Just over a week ago, the world Yiddish community lost the greatest Yiddish songstress of our time, Adrienne Khane Cooper, who died on December 25, 2011 at the age of 65. Adrienne was a person of enormous passion and talent who, as both a performer and teacher, molded a whole generation of young Yiddishists and klezmorim.
In her short 65 years on this earth, Adrienne zigzagged the map, both domestically (living in Oakland, Chicago, and New York), and internationally, touring and studying far and wide, bringing with her a love of Yiddish that was contagious as it was deep. A scholar, a writer, a performer, and an innovator, Adrienne was a trailblazer in demonstrating to the world that the adventure of Yiddish has only begun. Adrienne’s profound love and respect for language, combined with her progressive politics made her the ideal figure for spearheading the contemporary Yiddish renaissance.
After working at the YIVO Language, Literature, and Culture summer program in New York City, Adrienne envisioned an intensified Yiddish cultural experience, and so, along with Henry Sapoznik, she created KlezKamp, the renowned annual Klezmer and Yiddish culture gathering in the Catskills, now nearing its 30th year. These two programs, both of which Adrienne had a significant hand in shaping, are responsible for the outpouring of new Yiddish cultural expression—fueled largely by the enthusiasm of their young participants—that has emerged in recent years.
Among the countless Yiddish scholars and artists whom Adrienne mentored are such prominent figures in the Yiddish world as Yiddish scholar Jeffrey Shandler, acclaimed Yiddish singer Lorin Sklamberg, and outstanding Klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals. The assembled crowd at the New York memorial service for Ms. Cooper (which packed Ansche Chesed’s main sanctuary on Sunday, January 1st) was a veritable ‘who’s who’ in the Yiddish world, and each person in attendance seemed to have at least one story of how Adrienne had changed her/his life. Each of the twelve speakers who eulogised Adrienne at this memorial service shared thoughts regarding the varied and far-reaching aspects of Adrienne’s life and legacy. Upon exiting Ansche Chesed after the memorial service, I overheard an older man ask his friend, “Did you work with Adrienne?” his friend replied, “Of course. Who didn’t??”
As one who delights in all things Yiddish and also sees in it a larger social mission, it warmed my heart when I heard dramatist and political activist Jenny Romaine read an excerpt from the Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer Risk Taker award, which was presented to Adrienne by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) in 2010: “For all of this, and for never working from a place of chosen-ness or nostalgia but from a place of justice, empathy, and complex Yiddish polyphony, JFREJ is deeply honored to present the 2010 Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer Risk Taker Award to Adrienne Cooper. ” Indeed, for Adrienne, Yiddish language and culture was not a quaint novelty trapped in a glass box in a museum, but rather a living, breathing, and evolving hands-on process which could help create a better world.
Perhaps my favourite memory of Adrienne was a Yiddish song workshop she facilitated at the 2008 YIVO summer program, where both myself and Adrienne’s daughter, Sarah Gordon, who is a talented and innovative Yiddish songstress in her own right, were students. At the aforementioned workshop, I witnessed the special beauty of the bond between Adrienne and Sarah, a bond, spanning the generations, of shared dedication and love, both for Yiddish language and culture and for each other. This special bond was best summarised by the final eulogy delivered at the memorial service last Sunday by Sarah, who stated simply, but most eloquently, “She was my mother.” All too often, when we speak of great figures, we forget the unique and personal relationships that are truly the defining aspects of life—the relationships that make us who we are. After hearing eleven people speak beautifully of Adrienne as a legend, Sarah reminded us that she was also a “Yidishe Mame.”
Because of her dedication to helping create a better world, Adrienne served on the Board of Directors of JFREJ, and the family requests that donations in her memory be made to them: www.jfrej.org/. Koved ir ondenk.
I spoke about this topic with Debbie enough times to know that she wasn’t interested in this aspect of her private life being discussed in print.
I knew about it, other writers knew about it, and respected her privacy. There was enough to write about her — and Shlomo Carlebach, for that matter — without getting into what they did or whom they called when they were lonely.
Did some closeted Jews feel that closeted lesbians would benefit from her talking about sex?
