Conductor combines culture, music — all for the love of it


Growing up, Zalmen Mlotek’s home was filled with music and evenings of singing.

He grew up in the Amalgamated Houses near Van Cortlandt Park, attending P.S. 95 Sheila Mencher. Mlotek’s parents collected Yiddish songs, using a bi-weekly column in The Forward, called “Pearls of Yiddish Poetry,” to find as many as they could.

“I would come home from school and my parents would be all excited about all this material that they collected,” Mlotek said.

“They would share it with me, and I kind of was excited by their excitement.”

That excitement continues today as Mlotek is now the artistic director of the oldest Yiddish theater in the country, The National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene in the Lower East Side.

When she wasn’t publishing Yiddish songbooks with her husband, Mlotek’s mother was a pianist, musicologist and folklorist, who would teach children music in their home.

Listening to those lessons helped Mlotek discover how exciting music could be. Mlotek is now recognized as a Yiddish folk and theatre music expert, having served as co-creator, music director and conductor for many Broadway and off-Broadway shows.

“For me, music was always part of my life,” said Mlotek, who trained at the New England Conservatory of Music as well as Julliard. “Yiddish music was always the music I heard at home, and I always wanted to find a way to perform Yiddish music on the same level I was accustomed to hearing it, and on the highest level musically.”

He found one of those avenues through the National Yiddish Threatre with his work on this past summer’s “Fiddler on the Roof,” combining Yiddish and music in an age-old classic. But he’s also experienced it in other places he’s worked as well, including local schools around his home neighborhood, and even at The Riverdale Y.

“When I have new audiences of young and old coming, it’s very gratifying to me,” Mlotek said.

Mlotek began his musical journey long before he attended the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts because his love for music developed at home. After high school and Julliard, he continued to grow at the Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts, the Manhattan School of Music, and Mannes School of Music near Greenwich Village.

And following in his own parents’ tradition, Mlotek is passing his love for music to his own three children. Much like their father, each has an interest in music or the arts. Mlotek’s eldest, Avram, sings and acts. Elisha is interested in film, and Sarah, the youngest, recently attended a summer music course.

Mlotek gives his musical energy not only to his children, but in every matinee and show he conducts.

“By bringing to life the music and culture of the Jewish people, for me is holy work,” he said. “When one thinks about the murdered six million Jews — and when one imagines the artists, designers, actors that were among them — one realizes that this was a culture that was almost decimated. Because of the resilience of Jews and the determination to survive, we have survived and have remained important contributors to art and science.

“I’m hoping I can bring life to this culture that people did not know about.”