'There was an unsaid need to just really be happy together'

In Tel Aviv, a maestro revels in the ‘holy work’ of preserving Yiddish culture

Yung Yiddish hosts conductor Zalmen Mlotek, the man behind the acclaimed mamaloshen stage version of ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ for an evening of song and camaraderie

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

Zalman Mlotek holds forth at Yung Yiddish, on February 4, 2024. (Gavriel Fiske/Times of Israel)
Zalman Mlotek holds forth at Yung Yiddish, on February 4, 2024. (Gavriel Fiske/Times of Israel)

On the fifth floor of the ironically named and notoriously decrepit “new” central bus station in Tel Aviv, past the maze-like corridors of empty storefronts and random debris, lies the packed warehouse of Yiddish books and memorabilia that is Yung Yiddish.

Equal parts Yiddish cultural center, performance venue, educational institution and overflowing archive, Yung Yiddish recently hosted an evening with New York City-based Zalmen Mlotek, a noted expert on Yiddish song. The event turned out to be a lengthy, informal performance session with some of the leaders in Israel’s small Yiddishist scene.

“I was thinking of doing something in Israel when I knew I was coming,” Mlotek related. “All these Americans going to Israel, helping out and doing stuff, sending money. So I am going, what can I possibly do? Thank God, it was a special night.”

“It’s an amazing, magical place,” he said, speaking of the center, which is famously cluttered and dimly lit. “I grew up in a home of books — my father was a writer, my mother a musicologist — so for me to come into that space in Tel Aviv, and to see these thousands of books, it’s like Alice in Wonderland.”

Mlotek, the artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (NYTF), a cultural organization more than 100 years old, is a conductor and pianist who studied under Leonard Bernstein at Julliard and is one of the world’s leading experts on Yiddish music and song. His critically acclaimed Yiddish version of the classic musical “Fiddler on the Roof” was an off-Broadway hit during its 2018-2020 run, and then again during a revival at the end of 2022.

Deep in the bus station, the vibe was decidedly casual as Mendy Cahan, the charismatic actor and singer who runs Yung Yiddish, greeted the 70 or so guests as they came in, passing out kugel, herring and shots of strong drink. Cahan, who seemed to know everyone already, spoke in a fluid mixture of Yiddish, English and Hebrew as he served as emcee for the evening.

Mendy Cahan on stage at Yung Yiddish, on January 4, 2024. (Gavriel Fiske/Times of Israel)

Accompanied by Mlotek on piano and a small ensemble organized by American-Israeli violinist Daniel Hoffman, Cahan dramatically belted out several classics from the Yiddish song repertoire in between rousing sessions of klezmer dance tunes. As the evening went on, other Yiddish artists came up from the audience to sing, including members of Tel Aviv’s Yiddishpiel Theater. A small choir from the Nigunim Laad organization also performed.

The evening ended with a lengthy, improvised jam session, as the diverse crowd slowly filtered out.

“There are so many feelings about that evening,” Mlotek said by phone the next day. “Of course, you had the older crowd, you had the young people, people with yarmulkes, you had everybody. The audience was listening with all ears and giving the artists the greatest respect. These people are choosing to create in Yiddish and do these Yiddish performances.”

Zalmen Mlotek. (Courtesy)

Visiting Israel for just a week – he has a daughter who lives in Haifa, who also sang that evening – he said that the events of October 7 and the Israel-Hamas conflict are never far from people’s minds.

“There was an unsaid need from everyone to just really be happy together. It was amazing. It was what I had hoped to do. It was very exciting for me on all these levels, from a musical level, and just to take our minds off reality for a moment,” Mlotek said.

He added that because of “the position of Israeli society and how it views Yiddish and klezmer music, which is a whole subject, when I experience musicians here, by virtue of them just being in Israel, there is an unsaid, unspoken understanding that they are doing holy work” in preserving Yiddish culture.

Yiddish, the Germanic-Jewish hybrid language once widely spoken by the Ashkenazi Jews of Europe, enjoyed a thriving vitality until the post-World War II era, when the Holocaust, the success of the Hebrew-oriented Zionist movement, and Jewish assimilation into American life dramatically reduced the number of speakers. In Israel, the language is largely the province of the ultra-Orthodox and a passionate circle of scholars, aficionados and hobbyists.

Klezmer music, the traditional instrumental music of the Ashkenazi Jews, has a somewhat stronger presence in Israel. Some of the classic, early Hebrew-Israeli songs are based on klezmer melodies. Hassidic niggunim, the closely related genre of wordless, spiritual melodies, are widespread. Most Jewish wedding bands have a bit of klezmer in their repertoire, and in recent years several new, dedicated ensembles have sprung up.

From left to right: Mendy Cahan, Daniel Hoffman and Zalmen Mlotek, at Yung Yiddish on January 4, 2024. (Courtesy)

Mlotek was born in 1951 in the Bronx into a Yiddish-speaking household, and although he now wears a yarmulke, grew up as a Bundist, part of the secular Jewish labor movement that once held a powerful sway over Jewish life in New York City.

Speaking of the Yiddish and klezmer communities in the States vis a vis the current conflict, he acknowledged a general “left-leaning” tendency but said, “I have a lot of friends and people in various communities who are also outraged and concerned on every level. We are hearing the main calls that we are hearing from the left, for a ceasefire. We also want a ceasefire, but we also want to see a safe Israel and the safe return of the hostages. That’s not spoken about, and I can’t abide by that, personally. For me, they go hand in hand.”

There is sometimes a tendency, he said, to “divorce klezmer and Yiddish music from Judaism or a love of Israel.”

Yung Yiddish in Tel Aviv, on January 4, 2024. (Gavriel Fiske/Times of Israel)

“I think post-October 7, many of us in America are pretty consumed with what’s going on here, especially those of us who have family here and have been here. I say to my friends, before you tell me about what Israel should or shouldn’t do, take a trip, spend some time in any of these incredible thriving cities, Tel Aviv, Haifa or wherever, and see how life is going on while enemies are waiting at the borders to annihilate you,” he said.

The original “Fiddler on the Roof,” whose songs are among the most famous of Broadway tunes, was first produced in English in 1964 and based on the Yiddish writing of author Sholem Aleichem. The NYTF’s Yiddish version was inspired by a recording of a Yiddish stage production that was first translated and performed in 1965 in Tel Aviv.

Mlotek, who had a recording of that Tel Aviv version at the age of 15, is currently in discussions about staging a contemporary Israeli production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” in Yiddish with Hebrew “supertitles” for translation.

“My dream is to do it here,” he said.

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