Uniting us through song since 1972

For 43 years Yosl and Chana Mlotek brought Yiddish music and poetry to millions of people worldwide.

It all began with a weekly newspaper column in the New York Yiddish Forward called ‘Pearls of Yiddish Poetry’ and a feature known as ‘Readers Remember Songs.’

Yosl and Chana Mlotek were in harmony as a research team. Chana, YIVO’s long-standing ethnomusicologist and folklorist, and Yosl, education director for the Workers Circle and managing editor for the Forvertz, supported each other’s work in Yiddish culture and inspired countless students of music, theater, and history. Together, in 1970, they began “Pearls of Yiddish Poetry” (Perl fun der Yidisher Poezye), a newspaper column on the historic origins of Yiddish poetry and song that would go on to become a trailblazing precursor to social media, and put back together pieces of history shattered by horrific acts of hate. The column emerged as a result of a letter from a reader, Paul Berman, to The Forward’s editor, Simon Weber. Berman inquired about lines of a song he recalled from his younger years in Lodz, Poland, lines which he was unable to locate. This inquiry suggested to Yosl and Chana the possibility of other unpublished and half-forgotten songs that might still be lingering or lying dormant in the consciousness of Holocaust survivors and Jewish immigrants, and finally motivated the launch of their weekly, later biweekly, column on Yiddish artistic expression.

The column evolved over many years.

Since that time, the two-page feature column evolved into an information and research service, replying to inquiries, gathering and publishing favorite songs, half-remembered or unfamiliar songs, as well as the poetry of well-known writers. Over the course of 18 years, hundreds of Yiddish readers throughout the world — including authors, composers, singers, and actors — became co-participants in this collective folk project, and recalling melodies, lines, fragments, stanzas and their variants of songs, poems, and plays which they had heard in their youth. At first, readers sent in only written material. Later, they also taped songs on cassettes, many of which had melodies, until then, never had been recorded. Readers also identified and supplied missing information regarding lyricists, poets, and composers and described the circumstances surrounding the songs’ origins, dissemination, diffusion, and impact.

Amy Horowitz, assistant director of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, said that the Mloteks played an important role in the preservation of Yiddish culture, particularly for new generations of singers who want to carry on these repertories. This is especially so with traditions like Yiddish, which was almost annihilated during World War II,’ she added, ‘to have people who provide us not only with the songs themselves but with the context out of which the songs came and which really no longer exists in the rich and widespread form it once did.’

Excerpts of article “Rescuing Old Yiddish Songs from the Haze of Memories” by Richard T. Shepard, printed in The New York Times, December 28, 1997fa,

Reader participation flourished and deepened the collection.

One of the most notable letters that Chana and Yosl received and published in their column came from a Holocaust survivor who shared a memory from his experiences in a concentration camp in which a young boy sang “My Yiddishe Mama” so beautifully that an emotional Nazi officer ordered the guard to give the Jews an extra bowl of soup. A week after they published the story, Chana and Yosl received another letter from a writer who wrote that he was the boy who had sung the sentimental song. And the following week, another individual wrote in saying “I was there, too.”

Each edition would later include questions and a Yiddish crossword puzzle written by Chana that attracted hundreds of replies weekly. The Mloteks would fastidiously include the name of each and every person that completed the questions and/or crossword puzzle and it became a source of pride for the readership to be mentioned in their columns.

Chana standing with her research collection at YIVO
Chana standing with her research at YIVO

Yosl and Chana’s extensive research encouraged readers to participate by submitting their own remembrances of songs, melodies, and lyrics from their lives preceding and following World War II. Inundated with letters and cassette recordings from readers across the globe, the couple was eager to share and preserve Yiddish culture for fear it would all be lost. Born out of the songs featured in the column came five authoritative Yiddish song anthologies published by the Workers Circle, which continues to inspire new generations of artists and educators to this day. Because of their collaborative spirit and their investigative research in safeguarding Yiddish music and poetry, Yosl and Chana’s column allowed readers to have their loved ones honored, represent their shtetl or community, and make their voices heard.

