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Some Excerpts from the Memorial Service for Adrienne Cooper

Helen Engelhardt
February 20, 2012

Adrienne Cooper (September 1, 1946 – December 25, 2011), a vibrant performer and scholar of Yiddish song and Yiddish culture who was a member of our magazine’s Editorial Board, was memorialized on January 1st of this year at Ansche Chesed in New York. The following excerpts from her memorial service were captured by Helen Engelhardt on tape and are narrated by her.

Those of us who came to mourn Adrienne’s sudden, untimely death were handed a program that would have been appropriate for one of her concerts. I expected her memorial service would be filled with music and tributes from friends and family — and it was — but it was uniquely organized, thematically, with songs and poetry.

The first four people who spoke were Rabbi Jeffrey Kalmanofsky of Ansche Chesed, Jeffrey Shandler, Sophia Gutherz and Sam Norich. “Not surprisingly, we’re going to begin musically,” Rabbi Kalmanofsky said, and the line of musicians and singers began singing as they walked from their seats, softly as though from a great distance, growing louder as they approached the microphone and as we joined them,

A gute vokh, a gezunte vokh / Oy vintshn mir tsu ale yidn/Un tsu ale fayne gute layt/ Velkhe zaynen ale do.

Oy got zol gebn tsu yedn eynem/Vos er badarft nokh zayn farlang/ Oy lekhem lekhoyl, begged lilboysh/ Veyayin kidush lehavdolo.

A good week, a healthy week/ To each and everyone here/ God grant the basics/ To each in need, at least/ Clothing, shelter, enough to eat

Gezunt zoln mir zayn

Health and long years

trinken veln mir vayn

Wine to drown our fears

bizn vaysn tog arayn

Drinking on til dawn appears

We began singing with the chorus, louder and stronger each time it was repeated. We were being blessed by the words. We were blessing ourselves. On Adrienne’s last CD, Enchanted, she concluded with this folk song. Now, her memorial began with this song. And then the singers subsided into a hum, and the mandolin plucked out the melody as they turned and walked back towards their seats.

Here are some excerpts of some of the tributes offered to Adrienne on New Year’s Day in the sanctuary of Ansche Chesed on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a shule where Adrienne used to participate, now filled to capacity with people who came to honor her.

Rabbi Kalmonofsky: Everybody is more than what they do, They are what they are. Adrienne led a full life, more that can be held in a box... or in words that people can say...

She made tremendous contributions to Jewish life and culture... not just Jewish... she was also involved with the Chinese American community...

She was not a preservationist but a creator... helping people be what they might become.

There is a traditional Rip Van Winkle type of story in the Talmud. A man wakes after many years asleep and then dies of heartbreak, bereft of all his friends. Friendship or death. We cannot avoid death. But we can choose khevruta, friendship. Adrienne always chose friendship

She brought a lot of people together. Let us hang on as long as possible to her. People will be given an opportunity to share their personal stories on video after this service. But we are here to say goodbye to the real person...

There is a tradition to symbolize the rip in our lives by a rip in clothing. Everybody here can choose to do so. Some friends and family have been invited to participate in this ritual.... Display your broken heart. I suggest that in great grief, hearts can be broken open.

Jeffrey Shandler: Adrienne was my ambassador to Yiddishland, to become a resident there, not just a tourist. I went on to graduate studies, to YIVO where I worked with her, writing and translating. I met my partner of 24 years because of her. She fostered people interested in Yiddish culture and progressive politics, effortlessly making art, scholarship, institution building.

Sam Norich: Adrienne now lives in memory... I will remember her along with a few dozen other people who had the privilege of working with Adrienne on a day to day basis from 1981-89 at YIVO... and especially during the last dozen years in her various roles the Workmen’s Circle. I hired Adrienne in 1981 as Assistant Director at YIVO... at the Max Weinrich Center... She had been a student in American Jewish history at Columbia.

I appreciated her many gifts, not only her rich voice, but also her intellectual heft, her sharp pen, her ability to do many things at once, and not least her emotional presence and her warmth. The Max Weinrich Center was an introduction to a thousand years of Ashkenaz — of the Jews of Europe and America.

It was out of that experience that Klezkamp was born. Klezkamp was her brain child, hers and Henry Saponzik’s. Klezkamp had its incubation for its first ten years at YIVO. It was supposed to break even from grants and fees. It never did, but we backed it because of what Adrienne made happen. From her and Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett I learned the main lesson: transmission is not a handing on, it’s a struggle that only happens if you change [what you’re handing on].

The old generation says, Why, aren’t we good enough? But carrying on tradition should not be thought of a potato sack race, when the old hand it off to the next generation. It should be thought of as a moving tug of war pulling in opposite directions. The worst thing you can do is let go. You’ve got to keep pulling. That was the way Adrienne performed a song. She learned what it had meant but she brought something of her own to it. That’s how she taught others to perform.

Adrienne now lives in our memory. The question is, what we will do with it?

The next section of the memorial was entitled, Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order in Key West.”

“We were reading passages from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets,” the program said, “when Adrienne suggested we read Wallace Stevens, ‘The Idea of Order in Key West.’ From the many lines that struck a chord, a few were particularly moving.”

“Then we, as we beheld her striding there alone,/ Knew that there never was a world for her/ Except the one she sang and, singing, made.”

