Yiddish singer, activist Adrienne Cooper dies at 65

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Renowned Yiddish singer, teacher, and music curator Adrienne Cooper, an Oakland native lauded worldwide for her interpretations of Yiddish song as well as her ability to transmit that knowledge to the next generation, died Dec. 25 in Manhattan. She was 65.

Obituaries in the New York Times, the Forward and other leading publications testify to Cooper’s indelible imprint on the teaching, preservation and performance of Yiddish music.

Cooper’s mother, Buni Cooper, 89, a well-known Bay Area singer of opera, musical theater and Yiddish music, who was Adrienne’s first teacher and performed often with her daughter, said that Zalman Mlotek, artistic director of the New York–based National Yiddish Theatre–Folksbiene, called her at her Danville home with his condolences.

Adrienne Cooper

“He said, music is not music for me anymore now that Adrienne is gone,” she said.

Adrienne Cooper was born Sept. 1, 1946 in Oakland. The family belonged first to Congreg-ation Beth Jacob in Oakland, and then moved to nearby Congregation Beth Abraham.

Cooper graduated from Oakland High School in 1964, and two years later left for Israel, where she earned a bachelor’s degree from Hebrew University and studied voice at the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem, said her brother, Dr. Michael Cooper, professor of pediatric cardiology at UCSF Medical Center.

In 1970 she moved back to the United States, getting a master’s in history and starting her Ph.D. at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, but abandoned her dissertation to pursue music full time, according to her brother. “Adrienne chose not to study history; she chose to make history,” he told j.

Cooper moved through prestigious positions first as the associate director of   YIVO, then as co-founder of KlezKamp, an annual confab of the world’s premier Yiddish musicians and scholars, and most recently as cultural executive at the Workmen’s Circle. She was a mentor and role model to many upcoming performers and lovers of Yiddish music, including her daughter Sarah Gordon, a New York–based musician who sang with her mother on her last album.

Cooper collaborated with the leading Yiddish stars of the day, and performed at New York’s Carnegie Hall as well as throughout Europe and the former Soviet Union. Mlotek, who performed with her for more than 20 years, called her one of the most significant interpreters of Yiddish song in 50 years.

Cooper had other causes as well, which she championed through her music and writing: labor activism, economic equality, feminism and GLBT rights. Recently, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice gave her its Marshall T. Meyer Risk Taker Award for her contributions as a performer to movements for social change.

“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,” wrote Jeffrey Shandler, Jewish studies professor at Rutgers University, in a tribute to Cooper that appeared in the Forward.

Adrienne Cooper was buried in Lafayette’s Oakmont Cemetery. She is survived by her mother, two brothers, her daughter and her partner, Marilyn Lerner.

— j. staff and wire reports