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Voices Fall-Winter 2007:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the In Praise of Women column, “Janis Benincasa” by Eileen Condon
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Volume 33

Janis Benincasa by Eileen Condon

In Praise of Women Janis Benincasa declares she will never forgive fellow folklorist Mary Zwolinski for calling her one of the funniest people she ever met. Mary nominated Janis for “In Praise of Women” because Janis is brilliant, Mary asserted, and was Mary’s first mentor in the field in New York in the 1980s. The two collaborated on projects ranging from a study of rural/urban tensions in New York City’s regulation of the Catskill/Delaware watershed to documentation of the huge variety of Catskills ethnic resorts. A program director for the Language Immersion Institute at the State University of New York at New Paltz since 1996, Janis confesses she misses folklore and the collegiality of peers in the field. Her story of entrance into the field is narrated in terms alternatingly critical and absurdly humorous.

At Hampshire College in the late 1970s, Janis studied anthropology. “And what do you do with that is the burning question. So—I chose to waitress.” Despite the good money, after a few years Janis took a professor’s advice and entered the folklore master’s program at UCLA. “When I finished, I went back to Boston, because I was poverty-stricken at that point and needed some money.” After a few months working at the old restaurant, the owner’s son terminated her over an order of onion rings—on Christmas Eve. The door then opened into public sector folklore. “I had been looking for a job ... and one of the ... unemployment-officer people said, ‘You’re a folklorist? There’s some other unemployed person here who’s a folklorist. Maybe I could introduce you.’”

Over lunch in Harvard Square, the other folklorist tipped Janis off to an opening at the Erpf Catskill Cultural Center. Here, only days after Janis arrived on the job, she met a man—the man who eventually became her husband—whom she initially mistook for a center affiliate. Speaking to her for hours about the Catskills and the local people he knew, Howard, a woodworker and stained-glass maker “and community scholar, as they put it now,” soon appeared again in a hideous white denim leisure suit to take Janis to the Arkville Fair. Still together today, in a house that survived a hundred-year flood in Arkville, the couple consider the Arkville Fair—whenever it occurs—their anniversary.

For the Erpf Center, Janis undertook a regional folklife survey, then in 1986 took a folk arts position at the Staten Island Council on the Arts. She and Mary collaborated to produce a conference on tourism during this period. Later, Janis explains, she collaborated with Becky Miller—now teaching at Hampshire College—to initiate an Irish festival par excellence, which would take lasting root in the Catskills. “I did an Irish festival with Becky when I worked at Schoharie County Arts Council ... three or four years..... Really great musicians, people came from ... all over the East Coast at least to see it. Before I left Schoharie, I went to East Durham . . . to the town elders, and said, ‘I want to give you this festival. I’ll get you the people to do it, they’ll get you the money to do it, and bring ... a whole new constituency into the town. They’re going to sleep in your motels, they’re going to drink in your bars, they’re going to eat in your restaurants. And they looked at me like I was the tax man.’” The result was Catskills Irish Arts Week, East Durham’s longstanding world-class Irish traditional music and culture program. Of this achievement, as well as a traveling exhibit on farmstands she produced with her husband, Janis is particularly proud.

Eventually, the time came to “give up hippydom and get real jobs,” with health insurance. Thus, in 1996, Janis Benincasa left the field of folklore for good. Born on Long Island, daughter of an Italian father and a Pennsylvanian mother who was “Siberian,” Janis had found folklore in the process of trying to solve the longstanding mystery of her mother’s true ethnicity. She remembers attending a baptism in her mother’s neck of the woods, in a Byzantine church with cupolas and icons. The family came home to a kitchen table covered with food, homemade cheeses, breads. “So these women ... they’re passing the baby under the table, and over the table, and under the table, and saying something in this language.” She asked where it came from.

“Slavish.” “Slovak.” “Polish.” ”Hunky.”
“That’s it!”

Every time Janis saw an Eastern European she interrogated, but without success. “And there was this lullaby she sang to us as kids. So at one point, I’m at a festival in Washington County ... and I see this woman dressed in European peasant clothes, carrying this basket ... with homemade cheeses in it ... and I went up to her and I told her the story....I sang her the song, ‘Yaw nay eets am, yaw nay eets am, yaw nay eets am, neets am.’ And she said, ‘I’m not going, I’m not going, I’m not going—nowhere.’ Well, I started to weep. And I said, “What are you?” And she said, ’Carpatho-Ruthenian, of course.’ So Carpatho-Ruthenians, they’re in the Danube Valley, at the foot of the Carpathian mountains. And at some point in their history there was this mass migration from Carpatho-Ruthenia to Serbia and from Serbia to the United States—and where in the United States?”

Southwestern Pennsylvania, where Janis’s mother came from, along with her daughter’s lifelong love for folklore.


Photo of Eileen Condon Eileen Condon is project director at the Center for Traditional Music and Dance in New York City and outreach coordinator for the New York Folklore Society. To nominate a colleague for “In Praise of Women,” contact her at

Janis had found folklore in the process of trying to solve the longstanding mystery of her mother’s true ethnicity. She remembers attending a baptism in her mother’s neck of the woods, in a Byzantine church with cupolas and icons.

This column appeared in Voices Vol. 33, Fall-Winter 2007. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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