Keeping Yiddish Culture Alive, One Melody at a Time

By Jennifer Siegel

Published December 03, 2004, issue of December 03, 2004.
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Chana Mlotek refuses to play favorites. After half a century of preserving Yiddish music — most notably through a celebrated Forverts column written with her late husband — she refuses to say which Jewish folk-tune she loves best. “On no, you can’t do that,” she said in a recent interview with the Forward. “It’s like children… I love all the songs.”

Mlotek brings a mother’s nurturing passion to Yiddish music, and the music, in turn, has nurtured her and her family. Born Chana Eleanor Gordon in New York City in 1922, she fell in love with the Yiddish songs that her father sang when she was still a child. As a young woman, she attended the first-ever Yiddish folklore class at UCLA and fell in love with the man — Joseph Mlotek, known as Yosl — who became both her husband and partner in preserving history.

“Chana and Yosl were a team,” said Robert Kaplan, a past president of the Workmen’s Circle, a fraternal organization founded a century ago by Jewish immigrants. The organization continues to work for social justice and the preservation of Yiddish culture. “They were, and she remains, the preeminent folklorists and ethnomusicologists in the field of Yiddish.”

The couple will be honored Monday at the Workmen’s Circle’s annual gala. The event, called “Stand Up and Celebrate,” also honors the Amalgamated Bank for its service to working men and women, and scientists Iris and Stanford Ovshinsky, who are working to reduce the world’s energy consumption with inventions that include a battery for electric cars and thin-film solar cells.

The star-studded celebration will be held at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s new home on New York City’s Columbus Circle. Tovah Feldshuh, star of the hit Broadway show “Golda’s Balcony,” will perform her one-woman show, “Tovah: Out of Her Mind!” and luminaries of the Klezmer musical revival will be on hand.

The event will be a homecoming of sorts for Mlotek. Yosl — who passed away in 2000 — began his career as a teacher in Workmen’s Circle schools, and later served as the organization’s education director, before becoming the managing editor of the Forverts. Together, the couple published three anthologies of Yiddish folk music under the Workmen’s Circle imprint.

After all these years, the admiration between Mlotek and the organization is clearly mutual. “The Workmen’s Circle has continued to be a beacon of light for Yiddish culture,” Mlotek said. “It’s a very active cultural organization.”

The Mloteks are most famous as the sleuthing co-authors of the Forvertss “Pearls of Yiddish” column, which debuted in 1970 and is continued by Chana today. Over the years, readers have sent in more than 2,000 half-remembered snippets of Yiddish music, according to Mlotek’s count. Often using tips from other readers, the Mloteks would tirelessly hunt down the originals. Such efforts prompted Isaac Bashevis Singer to dub them the “Sherlock Holmeses of Yiddish folk songs.”

Their research has often unearthed stories as well as songs. After the Mloteks wrote an article about the well-known tune “My Yiddishe Mama,” — which Sophie Tucker turned into a Top 5 hit in America in 1928 — they received a letter from a concentration camp survivor who recalled a young boy who won extra bowls of soup by singing the song to a guard. The Mloteks, in turn, shared the story with their readers, and soon received another letter — from that very boy, fully grown. The two men contacted each other for the first time since their days in the camp.

For Mlotek, preserving Yiddish music is a way of touching the history of Jews in Europe. “We see what an important role music and songs play in the life of the people,” she said. “They didn’t have television or radio, so they sang songs to each other.” Her scholarly research has focused, in particular, on folklorization, which is the process by which people change songs to reflect their own lives. For instance, a lullaby written by Sholom Aleichem in the 1890s about life in America soon developed so many variations that people forgot its author, she said. In later years, the same tune was used to sing about worker’s struggles and about the Holocaust. “[They] gave a new life to the song,” Mlotek said.

This continual process of reinvention and rediscovery is what makes Yiddish culture so exciting for Mlotek. Although the language comes from a world destroyed by the Holocaust — Yosl himself fled Warsaw in 1939 and lost his entire family — she focuses on sharing this gift with future generations, rather than on past tragedy. “We don’t look from the pessimistic viewpoint,” she said. “We’re happy that we have what we have and that we still can continue with our language and our culture and our music and our literature, and we hope to continue and that it will grow in time.”

In her own family, love for Yiddish has truly blossomed. Mlotek’s son Zalmen, a successful composer, is executive director of New York’s Folksbiene Theater, the world’s oldest continuously operating venue for Yiddish theater. Her younger son, Mark, is a past president of the Workmen’s Circle and sits on the board of directors of the Folksbiene Theater. Her grandchildren perform in the theater’s children’s productions.

Then there’s Chana herself, who at 82 shows no sign of slowing down. She continues to work three days a week as a music archivist at New York’s YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, a position she has held since 1984. She is also helping plan YIVO’s 80th-anniversary benefit, to be held next spring, and co-editing, with Mark Slovin, the works of Ruth Rubin. At the end of the month, she and Zalmen will present joint lectures on Yiddish music at KlezCamp, a weeklong family program held each December in the Catskills.

The goal, Mlotek said, is to pass on the joys of Yiddishkeit to future generations. “It’s part of our cultural heritage,” she said. “This is so rich and colorful, it should be part of everyone’s knowledge and sensitivity.”

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