Sunday, September 25, 2022

Chana Mlotek was an extraordinary woman and Yiddish folklorist who worked long and hard to bring a vibrant, exciting, Yiddish culture to Jewish life in America. This included keeping The National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene in the spotlight as the showcase of that culture in the 21st century.

Née Eleanor Gordon, Chana got her love of Yiddish culture from her father, who sang Yiddish songs from memory, but never wrote them down. She and her husband, Yosl, z”l, a Holocaust survivor and son of a teacher from Poland, imbued their two sons, Zalmen and Mark, and their children, with a legacy that is filled with zest and passion for the multi-layered, international culture of Yiddish and Yiddish theater. They learned early on that Yiddish theater was an integral part of Jewish immigrant life in America before and after the Holocaust, and that it is a wonderful medium that continues to artistically convey messages about Judaism and life to modern audiences. As a result, they, too, have devoted themselves to the cause.

Chana earned her BA at Hunter College of the City University of New York. In 1978, on a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Chana returned to the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, where she had started her career in 1944 as a secretary and later, assistant to its founder, Dr. Max Weinreich. Forty years later, she became YIVO’s musical archivist.

She was the recipient of life achievement awards from the Milken Archive of Jewish Music and the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Hunter College Hall of Fame, the Workmen’s Circle and the International Association of Yiddish Clubs.

It all came to pass because of a scholarship she was awarded in 1948 to attend UCLA. It was there, in a class on Yiddish folklore, that she found an acquaintance she’d met in New York—Yosl Mlotek. Already in love with Yiddish, they fell in love with one other. Yosl was appointed Director of Education at The Workmen’s Circle in New York, where Chana was living, and in 1949, they married and dedicated their lives to bringing Yiddish back to life. Yosl passed in July, 2000.

The Yiddish folklore class that brought them together was the first and only such course at an American university at the time. Today, more than 20 universities offer Yiddish courses, and many of them expose their students to music and drama, as well as the basic language. That did not surprise Chana, who saw Klezmer music as honey that attracts American Jewish youth to music and Judaism.

Chana’s legacy of making Yiddish culture part of American Jewish life continues to be realized in the 21st century as more performers, Jewish and not, become involved in productions that showcase Yiddish cultural history and contemporary innovations on themes often taken straight from the material that Chana and her husband collected from every corner of the world.

From The National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene

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