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Zalmen Mlotek

Lisa Fishman

Joe Eskow

Joe Eskow


by Rhonda Spivak, May 24, 2012

"Yiddle, Fiddle, Shmiddle" were the words in the chorus of the opening number of Zalmen Mlotek's sweeping tour de force of Yiddish Culture which opened up this year's Mameloshen Festival.

The Mamelsohen Festival is  put on by the Rady JCC and the IL  Peretz Folk School Endowment Trust, with a special grant from the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba ( It is also put on with specific grants from the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba: Gail Asper through the Israel and Babs Asper Charitable Fund, Mark and Dorothy Dansker Perpetual Trust Fund, In Memory of Sam Grosberg Fund, and the Dorris Margolis Jewish Theatre and Music Fund.]

. Even a novice like myself, who knows absolutely no Yiddish, could remember the catchy phrase "Yiddle, Fiddle, Shmiddle" (full disclosure: I know what a Yiddle is, and what a Fiddle is, but I am not so sure I know what a Shmiddle is).

Mlotek, the Artistic Director of The National Yiddish Theatre (America's only Yiddish Theatre) who lives and breathes Yiddish culture correctly refers to himself as "an ambassador for this rich 1000 year culture." He explained how Yiddish songs were a means "of chronicling Jewish life," and are like "windows into Jewish life" of an era that is no longer. It's difficult to imagine anyone being able to surpass Mlotek's knowledge of Yiddish folk and theatre music--his command of the subject, its historical trends, the life cycle events it captured, and its influence on Broadway musicals is exceptional. He imparted a lot of treasured knowledge in this one concert, which was very appreciated by the audience. [Both Evita Smordin and Maureen Cohen told me that they loved the concert].
Mlotek absorbed Yiddish culture in his Yiddish speaking home and he also went to Yiddish summer camp, called Camp Hemshech. He referred to his mother, now 90, as a "walking encyclopedia of Yiddish song," --She found and rescued otherwise unknown Yiddish songs and has published Yiddish songbook collections.  As Mloteke said "My mother is the Sherlock Homes of Yiddish culture."
Mlotek did emphasize that he was trying to impart a flavour of Yiddish culture to those who do not necessarily understand the words of the songs--and I think that he was successful in that. Mlotek's formal training as a classical musician and conductor was at Julliard School of Music, the New England Conservatory of Music, the Tanglewood Music Center, Manhattan School of Music and Mannes School of Music. Among his most notable teachers and mentors was Leonard Bernstein. He also studied conducting with Zubin Mehta, James Levine and other masters of music and conducting.  
Mlotek was the arranger and music director for Isaac Bashevis Singer and Robert Brustein's acclaimed production of Shlemiel The First. In short, it was  easy to see how he has been an important figure in revitalizing the world of Yiddish music and theater.
Mlotek came with a PowerPoint presentation which translated the words to many of the songs into English, which definitely added to the concert, especially for those, like me, who do not know Yiddish (although non-Yiddish speakers were by far the minority of the audience). If you asked me to recite the names of all of the songs that he and singer Lisa Fishman performed, I would answer: "Yiddle Fiddle Shmiddle." (in fact from now on I am going to use this phrase to answer any questions to which I do not have the answer).
I did manage to copy down the words in English of one not well known love song that I liked: "Oy Avrum, can't be without you. It's like a doorknob without a door." You can't get more poetic than that, can you!
The chorus of another ditty was "Of Of Of-Mazel Mazel Tof."
Mlotek, who both sang and played on piano, played a number of songs with Yiddish words that I am familiar with, like "shmata" and "shloff", and "Gut Yontif' and he even played an unexpected Yiddish version of the baby song "patty cake, patty cake". My favorite refrain from Mlotek's extensive repertoire was from a song about a man who is returning home from synagogue, eager to eat his wife's apple strudel. Here are the words: "Hodyl Hodyl Hodyl, vat's happening vith your strudel!" The song had my mother conjuring up an image of her grandmother rolling out the dough for making strudel-and it had me was hoping that maybe they'd be serving some strudel after the concert!
Mlotek explained that when Jews moved from Eastern Europe to America, much of that experience was captured in Yiddish song--many of the songs from that period were about how great America was. One song he played, was about world war one, indicating in Yiddish that "Uncle Sam Wants You". Another song was about being a peddler, which many new Jewish immigrants became on coming to America. There were also Yiddish songs that expressed the experience of new Jewish immigrants to Israel.
In America, slowly, more and more English words kept into Yiddish song. Mlotek , who brought Yiddish-Klezmer music to Broadway and off-Broadway stages as a co-creator, music director, and conductor of Those Were the Days, (the first bilingual music honored with a Drama Desk Award and nominated for two Tony Awards) also performed songs from Yiddish Operetta's and explained how popular Yiddish theatre became in New York.
Other tunes that Mlotek shared with the audience were commercials, including a vintage commercial for Manischewitz, and he had me smiling when he played a Yiddish version of "She'll be coming down the Mountain"   as well as when he played the song "It's a wonderful world" in Yiddish. I think my favourite was hearing "Frere Jacques" in Yiddish-- something I had no idea even existed.
There were familiar Yiddish numbers performed  with which the audience sang along.
Mlotek and Fishman were definitely a good choice to open up the Mameloshen Festival -and I came home wondering if Hodyl Hodyl Hodly had left me any strudel. 
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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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