New York Times: Remembering Hunter-in-the-Bronx Alumna Chana Mlotek, Yiddishe Momme of Music

January 27, 2014 3:06 pm In the News
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Published: November 4, 2013

(The New York Times) Chana Mlotek, an impassioned sleuth and archivist of Yiddish music whose song collections allowed thousands to imbibe the mirthful and mournful melodies of the shtetl, ghetto and Yiddish theater, died on Monday at her home in the Bronx. She was 91.

The cause was cancer, said her son Zalmen, the artistic director of the National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene in Manhattan.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Yiddish writer and Nobel laureate, once called Mrs. Mlotek and her husband, Joseph, “the Sherlock Holmeses of Yiddish folk songs.” And they were, though it was the soft-spoken Mrs. Mlotek who did most of the meticulous ethnographic investigation; her husband fashioned her discoveries into essays and newspaper columns.

Her success in connecting musicians not just with Yiddish chestnuts but also with obscure songs was crucial to the revival of klezmer, a genre that has become popular far beyond the Yiddish-speaking world in the last three decades, said Sam Norich, publisher of the Jewish newspaper The Forward. One song she rediscovered was “Lid fun Titanik,” a Yiddish lament about the Titanic sinking. Mandy Patinkin has recorded it.

Singers, composers and folklorists have relied on Mrs. Mlotek’s encyclopedic knowledge and the music she found.

“She opened a whole new repertoire,” said Eleanor Reissa, a Yiddish singer and the Tony-nominated director of “Those Were the Days,” a 1990 Yiddish-English musical revue. “We can interpret and breathe life into them because she unearthed them for us.”

For more than 43 years the Mloteks wrote a column called “Pearls of Yiddish Poetry” for The Forward’s Yiddish edition. The column invited readers to submit songs or even snatches of remembered melodies from the Yiddish-speaking communities destroyed in World War II, or from the Yiddish theater that flourished in Europe and in Manhattan. From these contributions they were able to recreate hundreds of songs as well as provide information on a song’s provenance and performance history.

“Our home in the Bronx was bombarded with envelopes — thousands and thousands of songs, people remembering songs,” Zalmen Mlotek said. “This was pre-Facebook and LinkedIn.”

One column quoted a letter recalling a Nazi concentration camp officer who was so moved by hearing the sentimental song “My Yiddishe Momme” that he told a guard to give the Jews another bowl of soup. A week later, a letter writer said that it was he who had sung the song that the officer heard. Then another letter writer said that he, too, had been there.

The Mloteks published three songbooks that became essential reading for anyone interested in Yiddish music. Mrs. Mlotek also compiled and cataloged thousands of sheets of music as an archivist at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, the nation’s principal repository of Yiddish culture.

Eleanor Chana Gordon — known as Chana — was born in the East New York section of Brooklyn on April 9, 1922, and grew up there and in the North Bronx. Her parents were Russian immigrants — her father a garment manufacturer with a fondness for Yiddish theater songs, her mother a seamstress.

She studied piano with Jacob Helmann, whose own teacher had been a student of Liszt. She learned much about her eventual specialty when she was a teacher and counselor at Camp Boiberik, a Yiddish culture camp near Rhinebeck, N.Y. In addition to studying at Walton High School and what was then the Bronx campus of Hunter College, she attended the Yiddish high school of the Sholem Aleichem Folk Institute.

In 1944 she was hired as secretary to Max Weinreich, a founder of YIVO, and in 1948 she won a scholarship to study Yiddish linguistics and folklore with Mr. Weinreich at U.C.L.A.

There she resumed a friendship with Joseph Mlotek, a young man she had met at Rockaway Beach where he romanced her with Russian songs on the mandolin.

Mr. Mlotek had fled Warsaw to Lithuania soon after the German invasion of Poland. There he obtained one of the transit visas issued by the Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, who was known for helping Jews to escape during the period, and made his way to Shanghai; then to Canada; and finally to New York. They married in 1949.

Mr. Mlotek died in 2000. In addition to Zalmen, Mrs. Mlotek is survived by another son, Mark, the president of the Folksbiene and a former president of the Workmen’s Circle, a Jewish social services organization; five grandchildren (most of whom speak Yiddish); and a great-grandchild.

Joseph Mlotek, who was educational director of the Workmen’s Circle and a managing editor of The Forward’s Yiddish edition, was the person every Yiddish writer or impresario needed to see to get acquainted with New York’s publishing or performance landscape. The Mlotek apartment at the Amalgamated Houses in the Bronx was often filled with writers and performers in a Yiddish version of an elegant Cole Porter soiree. They would gather around a grand piano while Mrs. Mlotek played the evocative, plaintive melodies she knew so well.

Mrs. Mlotek continued to work for YIVO for 65 years, almost until her death. But her voluminous collection of music and correspondence extended to fill almost every shelf, file drawer and closet in her three-bedroom apartment.

And she could remember where everything was. On a recent trip to Japan, Zalmen Mlotek said, he encountered a teacher of French who wanted to know the Yiddish words to a French song. Mr. Mlotek called his mother. “She knew exactly where in the apartment to look,” he said, “in my old room, in a box in the closet.”

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