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My grandmother was a ‘Sherlock Holmes of Yiddish song,’ but she couldn’t solve the mystery of antisemitism



(JTA) — 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.

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.

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.

The post My grandmother was a ‘Sherlock Holmes of Yiddish song,’ but she couldn’t solve the mystery of antisemitism appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.

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Local News

Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary



By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”

Raquel Dancho (left), Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St.Paul, and Nikki Spigelman, President, Gwen Secter Centre

Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)

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Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station



This is a developing story.

(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.

An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.

Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.

The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.

The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to  transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.

Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.

The post Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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