The Arty Semite

Chana Mlotek, Yiddish Folksong Scholar, Dies at 91

By Itzik Gottesman

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Yiddish folksong expert, researcher and anthologist Chana Mlotek died on November 4 at age 91. Mlotek maintained a decades-long association with the Forverts and with the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, where she was the institute’s music archivist.

Courtesy of the Milken Archive of Jewish Music

When I worked with Mlotek at YIVO, people would come to the archives and say, “I only remember one Yiddish song from my mother, and of that song I only remember one line. And, unfortunately, from that one line I only remember two or three words.” When visitors told her the two or three words, you couldn’t even be sure they were speaking Yiddish. But Mlotek, who was once dubbed the “Sherlock Holmes of Yiddish song,” always took the matter seriously, and almost always found what the person was looking for.

On many occasions I was also one of those inquirers, searching for obscure songs. And Mlotek often found copies of them, not in printed books, but in collections she had cultivated over many years.

Mlotek, together with Ruth Rubin, reestablished the field of Yiddish folksong research in America after the Holocaust. Before the war the field had been in bloom — the YIVO Ethnographic Commission collected more material than any other YIVO commission or department. The idea of collecting folklore inspired dozens of folklore circles and hundreds of collectors in cities and towns across Eastern Europe, starting from the founding of YIVO in 1925, until 1939.

After the war folklore again occupied an esteemed position in YIVO’s research operations, and Mlotek became the postwar link to the pre-war folklore circles. In 1944 she began working as YIVO co-founder Max Weinreich’s assistant. After participating in his folklore seminar in Los Angeles in 1948, she dedicated herself to Yiddish folklore and especially to Yiddish folksong. It was at the same seminar that she met her husband, Yosl Mlotek.

Mlotek’s deep knowledge of folklore-materials was evident from her scholarly articles about Yiddish ballads and folksongs. Her knowledge covered not only folksongs, but also theater songs, art songs and popular songs. Mlotek also shared the treasures of Yiddish song with a wider audience through her three volumes of songbooks, as well as in her Forverts column “Pearls of Yiddish Poetry,” which she wrote with her husband.

Chana and Yosl Mlotek’s three books “Mir Trogn A Gezang,” “Perl fun Yidishn Lid” and “Lider fun Dor tsu Dor” are classic collections which no singer, fan, club, or Yiddish cultural society can do without. They sold thousands of copies and greatly helped to expand the repertoire of Yiddish songs. The volumes include both well-known songs as well as those collected from friends and sent in by Forverts readers.

The column “Pearls of Yiddish Poetry” was launched in 1970 and quickly became one of the most beloved features of the newspaper. The column also led to new discoveries — for instance, the Mloteks discovered the writers of many songs that were previously thought to be traditional compositions.

Chana Mlotek catalogued the most important music collection in the YIVO archive. But what remained in her head was even more important. And that cannot be brought back.


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