — to make changes. It was a tug-of-war in which there was pull in opposite directions. Most important is to keep pulling. The question is, what will we do with [the changes]?”
I had known Cooper for decades. We usually conversed in Yiddish, and twice she invited me to participate in the Workmen’s Circle Cultural Seders, which she created and led. Among my cherished memories of Cooper is her performance on August 3, 2010, at Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park in the Workmen’s Circle-sponsored “Music for a Better World” concert. Her rendition of Isidor Lillian’s song “Gefilte Fish” — about a 2-year-old jar of gefilte fish forgotten in the back of a pantry — elicited laughter and applause of recognition from the 3,500 fans seated on metal chairs outdoors.
“As long as the memorial is in progress, Adrienne is still here,” someone behind me said. The memorial concluded with a recording of Cooper singing “Harbstlid” (“Autumn Song”) with words and music by Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman. “She’ll be leaving us soon,” said the same voice behind me. When the music stopped, there was total silence in the sanctuary for one or two minutes. No one moved until Kalmanofsky came forward and exit directions were given. The woman behind me was sobbing: “Now she’s gone!”
Cooper friends and colleagues who participated in memorial included Jeffrey Shandler, Sophia Gutherz, Marsha Gildin, Alicia Svigals, Michael Wex, Jenny Romaine and Debra Cohen-Mlotek.
Remembering Arts Impresario Omus Hirshbein, Son of Yiddish Playwright Peretz Hirshbein
Omus Hirshbein, who died on December 31, 2011, at 77, and with whom I always spoke in Yiddish, once told me: “My father [playwright Peretz Hirshbein] laid the cornerstone of the YIVO building in 1926 in Vilna, and Yiddish is my mother tongue. I lived oyf der yiddisher gas [on Yiddish Street].” Having transformed the performing arts programming at the 92nd Street Y over a span of 20 years, he was, he told me, “seduced” by the National Endowment for the Arts. On June 2, 1997, Omus Hirshbein was honored by The National Foundation for Jewish Culture at a gala held at 92Y and hosted by Isaiah Sheffer, who that May had orchestrated the Forward’s 100th anniversary bash at the Town Hall. Told to keep his acceptance speech to three minutes following a reading of his mother Esther Shumiatcher’s poetry by choreographer-dancer Pearl Lang, Hirshbein simply declared, “Wow!”