Chana Gordon Mlotek Biography
The Sherlock Holmes of Yiddish Music
Mlotek (neé Eleanor "Chana" Gordon), born April 9, 1922, grew up immersed in Yiddish culture. Her family
spoke Yiddish fluently and the young Gordon sisters attended Yiddish school and a Jewish high school. Their father would
sing Yiddish songs to them that were stored in his memory but never written down. Chana speaks fondly of these melodies and
credits her father as a profound influence on her later career as a music archivist and researcher.
In 1944, she began working for the founder
of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Dr. Max Weinreich, first as his secretary, then later as the assistant to the research
director. It was during this time that young Chana Gordon was awarded a scholarship from YIVO
to attend the first-ever Yiddish folklore class at UCLA. Only 12 scholarships were given to attend the class.
By coincidence she
had met one of the other scholars, a young man named Joseph Mlotek, the previous summer at Rockaway Beach. She had heard him
playing Yiddish songs on the mandolin for a group of her friends. Reunited in California, the two lovers of Yiddish music
began a romance with each other. Shortly after their class at UCLA, Joseph was offered the position of education director
for the Workmen’s Circle in New York, where he joined his beloved Chana. They married in 1949.
Two years later,
on June 15, 1951, Chana gave birth to their first son, Zalmen Nosn, and four years later on August 8, 1955, she gave birth
to their second son, Moish - Mark Elchonen.
the couple began writing a bi-weekly column for New York’s Yiddish Forverts ("The
Jewish Daily Forward"). Titled "Perl fun der Yiddisher Poezie" ("Pearls of Yiddish Poetry"), the
highly regarded column brought the couple's unique Yiddish wisdom to a wide audience.
One section of their
column, "Readers Recall Songs," asked readers to submit small portions of songs they remembered from their youth;
the Mloteks would then research and identify these songs and write about them. One of the mot memorable letters came
from a man who had been in a concentration camp. A boy there song, "My Yiddishe Mame," and the Nazi officer
was so moved that he told the guard to give the Jews another bowl of soup. A week after the letter was published in
the column, a writer wrote that he was the boy who sung the sentimental song, and a week after that, another letter came from
someone who said, "I was there too."
As an enthomusicologist and folklorist, Chana
said the songs were powerful stimulants to retrospection. "There's a song everybody loves." She wrote her
first research paper on a song called, "The Beard" in which a wife asks her husband why he cut off his beard because
she no longer recognizes him. "I found it to be a poem by Mikhl Gordon from 1868," Chana said, "It went through
many different translations and melodies. When a songs is transmitted orally like that, it becomes folkloric." For
their work in bringing these songs back to life, the Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer called Joseph and Chana, the "Sherlock
Holmes of Yiddish Music."
Through the years, the Mloteks culled together
information on thousands of songs — so many, in fact, that they were able to publish three well-respected anthologies:
Mir Trogn a Gezang (We Are Carrying a Song), Pearls of Yiddish Song, and Songs of Generations. Mir Trogn a Gezang alone has sold over 25,000 copies and is one of the best-known Yiddish
anthologies of its kind.
In 1978, Chana Mlotek returned to YIVO on a grant from the National Endowment
for the Humanities. In 1984, she became music archivist at the Institute.
The Mlotek family has become somewhat of a
dynasty among the Yiddish community as the elder Mloteks instilled their passion for Yiddish culture in their sons. Their
son Zalmen is a successful composer, conductor, and arranger, and the artistic director of The National Yiddish Theatre- Folksbiene
in New York City, the oldest continuous venue for Yiddish theater in the world.
The Mloteks' second son, Moish, is the President
of the Folksbiene Board of Directors and is a past president of his father’s old employer, the Workmen’s Circle.
In 2007, Chana published
her latest anthology together with Dr. Mark Slobin, Yiddish Folksongs from the Ruth Rubin Archive, and recently
released an English translation of her and Yosl's Pearls of Yiddish Poetry.
Chana has received
countless Lifetime Acheivement Awards through her illustrious career including induction into the Hunter College Hall of Fame
in 2009. She was was working on her ninth anthology up until her passing in November of 2013.
Koved ir likhtikn