And it continues from there. Regardless of whether you think Friedman herself should have been out or not–and outed or not–there are a couple of problems here. First, this rehashes the whole notion that being out and queer (as @itsdlevy noted on Twitter this morning) is all about what happens between the sheets (as opposed to, say, what happens under the chuppah, what happens when one brings a date to events, what happens at daycare pick-up, and so forth.) This isn’t (‘just?’) about “bedroom stuff.” It’s about life stuff. And though Marks seems to cast the story as one in which Friedman herself framed the issue as about sex, I’m not so sure I consider him a reliable witness.
Being gay is like sexually assaulting your congregants and followers? Really?
(And if you want to talk open secrets, from Blustain’s Lilith article, linked above: “We do know that certain segments of the progressive Jewish world, until the day Rabbi Carlebach died, distanced themselves from him because they were aware of reports of his sexual behavior. Leaders at ALEPH, and its sister organization, a retreat center called Elat Chayyim, told Lilith that during Rabbi Carlebach’s life they refused to invite him to teach under their auspices or sit on their boards.”)
I take umbrage at the idea that sexual assault and harassment is about “call[ing someone] when.. lonely.” I take umbrage at the idea that the perpetuation of sexual assault and harassment is something that should not be discussed. I take umbrage at the even merest implication that being queer and perpetuating sexual harassment and assault are even remotely analogous.
If you want to argue that Friedman had a right to privacy about her life, you can argue that. But do not bring in this disgusting analogy, and do not imply that sexual abuse should ever be left a private matter.
When I heard that Debbie Friedman had passed away, I was sitting in a conference room at the San Francisco Federation, participating in a board meeting for Keshet, a nonprofit organization working for the full inclusion of GLBT Jews in Jewish Life. I learned of Debbie’s passing via a message posted on Twitter by a lesbian Jewish educator with whom I used to work. The news hit our meeting hard. We stopped for a moment of silence. After all, she was one of us.
Sadly, Debbie Friedman was not a member of the Keshet board of directors. She was, however, a lesbian Jew. But reading the press asking for healing prayers during her recent illness, or the overwhelming displays of grief and affection in both the Jewish and mainstream press since her passing, you’d never know it.
I didn’t know Debbie personally. But like most liberal Jews my age who have been even the slightest bit involved with organized Judaism, I’ve been touched by her melodies. Most of those songs came to me second- or third-hand, learned at summer camp and USY events from song-leaders and enthusiastic youth leaders who taught their friends to sing “Not By Might” or her havdalah niggun as though they were as old and as central to Judaism as the Torah itself. Although I eventually became familiar with Debbie Friedman’s name, I still prefer to hear her songs shouted by enthusiastic teenagers over her considerably more polished renditions. And it wasn’t until I reached graduate school that I learned that the havdalah melody I had been singing since the fifth grade came from her wellspring of melody.
I didn’t know Debbie personally. But as someone who’s been a leader in the Jewish GLBT world for a number of years, I’ve heard persistent stories about her life as a lesbian. It seems that Debbie’s sexuality was an open secret; everybody knew about it, but no one spoke of it. This made me angry. Was she ashamed? Did she fear for her career? From all accounts, Debbie was incredibly humble – is it possible that she didn’t realize how central and beloved she was to not only her Reform Movement, but to contemporary American Judaism as a whole? I can’t imagine a single synagogue refusing to sing her prayer for healing because the love of her life was a woman, but maybe Debbie could.
I don’t bear any ill-will towards Debbie for staying in the closet. But her life in the closet was double-barreled tragedy: how sad that Debbie could not live her life with wholeness, and how sad that so many queer kids were deprived such an important role model. How ironic that the tyranny of the closet overpowered the woman whose songs let us let go for a moment of what the world might think of us, just long enough to shout “Nutter butter peanut butter” or sway with our arms around our friends and not worry if we looked gay.
My friends who knew Debbie tell me that she had a life-partner. I don’t know her partner’s name, because all the press around Debbie’s illness and passing only asked for prayers and comfort on behalf of Debbie’s sister, family and friends. I hope this did not add to the unbearable pain and loss her partner must be experiencing now, but how could it not?
