New Musical Life For A Supposedly Dead Language

Adrienne Cooper performs new/old Yiddish songs at Drom.

11/04/2010
Special To The Jewish
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Jewish history is too unpredictable for folks to count out the Yiddish language just yet. After all, 200 years ago Hebrew was supposedly a dead language used only in Jewish worship. Could there be a real-life version of the mythical “Yiddishland?”

“I don’t think there’s going to be a secular Yiddish community in which people live everyday lives in Yiddish,” Adrienne Cooper reluctantly admits. “But among artists there’s no reason this material can’t be taken up as a means of creative communication.”

Cooper should know. She’s one of the great divas (in the best sense) of contemporary Jewish music and her new album, “Enchanted: A New Generation of Yiddishsong” (Golden Horn) consists entirely of material that is either brand new or significantly re-imagined Yiddish songs. When she plays the material live at a CD-launching concert this weekend, it will be the latest step in a project that spans three generations.

Actually, more than three generations, if you count the inclusion on the record of a wax disk recording of Cooper’s grandfather singing a cantorial piece and her grandmother singing “a version of Sholem Aleichem’s lullaby,” she says. You can hear baby Adrienne gurgling in the background, already a musician.

Cooper’s daughter, Sarah Mina Gordon, is also an active part of the record along with her bandmate Michael Winograd. They are two of the members of Yiddish Princess, and Cooper points to that band, rising stars in the neo-Yiddish firmament, as an example of what can still be done with this “dead” language and culture.

“[Yiddish Princess] is quite free and different,” Cooper says. “They’re pop-driven, but they do traditional work as well and they feel free to range among styles, to expand their own community to find creators and collaborators.”

Mom is doing likewise. Winograd helped pull the band together for the album and is the chief arranger. Gordon is singing on the record, and other younger musicians are deeply involved, including pop-Yiddish demons Avi and Benjy Fox-Rosen and jazz singer Ayelet Rose Gottlieb. But there a few old hands as well, Frank London and Marilyn Lerner most prominently. In short a mix that is both disparate in age and musical approach. It would not be incorrect to say that it is Yiddish that drew them together, and Cooper has no qualms about saying just that.

“[Sarah] has a powerful personal commitment that is derived from the sense that she has a lineage,” her mother says, beaming. “I’m sure there’s something here [in Yiddish culture] that can’t be contained. I can’t see a reason why it wouldn’t persist. There’s a vast body of poetry and the language itself is so juicy, so resonant.”

The historical perspective that Yiddish implies is also part of the attraction, Cooper says.

“Jewish experience keeps shifting,” she says, “People start to come back and ask, ‘What did my family experience, how did they describe it?’”

As she is quick to point out, Adrienne Cooper is hardly the only person involved in new Yiddish song. One of the people she mentions, Josh Waletzky, has been working in this field at least as long as Cooper. He has been writing songs in Yiddish since the earliest days of the klezmer revival, and will be performing and discussing them in a program entitled “Boiberik and Beyond – Yiddish Songs for the 21st Century.” His interlocutor, Itzik Gottesman, is a fellow alumnus of Camp Boiberik, the former Yiddish culture camp near Rhinebeck, so there probably aren’t any secrets between them.

Taken in tandem Cooper and Waletzky are living proof that, even if a renaissance of daily Yiddish life is unlikely, there’s life in the old mother tongue yet. 

Adrienne Cooper will be performing songs from “Enchanted: A New Generation of Yiddishsong” at Drom (85 Ave. A, just below Sixth Street) on Saturday, Nov. 6, 8 p.m. For information click here.  The CD is available on the Golden Horn Records label.

Josh Waletzky will be performing a program of new Yiddish songs, “Boiberik and Beyond – Yiddish Songs for the 21st Century,” on Monday, Nov. 8 at the Center for Jewish History (15 W. 16th St.) at 7 p.m. For information click here .

Comments

Adrienne Cooper and Josh Waletsky are two of the most talented artists performing in Yiddish today. Their excellent work deserves to be appreciated and reviewed without George Robinson's thoughtless but prominent invocations of the "Yiddish is dead" cliche in his headline and article, even if he calls it not quite dead yet. How clever to hear that from yet another Jewish cultural pundit! How insightful of the Jewish Week to use that as a "teaser" headline! Perhaps, with less sarcasm, one could say that it should be unworthy of the "supposedly" Jewish Week. After reading the "Yiddish is dead" cliche, one always has to wonder how much, if any, Yiddish a reviewer knows, how much he or she actually knows about what's going on in the admittedly much smaller Yiddish world, and how unbiased and accurate reviews can be while containing such a cliche.

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