It is hard to imagine the world without Adrienne Cooper, a friend said to me on learning that she was near death. As she did for so many others, she enriched my life for decades with thrilling song, wise words, and trenchant humor.
She is perhaps best known as a concert and recording artist, one of the great interpreters of Yiddish song of her generation, both on her own and in collaboration with leading lights of Yiddish music and theater, including Josh Dolgin, Sara Felder, Beyle Schaechter Gottesman, Marilyn Lerner, David Krakauer, Frank London, Zalmen Mlotek, Jenny Romaine, Joyce Rosenzweig, Henry Sapoznik, Eve Sicular, Lorin Sklamberg, Alicia Svigals, Josh Waletzky, Michael Winograd, among many others. Based in New York, she performed at Carnegie Hall, the Public Theater, and LaMama, among other venues. Adrienne also appeared in concert in Canada, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine. Deeply informed by traditional Jewish practices of making music, Adrienne pushed the envelope of what Yiddish song might be through a prolific output of recitals, recordings, and music theater pieces.
Beyond her extraordinary artistic accomplishments, Adrienne was a mentor, resource, and role model to so many who have lived, or at least sojourned, in Yiddishland. I first met her, as did many hundreds of other students, when she worked at the YIVO Institute in the 1970s and ’80s, running the Yiddish summer program (then held at Columbia University) and the Max Weinreich Center for Advanced Jewish Studies. She played a pivotal role in guiding us on our way to engaging Yiddish culture as part of our futures, whether as scholars, writers, performers, filmmakers, or activists.
Adrienne also taught us to sing. At the time, I didn’t think it was all that remarkable that someone who was such a gifted musician was also so able a teacher and advisor. Perhaps it was because Adrienne could move from administrator to intellectual to artist so naturally. She taught students around the world that music provided an essential point of entry into Yiddish culture and that the insights of scholars nurture and enrich a musician’s performance. Her many Yiddish musical projects integrated a joyous talent for making music with a deep knowledge of the cultures that engendered these songs and stories. Her passionate performances were rooted in an approach to Jewish culture in which heart and mind are closely coupled.
Adrienne seemed to have inherited a gift for making music; both her mother and her mother’s parents were talented singers. But she did not simply continue a dynasty of Jewish musicians. She charted her own course as an artist, as has her daughter, Sarah Gordon, who is a smart and ardent musician very much in her own right. Mindful of the great Jewish cultural past, Adrienne was committed not to its preservation in a narrow sense, but to its animation through intelligent, creative, and sometimes subversive, engagement.
Similarly, as Adrienne worked tirelessly within a number of institutional settings, including Arbeter-Ring, KlezKamp, YIVO, among others, she invested her creative talents in testing their notions of the possible. In her own way, she followed the precedent of the great Yiddish kultur-tuers of yore like Y. L. Peretz, S. Ansky, and Max Weinreich by integrating art, scholarship, institution building, and political action in all phases of her professional life. In concerts such as “Ghetto Tango,” a suite of songs from the Lodz Ghetto or “Lost In the Stars: Jewish Song after World War II in Hebrew, English, and Yiddish,” she delivered emotionally compelling music and at the same time offered original, incisive surveys of cultural creativity at threshold moments in Jewish life.
Adrienne used other performances to champion the Jewish commitment to redressing economic inequality (In Love and Struggle: Songs of Jewish Labor) or celebrated LGBT rights (Queer Wedding). Her feminism informed all her undertakings: her activism, her writing and translating, and her singing. Fittingly, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice recently honored Adrienne with its Marshall T. Meyer Risk Taker Award for her contributions as a performer to movements for social change.
One of the last times I saw Adrienne sing was at an Arbeter-Ring outdoor summer concert, at which she exhorted the audience to make this a besere un shenere velt, or a better, more beautiful world. The words were delivered with the same emotional force as her singing. In a world without Adrienne, without her voice, her wit, her imagination, her intellect, her fervor, her convictions, it will be that much harder to do so.
Jeffrey Shandler is Professor of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University.