My friends who knew Debbie tell me that she struggled against the closet, that as recently as this year she expressed a desire to come out and a loss as to how to do so. It saddens me to think of her life ending, prematurely, with this business left unfinished. I hope whoever becomes the guardian of her legacy will follow through on this wish of Debbie’s, so that her life can be a blessing to future generations of GLBT Jews, and to all Jews.
So Debbie Friedman has passed away. JTA has an article and the URJ has issued a statement. Her passing has been really sad for me and thousands of others. I will write a longer post in the coming days but I thought I would invite those of you who were touched by her music and dedication to the Jewish people share your Remembering Debbie stories in the comments here as well as on Twitter with the Hash Tag #rememberingdebbie.
Here is mine: Once in the late 1990s Debbie preformed at House of the Book at the then Brandeis-Bardin Institute and she told us that Jews can’t clap on 2 and 4 and proceed to prove it to us. It was funny. It was sad. It was classic Debbie Friedman.
With one month to go until Yom Kippur, The Shalom Center and Jewish Currents have teamed up to create a video celebrating 10 contemporary martyrs who were killed in the past 50 years “because they were affirming profound Jewish values of peace, justice, truth, and healing of the Earth.”
I learned of Arnold Foster by reading his obituary, which arrived through the wire about a day ago.
The JTA reports:
Arnold Foster, an attorney who had a nearly 60-year career at the Anti-Defamation League, has died.
Foster fought against anti-Semitism and extremism, and advocated for civil rights and the State of Israel. He was 97 when he died Sunday night.
In 1938 he organized a team of lawyers to serve as the volunteer legal arm of the Anti-Defamation League. He joined the staff of ADL in 1940, and as associate national director was primarily responsible for building ADL’s law department and civil rights program. In January 1946 he was appointed general counsel, a position he held until 2003, though he retired from the ADL in 1979.
I don’t know anything about Arnold Foster. I don’t know whether he was on the right or the left, whether he was a shomer mitzvos, an atheist, or both. What I do know is that the ADL of 1938 was a very different organization than it is today, and working for it would have been a step towards fully participating in global politics and identity formation. In Foster’s universe, Jews were being gassed in Poland, demoralized in Algiers and rapidly assimilating into the white American mainstream. Reading this obituary, I wonder to myself about the wisdom of a man like this and the opinions he took to the grave. Would I have agreed with them? Would he have been able to articulate how his experiences informed his work?
What we do learn from Foster’s obituary is the origin of his name:
Born Arnold Fastenberg in Brooklyn, Foster was a graduate of St. John’s University in Queens and its law school. He changed his name at the suggestion of a director when acting at a local playhouse during law school.
“May the Almighty comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”
Howard Zinn, author of “A People’s History of the United States,” radical, truth-teller, and challenger of mediocrity, died yesterday at the age of 87.
Zinn, unsurprisingly, kept his hand in the rabble-rousing business right up until the end. Having been recently featured prominently in The Nation’s “Obama at One” issue, in which he pointed out that Obama has been a fairly traditional Democrat in his seeking of “compromise,” he, as always, encouraged us, the American people, to get off our duffs and push hard for more change, and reminded us that it won’t happen without a lot of back-breaking work on the part of us, we, the people.
He will be missed.
If you still don’t know who he was, try out his website.
It is with great sadness that I learned, a few days ago, of the death of the great modernist Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever ז”ל. Sutzkever’s immense talent as writer was matched only by his heroism as a freedom fighter. During WWII, Sutzkever fought as a partisan and famously saved Yiddish documents in Vilna from destruction at the hands of the Nazis, who killed both his mother and his son. After the war, Sutzkever immigrated to Israel, where he became editor of the Israeli Yiddish literary quarterly Di Goldene Keyt.
Sutzkever has never received his proper due among literary audiences, especially Jewish American readers, and if you have never read anything by him, I commend his understated but intensely powerful writing to your attention (yes, go ahead; buy two copies: one for you and one for the Yiddish lover in your life). Here is a poem he penned in 1948, entitled Yiddish:
Shall I start from the beginning?
Shall I, a brother,
Smash all the idols?
Shall I let myself be translated alive?
