Yiddish Is Alive And Well

This article originally appeared in Yiddish in the Forverts.

As New Yorkers we take SummerStage for granted. On any given summer night, we can enter our playground and hear music ranging from every culture under the sun. It wasn’t always this way. Fifty years ago, my grandfather, Yosl Mlotek, a Holocaust refugee, produced the first ever Yiddish music festival in Central Park through the Workmen’s Circle. It was an historic event with Mayor John Lindsay addressing a crowd of over 25,000 attendees. Molly Picon, Seymour Rexite and Herman Yablokoff, among other Yiddish theatre stars, performed, while the legendary Sholem Secunda, composer of Bay Mir Bisdu Shteyn among other Yiddish classics, conducted a full orchestra. What a public statement it must have been for the survivors there as well as to the vitality of Yiddish, the culture and language of a people nearly destroyed.

My grandfather was a cultural activist and visionary. A poet, teacher, former editor of the Forverts, education director of the Workmen’s Circle, he knew a different Yiddish writer in nearly every city he visited. Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer called him and my grandmother, Eleanor Mlotek, the “Sherlock Holmes of Yiddish Song.” Fleeing Warsaw at the age of 21, he received a visa from the Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara and spent the war years in Shanghai, working in the Jewish library there. His life’s work was devoted to the culture of his home and people, the brothers, sisters, parents, niece and nephew murdered by the Nazis. The song anthologies he and my grandmother compiled helped birth a Klezmer revival. Elie Wiesel, in a foreword to my grandmother and great-aunt’s collection of Yiddish songs of the Holocaust, wrote “that this book belongs in every Jewish home, not because it is a duty to cry, but because it is an obligation to sing.” Singing is my family’s business.

June 13th marked Summer Stage’s “Yiddish Under The Stars,” musically directed by my father, Zalmen Mlotek, and featured some of the leading Klezmer and Yiddish performing artists of today. It was produced by the National Yiddish Theatre — Folksbiene (NYTF) which has presented these concerts in conjunction with SummerStage for a few years now. Listening to my father address the crowd and watching him play is not a new experience for me. I have had the opportunity to perform with him in public since I was three years old. What’s new is that my children now get to witness their grandfather in action in a way I never quite did as a child though I did get to witness my grandmother’s work.

I used to take this cultural upbringing for granted. What would my life be like had I not spent winters staying up late at night in a hotel in the Catskills listening to virtuosic Klezmer musicians? Didn’t every preteen get to perform before his bar mitzvah with Seymour Rexite, the man who sang before President Calvin Coolidge, the president who was so moved he granted entry visas to Seymour’s Polish mother and relatives who had previously been barred? Didn’t every child’s grandparents’ apartment have their walls adorned with lifetime achievement awards? When my friends in yeshiva or camp would remark that “Yiddish was dead,” I simply didn’t understand them. The Yiddish culture I knew was very much vibrant and unfolding.

My grandfather would have turned 100 years old in July and in his and my grandmother’s memory, my family has given out awards for commitment to Yiddish culture. Previous recipients include educators like Yiddish professors David Roskies, Eugene Orenstein, Barbara Kirschenblatt Gimblett and Aaron Lansky, creator of the National Yiddish Book Center. They also have included performers like Theodore Bikel, The Klezmatics, Hankus Netsky, Bryna Wasserman and this year, Daniel Kahn, a noted folksinger, who will be starring as Perchik in the NYTF production of Fiddler on the Roof. It is the first time the beloved musical will be performed in Yiddish in the U.S.

When Mandy Patinkin introduced Kahn to give the prize at the concert, my five year old was quick to point out: “That man looks like zeyde.” To her, Mandy wasn’t a Tony Award winning actor nor was the featuring of the Mlotek name anything special to note. It just was what was happening around her zeyde at the moment. As our family celebrated Father’s Day this past week and as thousands of children were torn from their families along the U.S. border, I feel so grateful for my grandparents, the lives they were able to rebuild on this American shore and the cultural legacy they have shared not only with their family and descendants but the larger world.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

Yiddish Is Alive And Well

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