Paying Tribute to a Master Yiddishist

By Masha Leon

Published November 11, 2005, issue of November 11, 2005.
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During an intermission of the Gotham Chamber Opera’s October 17 performance of excerpts from Handel’s “Ariadne Unhinged” and the duet from Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers,” hosted by British consul-general Sir Philip Thomas at his home on Manhattan’s East Side, Carl Bernstein (of Woodward and Bernstein of the Watergate exposé) told me, “My great uncle Itzev-Isidore Taishof was the circulation manager of the Forward in the 1960s in Baltimore and Washington.” We then chatted about the origin of his surname, which in German means amber. I told him my family’s version of the name’s origins, which my father, Mordechai Bernstein, said had been family lore for generations. A medieval merchant, he was attacked by a bear while traveling through a forest. He subdued the animal with a stone. Ergo, the name ber-un-shtein. Bernstein raised his eyebrows and smiled.

During a lull following a preview excerpt from the Gotham’s upcoming production of Benjamin Britten’s comic opera, “Albert Herring,” Rona Jaffe told me that her book, “The Best of Everything” (Simon & Schuster, 1958) had been reissued. “Remember the Diane Baker character in the [1959] movie based on my book who jumps out of a taxi?” Jaffe sad. “It was Marty Richards, who was her stand-in for the cab jump!” Last week, I spotted movie producer Richards at another event. He said: “It’s true! I was the movie’s casting director. The stuntwoman did not show up. So they put me in a red wig and just hurled me out of the car!”

* * *

“There are 20 million Americans suffering with neuropathy,” informed Dina Merrill, master of ceremonies at the Neuropathy Association’s October 10 benefit. The event was held at the James Burden Mansion. Merrill, an actress, is also director and vice chairman of RKO Pictures Inc., and a board member of Lehman Brothers. With diabetes identified as a leading cause, she noted, “often the cause of this disease — which can cause chronic pain or complete loss of feeling — is unknown or misdiagnosed” and can be the result of drugs, heredity, nutritional deficiencies, infection, etc.

Association booster Patricia Neal — who won an Oscar for her role in the 1963 film “Hud” and has survived three strokes — read an excerpt from Helen Keller’s autobiography. The dinner honored Dr. Paul Donohue (whose credentials include “To Your Good Health,” a daily column featured in 175 newspapers) and James Gardner, a vice president of Pfizer Inc. Also present was Dr. Norman Latov, director of the Peripheral Neuropathy Clinical and Research Center at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University, and former movie star Dolores Hart, now the Rev. Mother, prioress of the Regina Laudis abbey. Hart said of Latov: “Any Jewish boy who can take this nun out of a wheelchair and get me walking is ‘The Second Coming.’”

* * *

“Yosl Mlotek was the prince of Yiddishland,” is how David Roskies of the Jewish Theological Seminary defined Joseph “Yosl” Mlotek, who passed away five years ago and in whose memory a symposium and concert recently were held at the Center for Jewish History. Roskies and Eugene Orenstein of McGill University paid tribute to Mlotek in glorious Yiddish rarely heard in America today. Embellishing with historical and literary metaphors, they recalled his multitalented accomplishments as a writer, activist, pedagogue, organizer and visionary: how his energy and sense of mission transformed the landscape of Yiddish education in America, ensuring that it would have a future; that were it not for Mlotek and his wife and collaborator, Chana Mlotek, there would be an emptiness where now Yiddish culture/Yiddishkeit breathes with vigor and accessibility to and for future generations.

An emotional Moish Mlotek read a biographical overview of his father’s accomplishments. Harold Ostroff, past president of the Workmen’s Circle and general manager emeritus of the Forward Association, announced a Mlotek prize for Yiddish culture. But the icing on the cake that evening was “Amol Iz Geven a Mayse” — “Once Upon a Time There Once Was a Story” — a musical montage based on a record album produced and narrated by Yosl Mlotek. It was performed by Robert Abelson, Theodore Bikel, Phyllis Berk and Re’ut Ben-Ze’ev with Zalmen Mlotek directing. As for a teary nakhas cherry on top, there were the Mlotek grandchildren — Avram, Elisha, Marissa, Sarah — singing in beautifully articulated Yiddish. (The consultant for this production was Moishe Rosenfeld, Mlotek’s nephew.)

On a personal note, the evening elicited a flood of memories. When I was a child in Warsaw, Mlotek was my role model. In 1939, just before the war broke out, I was at his beloved Medem Sanatorium summer camp, where — first as a teenager and later as a young adult — Mlotek created and ran a host of innovative cultural programs and a radio station, composed songs and poetry, and edited the children’s magazine Kinderfraynd. My father and Mlotek worked together at the Folkszeitung newspaper. Following the German occupation, they both landed at the YIVO in Vilna. It was Mlotek that I met the morning after my father’s arrest by the NKVD in August 1940. He, my mother and I traveled on the same Trans-Siberian train to Japan in 1941. We lived in the same house in Kobe.

* * *

At the October 27 reception and screening of Dani Merkin’s award-winning documentary, “39 Pounds of Love” at New York’s HBO Theatre, I met the film’s inspirational hero, Ami Ankilewitz — all 39 pounds of him! He and the film had to be seen to be believed! Diagnosed with a rare form of muscular dystrophy and given a short “life sentence,” Ankilewitz, with the help of his indomitable mother and devoted friends, overcomes an Everest of obstacles to achieve his two life-long goals: riding a Harley Davidson and confronting the doctor who offered him no hope. A difficult yet laughter-eliciting journey, the film is unlike any “can do” documentary I’ve seen. It opens November 23 in New York and December 2 in Los Angeles. Amazing!

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