Chana Mlotek admits that at 90 she’s a little less productive than she used to be.
“My legs don’t go as fast as they did,” she says, her eyes twinkling. “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.”
Although her official title is music archivist at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, in more than 60 years with the organization, Mlotek has done a lot more than that. When she is honored next week at a gala for the National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene, the list of her achievements will be a long one.
But it is as a preservationist, anthologist and detective of Yiddish song that Mlotek is probably best known.
“Chana is simply the Queen … there is no other,” Hankus Netsky exclaimed in an e-mail last week. 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, she says modestly, “a good foundation.” Born in Brooklyn and raised in the Bronx, she grew up in a Yiddish-speaking and Yiddish-singing household, went to a Yiddish school and Camp Boyberik “where I learned a lot of songs,” and eventually went to work for YIVO in 1944 as assistant to the legendary Max Weinreich, then the organization’s research director.
“Everything was done in Yiddish,” she recalls. “When Weinreich spoke it was like music, his Yiddish was so beautiful.”
It was thanks to Weinreich that she met and married Joseph Mlotek. The two were students in Weinreich’s seminar at University of California Los Angeles in 1948.
The pair shared a love of Yiddish folk song, which became more than a hobby. They brought their skills as song detectives first to a weekly column in the Yiddish-language Forward, and then began compiling books of Yiddish folk songs.
But if the music was more than hobby, it was never just a job. Zalmen Mlotek, their son and artistic director of the Folksbiene, remembers many parties filled with “the who’s who of the Yiddish intelligentsia and singing world, singing that would go on all night.”
Even more important, he notes, 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 is quick to name-check those who came before, mentioning the work of Moshe Beregovski, I.L. Peretz, S. An-Sky and Ruth Rubin.
Chana and Joseph had one small advantage over their predecessors. Thanks to the newspaper column, their witnesses came to them, usually by mail, more recently by telephone and e-mail.
“Chasidim come to me asking for niggunim of the Stoliner chasids,” she says. “This week I had a song that was a variation on an older song, about Hitler dying. So many wonderful songs, so much wonderful culture.”
She shakes her head wistfully.
And yet, she adds, there is a renewed interest in Yiddish culture among younger people, even within her own, very Yiddish-oriented family.
“My grandson is involved in chasidic music, but he doesn’t know the old songs, so we’re sharing them with him,” she says. “And there’s the young people’s group at YIVO, the klezmer revival. The situation is a sickly one, though, unless the attitude in Israel changes.”
Still, she concludes, “We persist.”
The Folksbiene gala, honoring Chana Mlotek, Neil Sedaka and Jay Wisnicki, takes place on Tuesday, June 12, 7:30 p.m., at Town Hall (123 W. 43rd St.). Among the performers and speakers will be Elie Wiesel, Dudu Fisher and Lorin Sklamberg. For information, call (212) 213-2120 or go to www.nationalyiddishtheatre.org.