“The Mloteks are peerless preservationists… 

Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Yiddish writer and Nobel laureate, once called Mrs. Mlotek and her husband, Yosl [Joseph], ‘the Sherlock Holmeses of Yiddish folk songs”

The New York Times

Chana Mlotek (neé Eleanor “Chana” Gordon), born April 9, 1922, grew up immersed in Yiddish culture.

Chana was born in East New York, Brooklyn on April 9, 1922. She grew up in the North Bronx with her older sister, Malke Gottleib, and their parents, two Russian immigrants who spoke Yiddish fluently; their father, Leo Gordon, a garment manufacturer, and their mother, Bessie Gordon, a seamstress. Chana studied piano with Jacob Helmann, a student of Hungarian composer Francz Liszt, and would later go on to develop her talents as a musician and educator at Camp Boiberik, a Yiddish culture camp in upstate New York, where she worked as music director and created Yiddish musical curriculum and programming for children. She attended the Yiddish High School of the Sholem Aleichem Folk Institute and graduated from Hunter College with a B.A. in French and music in 1946.

Chana excelled in Yiddish.

Due to her excellent Yiddish, at the age of 22, Chana began working for Dr. Max Weinreich, co-founder of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, as his secretary, then later as the assistant to the research director. While at YIVO — then known as the Yiddish Scientific Institute — Chana founded and served as co-editor for the Y.L. Cahan Folklore Club, which published Yidisher Folklor (Jewish/Yiddish Folklore), a magazine which collected songs and research about composers and lyricists. In addition, she contributed to the first two volumes of Uriel Weinreich’s compendium The Field of Yiddish: Studies in Language, Folklore and Literature. It was during this period that Chana was awarded a competitive scholarship to attend the first ever Yiddish linguistics and folklore classes at UCLA. By coincidence she had already met one of the other scholars, a young man named Yosl Mlotek, the previous summer at Rockaway Beach, where she heard him playing Yiddish songs on the mandolin for a group of her friends. Reunited in California, the two lovers of Yiddish music began a romantic relationship. Shortly after their class at UCLA, Yosl was offered the position of education director for the Workers Circle in New York, where he joined his beloved Chana. They married in 1949. Two years later, on June 15, 1951, Chana gave birth to their first son, Zalmen Nosn, and four years later on August 8, 1955, she gave birth to their second son, Moish Mark Elchonen.


Before the column, she collaborated with her sister.

In 1968, Chana began publishing Yiddish songs with her sister, Malke Gottlieb, with the song book Finf un Tsvantsik Geto Lider (“Twenty-Five Ghetto Songs”), through the Workers Circle, in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Her second collaboration with Malke came later in 1983, with their book Mir Zaynen Do: Lider Fun Di Getos un Lagern (“We Are Here: Songs of the Holocaust”.)

In 1970, Chana and Yosl began writing a biweekly column for New York’s Yiddish Forverts (“The Jewish Daily Forward”), and published over 2,000 Yiddish songs. Titled “Perl fun der Yiddisher Poezie” (“Pearls of Yiddish Poetry”), the highly regarded column brought the couple’s unique Yiddish wisdom to a wide audience, and was the basis for their celebrated anthologies. In 1972, Chana published the first anthology of these songs, Mir Trogn A Gezang, which to date sold over 25,000 copies. And, in 1974, she published “Perl fun der Yidisher Poezye (“Pearls of Yiddish Poetry”) in Tel Aviv. 

Chana continued to blaze trails in ethnomusicology at YIVO.

Chana Mlotek returned to YIVO in 1978 on a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and in 1984, she became music archivist, a position she held for nearly three decades. Over the course of her illustrious career, Chana wrote over 20 essays, articles, and research papers on folklore, folk songs and poetry, and Yiddish literature in various journals. She published her last anthology “Yiddish Folksongs” from the Ruth Rubin Archive, with Dr. Mark Slobin, and released an English translation of her and Yosl’s “Perl fun der Yidisher Poezye (“Pearls of Yiddish Poetry”) in 2007. Chana was the recipient of numerous Lifetime Achievement Awards, including her induction into the Hunter College Hall of Fame in 2009.

As an enthomusicologist and folklorist, Chana once expressed that the Yiddish songs she disseminated were powerful stimulants to retrospection. “There’s a song everybody loves.” She wrote her first research paper on a song called “The Beard,” in which a wife asks her husband why he cut off his beard because she no longer recognizes him. “I found it to be a poem by Mikhl Gordon from 1868,” Chana said, “It went through many different translations and melodies. When a song is transmitted orally like that, it becomes folkloric.” 

Chana Mlotek was authoring her ninth book anthology up until her passing on November 4, 2013.

See also:
An interview with Chana Mlotek: “Chana Mlotek’s Oral History” (Yiddish Book Center, 2011)

Rescuing Old Yiddish Songs from the Haze of Memories (New York Times, 1997)

Yosl Mlotek (neé Joseph “Yosl” Mlotek), born in the town of Proszowice, Poland, in 1918, and since his earliest years was a poet and political activist.

Yosl was born in the town of Proszowice, Poland, on July 25, 1918. One of eight children and the son of a poor, blind melamed (teacher), Yosl and his family moved to Warsaw in 1925. Amidst extreme conditions of poverty, disease, and rampant Antisemitism, Yosl became a young poet and political activist. He was active in Jewish labor and socialist organizations and served as secretary for “SKIF”, the Jewish Labor Bund’s children’s organization. From the early age of twelve, his poetry began to be published in various places, such as the weekly children’s newspaper Kleyne Folkstaytung (Young People’s Newspaper), Kinder-fraynd (Children’s Friend), Yugnt-veker (Youth Alarm), and Kinder-zhurnal (Children’s Magazine) in New York. 

Yosl’s earliest experiences blended theater and activism.

As a teenager, Yosl was fortunate to be among the few selected to work at the Medem Sanatorium (near Warsaw), a health and cultural facility for children and young adults at risk for tuberculosis. There he became a leader, organizing daily activities including newspaper, radio, and theater programs. In 1936, Yosl became a reporter on labor affairs for Folkstaytung (People’s Newspaper). He was an outspoken demonstrator and was seen regularly leading rallies and marches against social injustices.

In 1939, six days after the Nazi invasion of Poland, the Folkstaytung evacuated its operations eastward to Lublin and a twenty-one year old Yosl fled with his colleague editors and writers. En route they learned that Lublin, was bombarded and the paths were blocked, so he relocated to Vilna, where he remained for a year, working as a research student at YIVO and with Noyekh Prilutski, a Yiddish scholar and journalist, collecting the eyewitness testimonies of refugees from Poland. Thanks to the heroic and lifesaving acts of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat to Lithuania, Yosl was among the fortunate to receive an exit visa out of Europe and survived the Holocaust. 

Living as a refugee.

Throughout World War II, Yosl lived as a refugee in the cities of Vladivostok, Russia; Kobe, Japan; and in Shanghai, China. While in the Jewish ghetto in Shanghai, he continued to write and contribute to Yiddish periodical publications. He published songs in the collection In Veg (On the Road) under the pen name “Petronyus” and in the weekly publication Unzer Velt (Our World). He also helped to recreate a cultural life for the Jewish community there, through concerts, weekly lectures, and the Yiddish press. After Yosl received the devastating news that had befallen his family and his people in Poland, in 1947, Yosl successfully migrated to Calgary, Canada. In Calgary, he worked as a teacher in a Jewish day school and received a scholarship to UCLA in California to study Jewish folklore and linguistics with Max Weinreich, as part of a YIVO sponsored program. There, he met a fellow student named Chana Gordon and fell in love. They soon became engaged and were married on August 7, 1949. Their first son, Zalmen, was named after Yosl’s father, and their second son, Moish, was named after one of Yosl’s departed brothers, both whom perished in Treblinke.

Yosl’s road to teaching Yiddish and cultural leadership in New York.

Upon arriving in New York, Yosl continued his education at the New School for Social Research and at the Jewish Teachers Seminary. He became a Yiddish teacher in the Workers Circle elementary and middle schools, and created curriculum and a beloved textbook called Yidishe Kinder Alef. In 1966, he was promoted to Education Director of the Workers Circle, a position he held for twenty four years. Yosl was essential to the continuity of Yiddish culture, through various efforts and organizations, including Congress for Jewish Culture, Forward Association, and WEVD, an American Yiddish radio station, where he produced and hosted programs. He produced free Summer concerts of Yiddish theater and folk songs, was editor for Kultur un Lebn (Culture and Life) and Kinder-tsaytung (Children’s Newspaper), and co-editor of the weekly column In Der Velt Fun Yidish (Inside the Yiddish World) and Zukunft (Future). He also wrote for Forverts (Forward), Unzer Tzayt (Our Time), Der Veker (The Alarm), Der Fraynd (The Friend), and Kultur un Derstiung (Culture and Education). He recorded as narration for Yiddish albums, including A Mol iz Geven a Mayse (Once Upon a Time There Was a Story), Dos Goldene Land (The Golden Land), Lomir Zingen (Let’s Sing), and Zingt Mit Mir (Sing with Me). For his outstanding contributions to advance Yiddish literature, Yosl was awarded the Itzik Manger Prize and widely celebrated as an authority on Yiddish culture.


In 1970, under the pseudonym “A Researcher”, Yosl and Chana published what became a popular column called Perl Fun Der Yidisher Poezye (Pearls from Yiddish Poetry) for Forverts (Forward). The column included a feature called Lider Vos Leyeners Dermonen Zikh (Readers Remember Songs), whose readership was invited to submit lyrics, melodies, and any memory of music from a gigantic cultural body nearly decimated by the Nazis. The column generated four anthologies and recordings of Yiddish songs remembered by thousands of survivors and families of survivors throughout the globe. 

Yosl died in New York on July 2, 2000.

See also:
An interview with Yosl Mlotek: “Joseph Mlotek: Oral History Memoir”. (June & Aug 1984). William E. Wiener Oral History Library of the American Jewish Committee at New York Public Library

Yosl Mlotek’s list of publications in the National Library of Israel.

The Collection was a true collaboration between its illustrators, translators, and music editors

Malke Gottlieb, Music Editor

Malke Gordon Gottlieb (July 22, 1917–March 12, 2009) was an accomplished pianist, accompanist, and teacher. She accompanied many dancers and singers throughout her life, including Benyumen Tsemakh and Emil Gorovetz.  She was a gifted teacher, and her students were inspired by her love of music and her humanity. Growing up, Malke’s home was filled with Yiddish and Yiddish culture which influenced the lives of Malke and her sister Chana, with whom she co-authored the songbook anthologies Mir Zaynen Do/We Are Here: Songs of the Holocaust and Yomtefdike Teg: Songs for the Jewish Holidays. Malke devoted her creative life to music and Yiddish culture. She composed and played music in the 50s and 60s for a group that adapted Yiddish plays and stories into puppet shows in Yiddish and English. Included in their repertoire were adaptations of Goldfaden’s Bobe Yakhne, and Sholem Aleichem’s Khanike Gelt. In the late 60s, she was a founding member of Oyfgang, a group of four women (Miriam Hoffman, Tsirl Waletzky, Gela Fishman, Malke Gottlieb) who created Yiddish materials for Yiddish schools, as well as Yiddish greeting cards which they personally sold to raise money to continue their work. Many of her songs became part of the curriculum for Yiddish schools and Jewish summer camps

Tsirl Waletzky, Illustrations

Tsirl Grobla Waletzky (1921-2011) was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, a child of an immigrant family. She was interested in art from her earliest years and studied art wherever she could, beginning with textile design at Washington Irving High School, art at the Art Students League, graphic art at the New School, and printmaking at Pratt Institute. Waletzky worked in many media, including oil painting, murals, mosaic tile, stained glass, and lithograph, but became perhaps best known as one of the foremost artists pioneering Judaic cut-paper collage in the post-World War II era. Her cut-paper art combines a contemporary sensibility with a traditional folk art form. She developed her own vocabulary of symbolic forms, extending the traditional symbols found in Jewish cut-paper art. She was also a force in spreading interest in the art of Judaic papercuts, leading many workshops, from KlezKamp to the Smithsonian Institute. Tsirl was deeply connected, in life and work, with the world of Yiddish culture. Her images were featured in books, journals, greeting cards, and educational publications of the Yiddish world. The illustrations she created for the Mlotek songbooks of her dear friend from childhood and Yiddish schoolmate, Chana Mlotek, have become her most widely known images.