The entire poem was read by Tine Kinderman and Frank London. Puppeteer and performance artist Jennie Romaine followed:

Jennie Romaine: In 2010, I had the honor of presenting her with the Marshall T. Meyers Risk Taker Award for Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. Meyer was a rabbi who resisted the military junta in Argentina. The citation was written by myself and Jenny Levinson:

“Adrienne Cooper has the voice of a diva and the soul of a Bundist. She is an interpreter, teacher and translator of Yiddish song who for decades has gifted thousands of us with the real beauty of making music... Cooper continues a tradition begun by Jewish radicals in Eastern Europe. These activists built institutions like YIVO... During her decade of service with YIVO, Adrienne was mentored by Bundist survivors who believed in an integrated Jewish culture that lives in the real world and who are committed to people in and outside the Jewish community. She’s part of a legacy of Jews who rewrote history by building power and institutions grounded in what people are abundantly rich in: culture.

“Adrienne’s movement is a political work of art in which every fragment of what folk do can be used to chart a new political course. The list of Adrienne’s organizational commitments are long, so I won’t read them. Adrienne Cooper is a fearless guide... who has made sure that no one is excluded from this resource and no power can silence it. She brings people, ideas, and buildings together to create spaces for unimaginable political joy and artistic joy. She is a forest of Jewish sound, a joyous crowd, a resistance fighter, a lover, I would add, a flirt, a screaming rhetorical street poster and a tzaddik. For all of this, and for never working from a place of choseness or nostalgia, but from a place of justice and empathy and complex Yiddish polyphony, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice honors her with... etc.”

And to this, Adrienne replied, “Oy” and the audience laughed. And then she went on to say: I grew up in Oakland, California in Rabbi Harold Schulweis’s synagogue. He was our local version of Rabbi Marshal Meyer, an agitator, activist, inspiring intellect. On the bima, Yom Kippur, packed house, when Rabbi Schulweis began his sermon on exploitative Jewish landlords with Black tenants, the family in the front row, the prime seats, stood up and, led by the landlord father, headed up the aisles to leave. Rabbi Schulweis told the ushers to lock the doors and told the family to sit down and listen.

They were trapped. They sat down. That single experience kept me a lifetime in Jewish community. That was what I expected Jewish life to be like: ethical, exciting and dangerous. That’s the kind of Jew I intended to be! I have tried my best.

The artist and activist Marc Kaminsky spoke next.

Marc Kaminsky: As the days pass with their aftershocks, the crater Adrienne’s death has left in my heart has widened and deepened. There’s been nothing for it but to fill it with tears, tears which change the vacancy of... grief into a reflecting pool. In the enormity of the loss I feel, I saw just how far Adrienne’s presence reaches into my life and I draw comfort from being near those who were and are near to her. We need each other now, for each of us carries an aspect of Adrienne that, in reflecting her particular impact on us, reassembles and reflects her tremendous impact on the world.

Other eulogists included Yiddishist Michael Wex and Debra Cohen-Mlotek.

Michael Wex: I met Adrienne Christmas Eve 1987. I was one of Adrienne’s failed experiments. I don’t sing and I already spoke Yiddish when I met her. What Adrienne and I did was hang out... We’d be there at the back, rolling our eyes and making smart remarks. The difference is everybody knew I was doing it....

We’d go to Yiddish-themed events and speak to each other in Hebrew... We spent most of our time laughing, sometimes with pleasure, often as not in dismay... I got something a bit different from what she gave to other people. In my case it was to remind me that maybe, just maybe there was a small chance that I didn’t completely know it all.

To give you an idea, the song that we’ve been singing, one of Adrienne’s signature pieces, we’ll be singing it later today and always together, “Volt ikh gehat koyekh/ If I only had the strength.” This was a song that for a century or more was the sole possession of the people who liked to throw stones at cars who had the khutspe to drive past them on Saturday afternoon. The words mean, If I only had the strength, I would run through the streets and yell Sabbath at the top of my voice. What did Adrienne do with this song? She saw that the word, Shabbos, which is supposed to connote peace and harmony and unity, instead had been turned into a slogan for hatred and for division. The song that all of us should be singing had been taken away from us. And Adrienne, who could tolerate just about anything except lies and injustice, was determined to give it back to us, to get it back for us. This is the essence of what Adrienne did... She only needed to change two Yiddish syllables to turn hatred into love and to take division back to unity. By changing shabbos to sholem, she didn’t change the song, she repaired it. She gave it its tikkun, what it’s supposed to be. I grew up in the stone-throwing part of this world. I come from the other side of this cultural and religious divide. I grew up with this stuff, but it was Adrienne taught me to like it. She had a talent for subversion along with an innate sense of decorum, to let her reverse a tradition before any of its guardians had actually noticed...

It is her energy which will keep Adrienne present, as long as we’re still here.... We’re here to see Adrienne home... Adrienne will never really be gone... Adrienne can be anything. What she can’t be is replaced.

After Dan Kahn read “Why Abstain?” by Hafiz (14th-century Persian poet), the musicians returned to the front of the room and we all sang:

Volt ikh gehat koyekh/ Volt ikh gelofn in di gasn/ Volt ikh geshrign sholem/ Oy Sholem, sholem, sholem.

If my voice were louder/ If my body stronger/ I would tear through the streets/ Crying Peace, peace, peace.

Jonathan Gordon, a cantor who was Adrienne’s former husband, Marilyn Lerner, Adrienne’s bereaved partner and musical collaborator, and Sarah Gordon, Adrienne’s daughter, spoke before Rabbi Kalmonofsky returned to the microphone.

After Jonathan Gordon sang El Mole Rachamim, and Kaddish was chanted, we listened to a recording of Adrienne singing “Harbstlid (Autumn Song)” by Beyle Gottesman.

“See, it’s autumn, and what greened now yellows and fades./See, it’s autumn/and what blossomed now withers./And I thought it would be spring forever,/and that I held in my hand/all eternity...”

Helen Engelhardt is an activist, author, poet, storyteller and independent audio artist who wrote the cover story on Ezra Jack Keats for the Summer & Autumn, 2011 issue of Jewish Currents.