Zalmen Mlotek has been the artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene since 1997, but his history with the company goes back to his childhood, when his father, a Yiddish writer, was affiliated with NYTF as a producer. With his mother a music archivist, Mlotek’s parents were known as the “Sherlock Holmes of Yiddish Songs”; they made it their mission to recover as many lost Yiddish songs as possible and would publish them in the local Jewish Forward magazine as well as in several anthologies—complete with translations and historical information. It’s no surprise, then, that Mlotek, a music director and pianist who has studied with the likes of Leonard Bernstein, grew up with a strong affinity for Yiddish songs and, in turn, for Yiddish theatre.
Among the recordings that Mlotek grew up listening to was a Yiddish version of Fiddler on the Roof that debuted in Israel in the 1960s, and which is receiving its American premiere at the Museum of Jewish Heritage from NYTF this month. Mlotek has assembled an all-star team of Broadway alums for the musical’s American debut, led by Tony winner Joel Grey, who directs. Based on Shraga Friedman’s translations of Sholem Aleichem’s stories, it’s not quite the Fiddler audiences know, but it “informs the original in a deep way,” explains Mlotek. “You hear the roots of the ideas in the original language in which it was created.”
The production is presented in Yiddish with English and Russian supertitles, a functionality introduced by Mlotek when he first took on his position at the helm of NYTF. Throughout his 21 years running the theatre, his vision has been the same: make Yiddish theatre more accessible to a larger audience. “There’s an incredible amount of material that’s lying dormant in archives,” says the artistic director. “That has been my raison d’être—to share this incredible treasure chest to the public. The amount of music and literature that has accompanied Yiddish people throughout history is incredible. If I can contribute to more people knowing about it and understanding its value, then I will have done my work.”
Mlotek has worked to not only modernize NYTF, but to nurture young composers and artists interested in continuing the legacy of Yiddish theatre. It’s his love of new audiences and new interests that keeps him invested in the business after so many years. “When I think of my work, I think of my parents’ work and why they did it. Why my father, a survivor of the Holocaust, chose to devote his life to it,” he says. “In a way I’m doing a similar thing.”