Irena Klepfisz, Translation

Poet Irena Klepfisz was born in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941. She survived the war by being placed in a Catholic orphanage by her parents and later in the Polish countryside with her mother. After the war they lived in Łódź and Sweden before settling in New York in 1949. Klepfisz’s poetry broke new ground in its brazen lesbian voice, while also finding new ways to poetically investigate the trauma of the Holocaust. Klepfisz played a key role in the emergent Jewish lesbian movement starting in the 1970s. She has been dedicated to the recovery and transmission of women’s writing in Yiddish, as an active scholar, translator, and teacher. Her own poetry engages the Yiddish language, writing bilingually to create a Jewish feminist poetics for the past and present. Irena retired after 22 years of teaching Jewish Women’s Studies at Barnard College. She is the author of four books of poetry including Periods of StressKeeper of AccountsDifferent EnclosuresA Few Words in the Mother Tongue, and Dreams of an Insomniac (prose). She is one of the foremost advocates of the Yiddish language. A co-editor of The Tribe of Dina: A Jewish Women’s Anthology, her work has appeared in In GevebSinister WisdomJewish CurrentsConditionsThe Manhattan ReviewThe Village VoiceThe Georgia ReviewPrairie SchoonerChicago Review, and more.

Klepfisz’s new book, Her Birth and Later Years: New and Collected Poems, 1971-2021, is the first and only complete collection of her work.

Barnett Zumoff, Translation

Barnett, “Barney” or “Berl”, Zumoff was born on June 1, 1926 and died on March 21, 2021. He graduated Columbia University at age 19, and attended medical school at SUNY Downstate Medical Center (1949). He did two years active duty for the Air Force during the Korean War; then took his residency at Kings County Hospital. His medical career began with two decades of clinical research, at Sloane Kettering Institute and at Montefiore Hospital. From 1981 until 2001, he was Chief of Endocrinology at Beth Israel Hospital in downtown New York City, then remained as staff physician until his retirement in 2018. During this time, he published numerous papers on endocrinology cases. He spent 30 years in the Air Force Reserves, retiring in 1982 with the rank of Brigadier General. He was President of Workers Circle for two terms in the 1970s, as well as physician for Camp Kinder Ring for 49 summers. He held various positions in Workers Circle affiliated groups such as The Forward, ORT, Folksbiene, YIVO, Atran Foundation, and more. He published three dozen Yiddish to English translations of writers and poets, including himself. Barney Zumoff provided translations for Songs of Generations: New Pearls of Yiddish Song.


Zalmen Mlotek, Music Editor

Zalmen Mlotek is an American conductor, pianist, musical arranger, accompanist, composer, and the Artistic Director of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (NYTF), the longest continuous running Yiddish theatre in the world. He is an internationally recognized authority on Yiddish folk and theater music, and a leading figure in the Jewish theatre and concert worlds. As the Artistic Director of the NYTF for the past twenty years, Mlotek helped revive Yiddish classics, instituted bilingual simultaneous English and Russian supertitles at all performances, and brought leading creative artists of television, theatre, and film, such as Itzhak Perlman, Mandy Patinkin, Sheldon Harnick, Theo Bikel, Ron Rifkin, and Joel Grey, to the Yiddish stage. His vision has propelled classics including NYTF productions of the world premiere of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Yentl in Yiddish (1998), Di Yam Gazlonim and the 1923 Rumshinky operetta, “The Golden Bride” (2016), which was nominated for a Drama Desk Award and listed as a New York Times Critics Pick. During his tenure at the NYTF, the theatre company has been nominated for over ten Drama Desk Awards, four Lucille Lortel Awards, and has been nominated for three Tony Awards. In 2015, he was listed as one of the Forward 50 by The Forward, which features American Jews who have had a profound impact on the American Jewish community.

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