Zalmen Mlotek and his two sons, Avram and Elisha, will sing together on Saturday night before Selichot services at the Jewish Center of Teaneck.
Behind that simple sentence is a wellspring of musicality, history, love, and connection — to each other, to the community, to the present, the past, and the future, to the year that is about to come and to the year that is ebbing.
It makes sense that the three will sing together at the Jewish Center. First, the venue. “I am a member of the Teaneck Jewish Center, and the new rabbi, Daniel Fridman, asked me to do it,” Zalmen Mlotek of Teaneck said. “I am a big fan of his.” So it’s logical.
Second, the personal. That’s logical too. “It’s something — singing together — that we have done all their lives,’ Mr. Mlotek, a pianist and classically trained musician who is the artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre — Folksbiene and the son of the late Yiddishists and musicologists Chanah and Joseph Mlotek, said. “It’s what made our Shabbeses special.
“It’s what the chasidim say about singing and about connecting with God. And for me, it’s an extra thrill to have my sons, who are developing in their own ways, going wherever their lives are taking them, also having the same desire to perform and to sing together.”
“My father, brother, and I will gather on Saturday night to present a series of Yiddish songs, and also songs from the traditional liturgy and the songs we grew up singing around our Shabbes table,” Avrum Mlotek said. Rabbi Mlotek, 29, graduated from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and now is a founder of Base Hillel, funded in part by Hillel International and UJA Federation of New York, which “empowers pluralistic rabbinic couples to open their homes and have them serve as a convening point of Jewish life for graduate students and young professionals.” Rabbi Mlotek and his wife, Yael Kornfeld, live near Union Square in downtown Manhattan.
Music is vitally important to Rabbi Mlotek. (He is a Mlotek!) He’s led High Holy Day services in Melbourne, Australia, and interned at the Carlebach Shul on West 79th Street, which has music as an essential part of its DNA. Now, he leads holiday services at the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center in Canaan, Connecticut.
He thinks that singing with his family before Selichot will put singers and listeners “into a different type of spiritual framework and mindset. It’s different from the workweek, and from the rest of the year.
“It will offer a different entry into the Selichot experience,” he added. “We gather before Rosh Hashanah for the penitential prayers, but for many Jews, unless you have a working understanding of Hebrew and can navigate around the liturgy, a traditional prayer service can be pretty alienating.
“Our collective belief, as a family that has grown up with a vibrant Yiddish culture, is that song, poetry, music really allow a different entry into the Jewish experience.
“We will sing songs from Eastern Europe, from the chasidic movement, from the shtetls, interspersed with traditional tunes and melodies that people might know. We’ll sing niggunim” — the wordless melodies that evoke emotion — “and Yiddish folk songs of all types.
“The mood will be reflective and transportative, either to a different place or to a different time, or to both. It’s a different kind of energy than you might expect to experience when walking into the Jewish Center on a Saturday night.”
What are the differences among the three men’s styles? “My father has classical training,” Rabbi Mlotek said. “He studied with Bernstein, and at the leading musical conservatories. Elisha and I don’t have that kind of talent, but we have an appreciation of it. And we all love and appreciate each other’s musicality.
“We did grow up singing on the Yiddish stage, as well as at the Shabbes table. We grew up with this music and these melodies.
“But also, we are in our 20s,” Rabbi Mlotek said. “I like hip hop and reggae and jazz. I think that what we can offer is a picture of what it might look like for a younger generation to tap into the musical gifts of the past.”
Elisha Mendl Mlotek is 26; he also lives in downtown Manhattan. He’s one-third of the group Zusha, which the Standard wrote about this spring.
“I think that the most profound part, for me, is singing some of our favorite, most precious songs with my father and brother,” Mr. Mlotek said. “We sing some of them at Shabbes. I sing a song about Havdalah,” when Jews say a lingering goodbye to Shabbat with wine, spices, and a flickering braided candle that casts shadows before it ends and the lights are turned on. “The song was about a child asking Bubbe not to make Havdalah yet, so we can stay in Shabbes a little longer.
“These are precious songs,” he said. “We are used to singing at Holocaust commemorations. The songs we sing then draw from the resilience and the pain and the tefillah,” the prayers. “There is also a time to sing other songs, to be able to connect, on leil Selichot,” the evening of Selichot, “which is a deep and reflective time.
“It is good to do it as a family, to perform and also to teach and sing and share the connection that we feel through this music.
“This is not a concert,” he said. “Or it is not only a concert. We are going to teach some things, and we will learn things together, and we will touch new feelings and reach new heights.”
Yiddish music is often seen, if not actively dismissed, as being associated either with Broadway or with the Holocaust — seen as being either gimmicky and inauthentic or as entirely mournful. That is not right, he thinks. “Yiddish music isn’t always associated with Jewish spirituality, but it is always precious.” It is vitally important to sing the music of the Holocaust, but also to remember that Yiddish music channels and inspires the full range of human emotions.
“My family shares songs that illustrate life and love and a time we have lost,” he said. “We use Yiddish music at Holocaust commemorations because it is something we have lost. But this Saturday night will not be a sad evening.
“It will be a precious evening of reflection and beauty and harmony. And of joy. We also have to serve Hashem,” God, “with joy. That is the ultimate place we have to get to.
“We have to be sad with Hashem, and joyous. We will touch all these emotions with music. We are going to travel spiritually.”
All three Mloteks talked about the connections they make through music, and how they hope to make them real to others as they sing.
“We hope that it will be inspiring enough so that people will sing,” Zalmen Mlotek said. The evening will be a concert some of the time, but not all the time. “People will be encouraged to sing with us.”
Oh, and one other thing. “There will be refreshments, too,” he said. “That always helps.”
Who: Zalmen, Avram, and Elisha Mlotek
What: Will perform before Selichot services
Where: At the Jewish Center of Teaneck, 70 Sterling Place
When: Saturday, September 24. The concert, at 11 p.m., will be followed by a talk by Rabbi Daniel Fridman at 12:30 a.m. and Selichot services at 12:50.
Why: To establish the proper mood — reverence, awe, reflection, some sadness, much joy, before the penitential prayers begin
For more information: Go to the shul’s website, jcot.org, or call (201) 833-0515.