Imagine celebrating your 70th birthday with thousands of your nearest and dearest! Marking not only his milestone birthday but his 50 years of trailblazing leadership in the world of Yiddish music and culture, Zalmen Mlotek, longtime resident of Teaneck, produced an online celebration watched by thousands of fans over the course of 96 hours, from July 26 through July 30. Viewers of the 1½ hour production, entitled “A Yiddish Renaissance,” were treated to a magical online treat created by 10 talented video editors and directors. Each segment consisted of images of singers, musicians, dancers and actors perfectly in sync and offering delightful renditions of some of the most recognized musical pieces from the Yiddish theater of bygone days until today.
The story began 70 years ago when Zalman Mlotek was born to Joseph and Eleanor Chana Mlotek in the Yiddish-speaking world of the Bronx. Both parents were well known Yiddishists, musicians and movers and shakers in the Yiddish-Jewish world. Father “Yossel” served as the educational director of the Workmen’s Circle and had a wide influence across the U.S. From his teens, Zalmen was involved with Yiddish, teaching in Yiddish schools and as a music director in Yiddish camps. Despite his home being a magnet for prominent musicians in the world of Yiddish music, Zalmen had his heart set on becoming a classical conductor. It was through a heart-to-heart conversation with none other than music icon Leonard Bernstein in 1977 at the Tanglewood Youth Orchestra Program that he pivoted to what became his lifetime’s work. Bernstein convinced him that he was already on track with a very special legacy of music and that he would be giving more to the world of music through resuscitating Yiddish than by becoming just one more conductor of classical music. Mlotek followed the sage advice and became one of the most influential figures in Yiddish music today. Mlotek expressed that he sees his responsibility as two-fold. One is to honor and pay tribute to his parents’ work and continue their legacy.The second is to bring back to the world the almost decimated Yiddish language and culture.
Joining in the celebration were over 140 actors and an orchestra of over 30 musicians. Appearances and birthday wishes were offered by notables including Joel Grey, Barry Manilow, Mandy Patinkin, Itzhak Perlman and Dr. Ruth Westheimer. Casts from Folksbiene shows presented numbers from The Golden Bride, On Second Avenue, Yiddish Pirates of Penzance, Amerike the Golden Land, Soul to Soul, Kids and Yiddish and the incomparable Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof. Joining in the celebration were Mlotek’s three children. Oldest child Rabbi Avram Mlotek, director of spiritual life at the Bais movement, sang in many of the segments. Younger son Elisha, a professional film editor, worked on the overture performed by a 30-piece orchestra. Daughter Sarah sang in several segments, as did granddaughter Ravi. The children view the production as a true tribute to their father’s work and testimony to the heartfelt appreciation of all those whose lives he has impacted through his artistic endeavors.
When Mlotek was approached in the 1990s to create a musical score for Folksbiene’s new play to be presented at Central Synagogue, he was struck with the realization that the production company was being run by an older generation that would soon be passing on. What was to become of the theater dating back to 1915? Mlotek approached a few of his younger colleagues with the idea of the younger generation taking it over, and after a serious battle with the old guard, they succeeded. One of the earliest outstanding performances of the newly re-invigorated Folksbiene took place in Berlin in 1993 when the troupe played a series of Yiddish theater songs to a mesmerized German audience.
Mlotek’s combination of a Yiddish Fiddler directed by veteran Yiddish actor Joel Grey set in the magnificent and meaningful venue of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park overlooking the Statue of Liberty was an instant victory. Jewish and non-Jewish audiences flocked to the production, whose run was extended several times. The production was set to travel to China and Australia, but COVID interfered. The sparse scenery focused on the white parchment reading “Torah,” which was slit during a vicious pogrom, added to the poignancy of the play. Interviewed during “A Yiddish Renaissance,” Steven Skybell, who played an endearing Tevye in the Yiddish production, was brought to tears as he recalled how the Yiddish language goes to the heart of the story.
Throughout the segments, original photographs of the places being described were featured on the screen. In one segment, local Teaneck chazzan Netanel Hershtik performed “Vos iz Gevorn Fun Mein Shtetele?” (“What Has Become of My Town?”) against a background of photographs of the pre-war town. A touching rendition of a treasured song sung by Mlotek’s late father accompanied by the mandolin entitled “O Come Quiet Evening” was performed. Aptly, the last piece of the evening, which was performed by klezmer musicians from around the world, was a composition by Leonard Bernstein entitled “Make Our Garden Grow.” The message being conveyed was that “A Yiddish Renaissance” was indeed a tribute to an artist who over the course of his career has watered and nourished the Yiddish garden and perpetuated it for the enjoyment of future generations.
By Pearl Markovitz