Shall I plant my tongue
Till it transforms
Into our forefathers’
Raisins and almonds?
What kind of joke
My poetry brother with whiskers,
That soon, my mother tongue will set forever?
A hundred years from now, we still may sit here
On the Jordan, and carry on this argument.
For a question
Gnaws and paws at me:
If he knows exactly in what regions
Levi Yitzhok’s prayer,
To their sunset —
Could he please show me
Where the language will go down?
May be at the Wailing Wall?
If so, I shall come there, come,
Open my mouth,
And like a lion
Garbed in fiery scarlet,
I shall swallow the language as it sets.
And wake all the generations with my roar!
We previously reported on that whole neo-Nazis/Heschel highway situation in Missouri. The NYTimes follows up with a second piece about it, with input from Susannah Heschel:
Missouri officials, thwarted in the past on free-speech grounds when they tried to keep the Ku Klux Klan from adopting a highway, took another tack after the National Socialist Movement adopted the half-mile stretch of road, on the outskirts of Springfield. The legislature voted to name it for Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who fled the Nazis’ advance in Europe and became a prominent theologian and civil rights advocate in the United States before his death in 1972.
Lawmakers said they hoped the new name would send a message that the area valued inclusiveness, not anti-Semitism and racism. But Rabbi Heschel’s daughter, Susannah Heschel, the Eli Black professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth, said Monday that while she appreciated their intentions, attaching her father’s name to a road cleaned by neo-Nazis would be “vulgar” and would “dishonor” him.
It has been over a week since an act of domestic terrorism. At the funeral of Dr. Tiller, protesters waved signs, including “God Sent the Killer!” Hate begets hate, and I would like to see talk radio hosts, Fox news personalities, and others who encouraged and incited the murder of Dr. Tiller charged under the law. If people who play “supporting roles” in other acts of terrorism can be arrested, they should be too.
While the halakhic parsing of abortion is complex, Jews do not have the same definition as Christians: life does not start at conception. For a week now, I’ve been wanting to post about the Jewish understandings of abortion. A counter to the “religious right’s” view. Each time I’ve started to write that post, I’ve become too saddened and angered by the rampant infringement of women’s rights to their bodies in the US. So instead, I will share Rabbi Young‘s personal Eulogy for Dr. George Tiller:
I have been to Wichita only once—April 9th to 15th, 2006. Natalie and I met Dr. Tiller, and spent time with him in his clinic for a week. We did not want to go, but to us there was no real choice. About a month before our ordination and investiture from HUC, Natalie was 34 weeks pregnant, and we discovered that the baby had microcephaly and lissencephaly. In plain English, the head was too small, and the brain was not developing. The first, second, and third opinions all told us the same thing. Our baby would not live outside the womb. So Natalie and I made the difficult decision to terminate the pregnancy.
Throughout our week there, Natalie spent a lot of time asleep or in a drug-induced haze, so I had a lot of time to sit in our hotel room and think. I kept a journal when I could handle it emotionally, and I read. I read emails and magazines, and studied a little Mishnah. I took in the words of Tractate Niddah (5:3) which says, “A day-old son who dies is to his father and mother like a full bridegroom.” This phrase stuck in my mind, especially the use of the word “bridegroom.” There are many words the Talmud uses to distinguish different stages of life. It could have said elderly man, full-grown son, or young man with equal gravity to describe a parent’s loss. Using “bridegroom” must be intentional, and it works on two fronts.
The first is independence. A bridegroom is clearly of an age where the parents have completed raising the child until he is ready to be on his own. They know who he is, the kind of person he is, what interests he has, and what his aspirations are. Their loss equals the loss of a fully developed human being, no matter what age he is.
The second speaks to emptiness. Even before a woman gets pregnant, she is making plans for the child’s life. When a couple discovers that they are going to have a child, the plans begin. If this is the birthday, then this will the Bar Mitzvah. This will be graduation, and hopefully around here is the chuppah. Who knows, maybe by this year we’ll be grandparents! Describing the loss as “like a full bridegroom” reminds us that we are going to miss out on every simchah that might have been, from birth to the wedding and beyond.
