Songs Of Defiance, Songs Of Life


Adrienne Cooper was scheduled to perform “Ghetto Tango,” a cabaret piece, with my father towards the end of January. Due to her illness, the singer, who played a leading role in the Yiddish revival, withdrew three months before the performance, and the decision had to be made whether to cancel the show or continue with different singers. Adrienne and my father decided to proceed. I was asked to participate and did so with a heavy heart.

“Ghetto Tango” contains songs from World War II written and performed in the ghettos and camps of Eastern Europe. It’s hard to imagine that as thousands of Jews were rounded up and transported to death camps, cabarets in Vilna were producing musical reviews. And yet, these are songs of spiritual resistance, defiance and life — what Adrienne called, “art at the edge of the abyss.”

When Adrienne died, I looked at old photographs, coming across pictures of her and my family at concerts and family celebrations. When I recall our gathering in the ICU just days before she died, I realize that those pictures came to life and I feel supported by a community that shared a common love and loss, in Adrienne and in Yiddish culture.

In college, I created a curriculum designed to teach students about the Holocaust through Yiddish music written during the war, and have subsequently used it in my work. I have performed some of this material at various commemorative gatherings, but “Ghetto Tango” felt different. It carried a unique kind of weight; it didn’t only memorialize that dark time, but brought it to life, with fierceness and emotionality.

A few years ago I sat on a panel with Adrienne at KlezKamp discussing cultural transmission. She shared a thought that feels all the more poignant after her passing. As she thought aloud about how future generations might learn about Yiddish culture, she said, “I’m not a primary source,” reminding the audience that her journey into Yiddish came as a young adult.

For me, though, and for countless others, Adrienne was that primary source, and living link. She encapsulated and shared this material in a way that was honest. On stage, Adrienne was as real a primary source as any.

Adrienne once shared a story that was later retold at her memorial. She recalled Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Encino, Calif., speaking on Yom Kippur about Jewish landlords in the community who had been exploiting black tenants. It so happened that these landlords were the balebatim, the shulgoers, sitting in the front pews. As Rabbi Schulweis rebuked, the landlords and their families rose to leave. The rabbi called out to the ushers: “Lock the doors; sit back down and listen.” And they did.

Adrienne internalized that story, expecting Jewish life to be just that: “ethical, exciting, dangerous.” Thinking about this story, especially amid rehearsals for “Ghetto Tango,” I realized Adrienne’s storytelling could be just as searing and provocative. Sharing the musical material of the Warsaw, Lodz and Vilna ghettos was yet another opportunity to speak truth to power, reminding the world of the unparalleled role music can have to advocate, elevate and inspire.

In rehearsals, when we wanted to check how things were recorded on the “Ghetto Tango” album, my father would grow teary-eyed. We would listen in silence; Adrienne’s voice was his reminder, as he said quietly, “I can’t believe she’s gone.”

My memories of Adrienne are numerous and span my entire life. When I was 5, I remember playing in the Catskill mountain snow with her daughter, Sarah, and coming indoors nervously as we had been skipping rehearsal for a children’s concert. We were greeted by Adrienne with a hug once we arrived. Many years later at a party after my wedding, Adrienne sang the last of the sheva brachot, seven blessings, in her elegant style. Now I look to her in a different way. As a singer, preparing for these concerts, I listened to her voice, her every word full of meaning and drive. Her ability to provide historical context and translations was natural, never didactic; she painted a vivid picture of a world that existed in our hearts, inviting the listener on a journey that would span generations, continents and life experiences. That was Adrienne’s artistry.

Shloshim marks the 30 days since a person has passed away; it is often acknowledged with a significant portion of learning completed in the person’s honor. For Adrienne, sharing her music and work felt like a fitting remembrance.

I thought of Adrienne throughout my performance of “Ghetto Tango,” wondering what she might have thought of my stylistic choices. I imagined Hirsh Glik, Khayele Rozental and Yankele Hershkovitz, poets, partisans and creators of much of this material, sitting with Adrienne, singing. Dos redele dreyt zikh — the wheels of life keep turning, but none of us were ready for them to move quite this fast with the passing of Adrienne. And while the music lives on, the gaping hole is still felt. Koved ir ondenk. May her memory be a blessing.

Avram Mlotek is a first-year rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale. He performs regularly with the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene.