‘The Queen’ Of Yiddish Song


When she was interviewed by The Jewish Week in June 2012, the outstanding Yiddishist Chana Mlotek confided that at age 90 she had lost a bit of her ferocious productivity.

“My legs don’t go as fast as they did,” she joked. “But I can still work three times a week at YIVO, I still write a column for the Forverts, and the work is always interesting.”

A unique and generous resource for Yiddish scholars and Jewish musicians, Mlotek died at her home in the Bronx Monday, Nov. 4, at the age of 91. Her death was announced by her sons Mark and Zalmen.

Working with her husband Joseph until his death in 2000, and on her own afterwards, Mlotek was the ITAL source of information on thousands of Yiddish songs and co-editor with Joseph of three major compilations, “MirTrogn a Gezang” (“We Are Carrying a Song”), “Pearls of Yiddish Song,” and “Songs of Generations.”

She became the court of last resort for klezmer musicians young enough to be her grandchildren, and a major fount of Yiddish musical knowledge.

“Chana is simply the Queen … there is no other,” Hankus Netsky wrote in an e-mail at the time of her 90th birthday. Netsky, founder of the Klezmer Conservatory Band and one of the central figures in the klezmer revival, added, “The key is her accessibility. …[She’s] just a thoughtful, knowledgeable, caring person who happens to know pretty much everything there is to know.”

She had “a good foundation,” she told Jewish Week last year.

Born in Brooklyn and raised in the Bronx, she grew up in a Yiddish-speaking and -singing household, went to a Yiddish school and Yiddish culture camp, Camp Boyberik, “where I learned a lot of songs,” and eventually went to work for YIVO in 1944 as assistant to the legendary scholar Max Weinreich, then the organization’s research director.

“Everything was done in Yiddish,” she recalled. “When Weinreich spoke it was like music, his Yiddish was so beautiful.”

On the other hand, he was a demanding boss, “a perfectionist,” Mlotek said. “Everything, every letter had to be perfect or it was retyped. And why not? He was the foremost Yiddish linguist in the world, he created the standard orthography.”

It was thanks to Weinreich that she met and married Joseph Mlotek. The two were students in Weinreich’s seminar at UCLA in 1948.

“We took the course together, then we got married,” she said with a laugh.

The pair shared a love of Yiddish folksong, which became more than a hobby. They brought their skills as song detectives first to a weekly column in the Yiddish-language Forward, then began compiling books of Yiddish folksongs.

But if the music was more than hobby, it was never just a job. Zalmen Mlotek, their son and artistic director of the Folksbiene, remembered many parties filled with “the who’s who of the Yiddish intelligentsia and singing world, singing that would go on all night.” He has fond childhood memories of “hiding” under the piano or around a corner where he thought he wouldn’t seen.

Even more important, he noted, their discoveries “became more than just songs; they were documents of a living, breathing culture.”

The Mloteks weren’t the first to collect these melodic treasures. Chana’s encyclopedic knowledge encompasses the history of Yiddish folksong collectors as well as the songs themselves, and she was quick to name-check those who came before, mentioning the work of Moshe Beregovski, I.L. Peretz, S. An-Sky and Ruth Rubin. In 2007 she published “Yiddish Folksongs from the Ruth Rubin Archive.”

Chana and Joseph had one small advantage over their predecessors. Thanks to the newspaper column, their witnesses came to them, usually by mail, and more recently by telephone and e-mail.

“Hasidim come to me asking for nigunim of the Stoliner chasids,” she explained last year. “This week I had a song that was a variation on an older song, about Hitler dying. There are songs about almost every aspect of Jewish life — songs about coming to America, songs about how the agunot are left behind in the old country. So many wonderful songs, so much wonderful culture.”

She shook her head wistfully.

“So many letters we never had a chance to answer,” she says. “It’s a sad state of affairs, people are passing away.”