Mikveh puts Yiddish women in front line

All-star klezmer group Mikveh comes to Club Helsinki on Thursday, May 20

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., May 12, 2004) – “I fell in with the wrong crowd” is Adrienne Cooper’s somewhat facetious explanation for how this classically-trained vocalist wound up singing Yiddish folk music.

Trained as an historian, Cooper spent her 20s in academia pursuing her studies while singing in early music ensembles and chamber operas. But in the early 1980s, when Cooper moved to New York to take a job at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, she found herself smack dab in the heart of the klezmer revival. Several of her colleagues were fomenting the rebirth of Yiddish instrumental and vocal music, and it wasn’t long before Cooper found herself drafted into the effort as a member of the pioneering revival band Kapelye.

Cooper had to do a little shifting of her performance and vocal style to accommodate the differences between Palestrina and Abraham Goldfaden. With some background in Yiddish language and music, it was only a short time before she became one of the top female vocalists of the revival, in demand as a solo performer and as a guest vocalist with The Klezmatics and the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band among others.

But it wasn’t until she joined forces with the four other women who comprise the all-female group, Mikveh, that Cooper’s talents as a vocalist, folklorist and cultural historian were given full rein.

Mikveh performs at Club Helsinki (413-528-3394) on Thursday, May 20, at 8, on a double-bill with the New York-based Yiddish folk group Golem, featuring vocalist/bandleader Annette Ezekiel and fiddler Alicia Jo Rabins, the group’s newest member and a co-founder of the folk group The Mammals, who recently moved from Northampton to New York.

Although they all knew each other for years and had performed together in various situations, the members of Mikveh first came together as a group when playwright Eve Ensler asked violinist Alicia Svigals to put together a klezmer ensemble for a gala production of her “Vagina Monologues” at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom in 1998.

Along with Cooper, Svigals corralled accordionist Lauren Brody, like Cooper a former member of Kapelye, clarinetist Margot Leverett, like Svigals a co-founder of The Klezmatics, and bassist Nicki Parrott, who had worked with David Krakauer’s group Klezmer Madness, to join her for the event.

(Leverett has since the left the group to lead her own klezmer/bluegrass project, the Klezmer Mountain Boys. Replacing her is trumpeter Susan Watts Hoffman, granddaughter of the great immigrant-era klezmer bandleader Jacob “Jakie” Hoffman, and daughter of drummer Elaine Watts-Hoffman, one of the few female klezmer musicians of her generation.)

“We looked at each other at the end of the evening and said this is huge fun,” said Cooper in a recent phone interview from her office at the Workmen’s Circle in Manhattan, where she directs the Center for Cultural Jewish Life. “There was something about a full front line of women. Everyone was talking about the experience of not being ‘the woman in the band,’ which we had all been and were then. Not only that but being with a lot of people who felt like they were at the top of their game.”

The next step was clear, and Mikveh became a bona fide band – a veritable supergroup of Yiddish and klezmer talent. But the point was not just to form another klezmer group for entertainment purposes. Given where they were at in their lives and careers, the members of Mikveh decided to use the group to give full voice to women’s perspectives in Yiddish song.

Not that women were absent from Yiddish music beforehand. “Yiddish folk is a women’s culture, a natural musical culture that belonged in the home and the workshop and on the picket lines,” said Cooper. “It existed in a lot of spheres in life. But we went back and looked at the repertoire and filled in the gaps.”

For example, a member of the group had recently had a pregnancy that ended in a miscarriage, and wanted to deal with that in song. The group asked Cooper’s daughter, Sarah Mina Gordon, to draft lyrics that addressed the experience. Gordon returned with “Yosemame (Orphan Mama),” one of several new songs among the 14 tracks on Mikveh’s eponymous CD, released by Traditional Crossroads in 2001. And with the permission of Bronx poet and songwriter Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman, they turned a song she had written for her nephew’s bar mitzvah into “Sorele’s Bas Mitsveh,” in honor of a young woman’s rite of passage into adulthood.

Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of Mikveh – the name refers to the traditional women’s ritual bath – is simply the sight of an all-female band. While the Yiddish folk culture might have been primarily a women’s culture, that didn’t extend to klezmer bands, which rarely if ever had female members until the contemporary revival period.

As the daughter of a Yiddish singer and performer, performing as a Yiddish vocalist brings Cooper back full circle to her childhood. She wasn’t raised speaking Yiddish, but she had “passive knowledge” of the language. “My mother would sit with me once a week and we’d read my grandparents letters,” she said. “So I knew some language. But I actually didn’t speak it until graduate school when I took a class at the University of Chicago.”

Nowadays, performing gives Cooper a nice change of pace from her desk job. And the broad scope of the material she performs allows her to live vicariously through the characters in the songs.

“You get to be everything you want to be in life through the music,” she said. “That’s why it draws the wacky people it draws -- everyone from the profoundly nostalgic to the edgy, outsidery ones, and all across that spectrum.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on May 20, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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