My first language was Yiddish. My father was a Yiddish writer, activist, and survivor from Warsaw 1939 who spent the war years in Shanghai before coming to America. My mother was an American-born pianist and folklorist. In my earlier years I studied to be a conductor of orchestral classical music. After pursuing different avenues of conducting in musical theater and orchestral music, it seems I was destined to return to my familial roots.
My father dedicated himself to the continuation of a culture that was almost decimated. His work as a writer, teacher, activist and Yiddish event producer together with my mother’s passion for Yiddish songs was the cultural DNA in which I was raised.
The tightly-knit community that I grew up in the Amalgamated Houses in the Bronx were a vibrant mix. Some were immigrants, some were Holocaust survivors, most were first-generation Americans. They were active in many organizations like the Workmen’s Circle and the Jewish Labor Bund. The Bundists, with whom my father was affiliated, were strong proponents of the concept that Jews should be able to live as Jews wherever they resided, and were committed to social justice and Yiddish culture.
I have distinct memories of my parents having musical soirees in our apartment with the leading singers and actors on the Yiddish world in the 1950s. People like Ben Bonus, Mina Bern, Emil Gorovets, Sidor Belarsky, Masha Benya would come together often and sing their favorite Yiddish songs into the wee hours. As a four or five-year old I hung out as long as they would let me and specifically sit under the piano where my mother was usually playing. Even when they would send me to sleep because of the late hour I hid behind one of the walls in the foyer and still heard it all. The singers, the voices, the camaraderie, the laughter, all would resonate deeply.
Our own family get-togethers were also always filled with singing. Either my mother or her sister, my aunt Malke, were at the piano and we would sing everything from Gilbert and Sullivan to Tom Lehrer to Broadway shows and of course Yiddish theater and folk songs.
It’s been quite a journey for me since I first “conducted” to records on the stereo. I would play the D’Oyly Carte recordings of my favorite Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and conduct from the piano-vocal scores.
I still own my mother’s piano along with her hundreds of scores and sheet music. That’s the piano I have at home now and that I use in my work all the time.
I’m blessed to be married for over thirty years to Debra Cohen Mlotek, a pediatric occupational therapist, and we have three children, two daughters-in-law, and two grandchildren.
Zalmen Mlotek, an internationally recognized authority on Yiddish folk and theater music, is a leading figure in the Jewish theater and concert worlds. Mr. Mlotek has deep roots in Yiddish culture and an extensive musical education. This unique experience combined with his talent and passion has merged into a career that has revitalized the world of Yiddish music and theater. Mr. Mlotek is the Artistic Director of the award-winning National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene.
Photos above are thanks to Playbill Images used by Permission, All rights reserved. Playbill, Inc., Victor Nechav, and Jeff Janeczkco.