My grandmother was a 'Sherlock Holmes' but couldn't solve antisemitism

Now is as welcome a time as any to celebrate Jewish life, learn a Yiddish song and discover the lessons of history along the way.

YIDDISH COLLECTION from Barbara Shaw Gifts. (photo credit: TOMER BURMAD)
YIDDISH COLLECTION from Barbara Shaw Gifts.
(photo credit: TOMER BURMAD)

When I was younger, my family sang Yiddish songs at almost every holiday and gathering.

Funny songs, sad songs, songs about love, about the Holocaust, about hunger, about labor and resistance — the usual Yiddish fare. My Bubby, Chana Mlotek, a Yiddish archivist and ethnomusicologist, collected hundreds of them with my Zeyde, Yosl Mlotek, who became known as the address for Yiddish in America. Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer called them “the Sherlock Holmeses of Yiddish folk songs” for their investigations of Jewish music.

We would gather by the piano in my grandparents’ living room in the Bronx, with the piano being helmed by my Bubby, sometimes my great-aunt Malke Gottlieb (with whom my Bubby compiled a collection of songs from the Jewish ghettos), then my father, then my uncle. Eventually each of the eyniklekh — the grandkids — would have to sing in Yiddish.

Of course, I didn’t recognize until I got older that Yiddish songs are an incredible porthole into history, while also testifying to the vivaciousness of a people nearly destroyed and a culture almost erased. It’s through these lyrics and other stories from my grandparents that I learned the history of our people and the faith we had in America, “Dos Goldene Land,” where immigrants came to escape religious persecution. One famous song, in particular, was about the tragic letdown of this promise.

“The Ballad of Leo Frank” was about the Jewish factory manager from Atlanta. In 1913, a 14-year-old employee at his pencil factory named Mary Phagan was found dead. Frank was accused of her murder on flimsy evidence.

Leo Frank (credit: WIKIPEDIA)Leo Frank (credit: WIKIPEDIA)

After a trumped-up trial, a biased jury found Frank guilty after four hours of deliberation. The case was retried, and appealed before the United States Supreme Court, without success. Hundreds of thousands of petitions were sent to Gov. John Slaton of Georgia, who eventually commuted the death sentence to life imprisonment. But months later, a bloodthirsty gang, who were later to inspire the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, kidnapped Frank from jail and lynched him.

Thanks to Yiddish music, we knew all these facts. The painful details of the Frank case were heard in melancholic Yiddish songs like “The Ballad of Leo Frank” and “Lebn zol Columbus” (“Long Live Columbus”), which we as children crooned around the piano in the living room of my Bubby’s apartment.

“A bilbl hot men oysgetrakht / Oyf undzern a yidl” — they made up a blood libel about one of our Jews — goes the lyrics from one of these songs.

History repeating itself

We sing these songs to learn about our history, hoping never to repeat it. But just a couple weeks ago, antisemitic mobs weren’t just part of a songbook. They were here, right in the heart of New York City. 

Frank’s story is the subject of a new revival of a Broadway musical, “Parade,” starring Ben Platt, which opened this month at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre. During previews, members of a neo-Nazi group called The National Socialist Movement rallied outside the theater, handing out leaflets and accusing Frank of being a pedophile and a murderer. Mostly, they were there to stoke fear and rekindle the same Jew hatred that cost Frank his life more than a century ago.

This is only the latest example of what has been an alarming growth of antisemitism in the United States. Jews who grew up learning (or singing) about blood libels in Russia have always slept with one eye open, haunted by the fear that antisemitism would rear its ugly head here, too. 

Just last week as I entered the subway in midtown Manhattan, I was verbally accosted by a man who lowered his shirt collar to show me his swastika tattoo. And so the story goes.

As Passover approaches, the words of the Haggadah come to mind: “b’khol dor vador” — in every generation. In every generation, enemies emerge and the responsibility to rekindle learning and reclaim identity falls upon us, each in our own unique way. 

It feels fitting then that my grandparents’ anthology is now accessible to a whole new audience. 

The Yosl and Chana Mlotek Yiddish Song Collection at the Workers Circle went live this week. It is a searchable, comprehensive database of Yiddish music and song, spanning centuries, genres, artists and more, bringing my grandparents’ anthologies online. Hundreds of Yiddish songs, including the Leo Frank ballad, can be freely accessed thanks to a thorough digitization process overseen by my brother, Elisha Mlotek, who served as creative director for the website.

Sponsored by the Mlotek family, this new website is a loving collaboration between the Arbeter Ring (Workers Circle) and the Mlotek family and will ensure Yiddish song and in turn Jewish history never cower in the face of prejudice. As Elisha describes the music collected on the website, “It is an essential record of our people — the richness and resilience of our culture.”

My grandfather died in 2000. Chana died in 2013, at age 91. Bubby’s piano now lives in my father’s office at the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, but we still come together around song. (In fact, it was my cousin Lee who recently reminded us of the Leo Frank song he learned from my uncle in an Arbeter Ring shule, or school.) 

This Thursday my Bubby’s sons, her grandchildren and even some of her great-grandchildren will participate in a tribute concert to her at the YIVO Institute of Jewish Research, where Chana served as the music archivist for decades. The in-person free concert, presented in collaboration with Carnegie Hall and which can be streamed digitally, will include family friends who also happen to be some of the most special Yiddish singers of the day, including Joanne Borts, Sarah Gordon, Elmore James, Daniella Rabbani, Eleanor Reissa, Lorin Sklamberg and Steven Skybell, who played Tevye in “Fidler Afn Dakh,” the Yiddish production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” 

Now is as welcome a time as any to celebrate Jewish life, learn a Yiddish song and discover the lessons of history along the way.