Palo Alto Yiddish fest will give voice to ghetto songs

Singer Adrienne Cooper gives a voice to Jews who were forced from their homes by the Nazis and condemned to face their own deaths in the ghettos of Eastern Europe.

Rather than sing songs of mourning, however, she celebrates their lives.

The internationally acclaimed interpreter of Jewish music will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 4 during the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center’s Ninth Annual Yiddish Festival in Palo Alto.

Her interpretive musical performance, “Ghetto Tango,” revives the works of the composers, lyricists, actors, singers and street performers who first performed them — despite the dehumanizing living conditions.

“There was a passionate and desperate need to be whole people and have purpose,” says Cooper in a phone interview from New York, where she lives. “They didn’t have a normal life, but they wanted to be productive. So, without the structure of work, musicians made work for themselves.”

First performed in 1998, “Ghetto Tango” is the culmination of 10 years of Cooper’s research on music from the Holocaust period. She will be accompanied by pianist Rob Schwimmer.

A singer since childhood, Cooper combined her research on Yiddish culture with her musical skills to create the show, which expresses endurance and life.

“When you really look at the text of the songs, [the artists] were telling you they didn’t want to be a part of a memorial,” Cooper says.

“There’s a sense of rawness in the immediacy of people trying to make art out of their experience. They really give themselves up to the moment.”

Cooper is director of programs at the New York branch of Workmen’s Circle, an organization which promotes Yiddish culture. She was first drawn to Eastern European culture while working on a fellowship at the Yivo Institute for Jewish Research in New York.

“It was just an endless source of fascination,” says Cooper, adding that she feels lucky to be working in this field. “There’s an amazing range of aspects within Yiddish culture.”

She is particularly interested in the continuity of Yiddish culture through the ages.

“Yiddish culture continues to inform many people of who they are and how they behave,” she says. Many Holocaust survivors, she notes, remember the ghetto songs, despite the trauma they experienced at the time.

“The case of the ghettos is the extreme, but Jews were making music before the war, and now continued to do so under extremely vile circumstances.”

For instance, “Moyshe halt zikh” (Moyshe hold on), the first song in “Ghetto Tango,” was performed the night before a major deportation from the Vilna Ghetto.

“They knew what was happening; they knew they could be deported and killed,” says Cooper.

“Some argued these cabarets were inappropriate — you don’t make theater in a cemetery. But you have to do what you know how to do. We can call it a spiritual resistance, but it really was taking the right to do your art and be a human being. What they were doing was expressing themselves.”

Cooper, who was born in Oakland and lived there in the 1950s and 1960s, taught Hebrew school at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland. She studied history at U.C. Berkeley and later, the University of Chicago, then received the fellowship at the Yivo Institute.

Her mother, Buni Cooper, still lives in the Bay Area and has performed with a local Yiddish theater group. The younger Cooper has been commissioned by museums and universities to perform in concerts at various venues. She recently completed a run in New York of “The Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln,” a pre-modern Yiddish play based on the diaries of a 17th-century mother of 12 children.

Cooper also sings in the all-female klezmer band Mikveh, and she serves as coordinator of Kol Kehila: A Community of Voices Jewish Continuity Project at a synagogue in Port Washington, N.Y.

Her singing is featured on several recordings, including the Grammy-nominated “Partisans of Vilna.”

The music of “Ghetto Tango” is set for release on CD by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in April.

She hopes the energy, wit and emotional clarity of the songs, which inspired her, will inspire others as well.

“When I created this show, I wanted people to really look at how these people lived and not how they died,” she says. “There’s no music in the moment of death, but there sure was before that.”

Aleza Goldsmith

Aleza Goldsmith is a former J. staff writer.