At our seder, when we read the ten plagues, we are reminded that sometimes our joy is mingled with sadness. At my second night seder this year, our joy was mingled with sadness at the report that Steve Meltzer had died suddenly just before the holiday.
I met Steve as a classmate in the Masters of Jewish Education program at Hebrew College, but I had known of him for as long as I had been working with Jewish youth in Boston. Steve was a songleader, Jewish educator, and recording artist. His songs and spirit inspired a generation of campers at Eisner, Kutz, and other URJ camps, hundreds of NFTY participants in New England, and more. He recorded one EP – Rock with Ruach. He may not have made as big a splash as other contemporary Jewish troubadours, but he was committed to Judaism, music, and kids in a truly inspiring way.
My thoughts are with his family, and with his extended family of students and colleagues whom he influenced throughout his career. Baruch dayan emet.
Suddenly we understand why the Great Temple of Jerusalem was an elaborate construction surrounding nothing. There at the sacred center, at the Holy of Holies, a place we only entered on Yom Kippur, and even then only by proxy, only through the agency of the high priest, there at that center, is precisely nothing–a vacated space, a charged emptiness, that surrounds this world, that comes before this life and after it as well….
And now we understand why we rehearse our death on Yom Kippur–why we say Vidui and wear a kittel and refrain from eating–why in the middle of this day, we send our proxy, now the cantor, into the dangerous emptiness at the center.
We need a taste of this emptiness, to give us a sense of what will go with us, what will endure as we make this great crossing. What’s important? What is at the core of our life? What will live on after we are wind and space? What will be worthy of that endless, infinitely powerful silence?….
What lives on of the people we have loved and lost? What breaks our hearts when we think of them? What do we miss so much that it aches? Precisely that suchness, that unspeakable, ineffable, intangible quality, which takes up no space at all and which never did.
That’s what survives that great crossing with us. That’s what makes it through the passage from life to death.
I was so saddened to read of the passing of the great Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf of Chicago at the age of 83. From his obituary:
Rabbi Wolf served as a Navy chaplain during the Korean War. In 1957, he returned to Chicago and became the founding rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park. In 1972, he went on to teach philosophy at Yale University and was the school’s Jewish chaplain. Rabbi Wolf returned to Chicago in 1980, where he served as the rabbi of KAM for 20 years.
But truly Rabbi Wolf’s most lasting legacy will be as a stubborn, indefatigable advocate for social justice in this country and in Israel/Palestine. Just two examples among many: as the founding chair of Breira in 1973, he spearheaded the American Jewish call for justice for Palestinians long before it was fashionable. And just several months ago he publicly exhorted the Jewish community in support of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.
Zichrono Livracha – May the memory of this fearless tzadik be for a blessing…
The last time I saw Rabbi Lieber, he was hooked up to an oxygen tank. He was to have been honored, but because he was an exceptionally humble man, he refused to make the walk up to the podium to receive the honor: he did not want to make a scene by dragging his tank around.
He was a man of great erudition, and was humble in the way that only people of great learning can be. It was his vision that saw that the West Coast was to become another center for Judaism in the USA, that New York was not necessarily the last and only center for Judaism,and he saw his vision to fruition, serving as the President of the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) for 29 years, and throughout that time, he taught and served as a guiding voice to students, and to rabbis of Los Angeles – and many more people through his work editing the Etz Chaim Chumash.
Good-bye, Rav Lieber, im yirtzeh, see you at the Great Beit Midrash.
Today, communities around the world are observing Transgender Day of Rememberance, honoring the memories of the 30 people killed in the last year simply for trying to live their lives in ways that honestly represented themselves as who they were. The link above lists local events, including Shabbat services in Michigan and San Francisco tomorrow night, an interfaith vigil in Boston tonight co-sponsored by Keshet, and a couple of other explicitly interfaith vigils that don’t list explicitly Jewish organizers but would most certainly be excellent places for Jews to show up.
As was noted on these pages earlier today, an important countercultural critic died today. I thought I’d put up some video. Carlin did a lot of religious bits. His exegesis may be suspect but how many people get paid for their analysis of text anyways? Here he is talking about the 10 commandments as a marketing decision:
It’s a sad day for us fans everywhere. George Carlin: Zichrono Livracha.