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YIVO Mourns the Passing of Chana Mlotek, 1922-2013

PRESS NEWS: For immediate release

YIVO Institute for Jewish Research
15 West 16th Street
New York, NY 10011
Contact: Suzanne Leon, Director of Development

NEW YORK, NY (November 4, 2013) – The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research announces with sadness the death of its longtime music archivist, Chana Mlotek, known worldwide for her expertise on the musical traditions of Jewish Eastern Europe.

Senior Archivist Fruma Mohrer comments, “Chana had every single piece of music from the YIVO Archives at her fingertips: every arrangement, every title, from the 19th century to the present. She was a woman of vast knowledge, and yet was unfailingly unassuming and unpretentious.” The many catalogs and guides to music collections that Chana created at YIVO are used on a daily basis by composers, conductor, performers, folklorists, and musicologists.

Chana (neé Eleanor "Chana" Gordon) was born on April 9, 1922, in New York in a Yiddish-speaking family. She attended the Yiddish High School of the Sholem Aleichem Folks Institute, and was a graduate of Hunter College.

In 1944, on the basis of her excellent Yiddish, she was hired by the historian Lucy Dawidowicz to serve as the secretary to Max Weinreich, co-founder of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (then known as the Yiddish Scientific Institute). She later became the assistant to YIVO’s research director. In 1948, she was awarded a scholarship to attend the first ever Yiddish linguistics and folklore courses at UCLA, taught by Weinreich. It was there in Los Angeles that she became romantically involved with another student, Joseph (Yosl) Mlotek, a Holocaust survivor she had met the previous summer playing Yiddish songs on a mandolin at Rockaway Beach in New York but who was then living in Calgary in Canada. After the course, the young couple was forced to separate. Because he was on only a temporary visa, Yosl had to return to Canada and Chana returned to New York.

Fortunately, their separation did not last too long. Soon after the end of the course, Yosl was offered the position of education director at the Workmen’s Circle in New York. In 1949, Chana and Yosl were married. They raised two children in the Bronx, Zalmen, and Mark (Moish). The couple passed their love for Yiddish down to their children: Zalmen is the executive director of New York City’s Folksbiene Theatre, the oldest continuous venue for Yiddish theater in the world. Moish is a member of the board of directors of the Folksbiene Theatre and is a past president of the Workmen’s Circle.

During her early years at YIVO, Chana was the founder of the Y. L. Cahan Folklore Club, which published newly collected folklore material, and quickly gained a name for herself as a scholar of music and folklore.

In 1970, she and Yosl began writing a bi-weekly column for the Yiddish Forverts called "Perl fun der Yiddisher Poezie" ("Pearls of Yiddish Poetry") that included the feature "Readers Recall Songs," and which invited readers to submit Yiddish songs they remembered from their youth for the Mloteks to research. Because of this scholarly sleuthing, the couple was dubbed “the Sherlock Holmeses of Yiddish folk songs” by Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Together, the Mloteks published three anthologies, Mir Trogn a Gezang (We Are Carrying a Song), Pearls of Yiddish Song, and Songs of Generations. The books are the most highly-regarded and best-selling Yiddish songbooks in the world. After Yosl’s death in 2000, Chana went on to publish Yiddish Folksongs from the Ruth Rubin Archive. She was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the Milken Archive and The Jewish Theological Seminary in 2003.

In 1978, Chana Mlotek returned to YIVO on a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and became its fulltime music archivist in 1984. YIVO Executive Director Jonathan Brent notes, “Her work will live on. Hundreds of thousands of people have benefited from her scholarship. But YIVO is orphaned without her and the rich heritage she shared with all.”

ABOUT YIVO: Founded in 1925, the YIVO Institute is headquartered in New York City, and is the world’s premier teaching and research institute devoted to East European Jewish Studies with specializations in the Yiddish language, literature, and folklore; the Holocaust; and the American Jewish experience.