For four years Hanna Griff worked in the Folk Arts Program of the New York State Council on the Arts, reviewing grant applications, meeting with potential applicants, and developing folk arts policy. For those of us who apply to NYSCA and are active in the folklore field, she is a great friend and a wonderful folklorist. She recently resigned her position to join the Eldridge Street Project in New York City.
Hanna, when did you begin to study folklore?
I had gotten my B.A. in French and American studies at Grinnell College in Iowa (and spent a semester at the Institute of European Studies in Nantes, France). After college I worked for a year at a convent and all-womens school, Regis College in Weston, Massachusetts. I then moved across the country to Seattle and worked for a year at the University of Washington (before it was so coolI like to think I started the trend).
And then I enrolled at Indiana Universitys Folklore Department. I went there because I wanted a good school in American studies and IUs department was uniqueyou had to have a home base in another department, and when I looked through the catalogue, I found folklore. As I read the course offerings, I flipped. All my life I had been doing folklore and now I could study it.
What was it about folklore that struck a cord with you?
I have several answers. First: my sister and I had a paper route where we grew upin Waltham, Massachusetts, twelve miles outside Bostonand it always took me twice as long to collect on Fridays because the customers sensed a listening gene in my ear. They would all chatter on, tell me a story, give me a ginger ale or a peppermint before I could go on.
Second: My grandparents were all from the old countryRussia, Lithuania, Polandand most of my neighbors and friends parents were from Ireland, China, Italy, or French Canada, and there were always accents to decipher, new foods to try. When I got to Iowa, I suffered culture shock, everyone was so tall and everyones parents and grandparents spoke English as a first language and no one was Catholic or Jewish. Yikes, I didnt know this world existed. In experiencing this new world and balancing it with my old world back east, I began to scratch at the surface of culture and tradition and what makes life.
Third: My father has a furniture store that my grandfather started in 1910. As a kid I got to dust and arrange the front window and talk to all sorts of peopleloafers, men and women who needed a few bucks for groceries and would help my father deliver furniture, and later, all the old men who ended up hanging out at my fathersa cast of characters for my eclectic stock of life histories.
To study folklore was inevitable for me.
What was your first job in folklore?
I taught and did oral history research at Indiana from 1983 to 1991. In 1991, I got a job teaching American studies and folklore and directing an oral history project on the Jews of Iowa at Grinnell College. I did that for three years while I finished my dissertation, "A Life of Any Worth: The Life Histories of Retired Brandeis Professors."
I went to Japan for two and a half years and taught American folklore and American studies in Okayama while learning about Japanese culture and just plain living there. I returned in 1996, did some substitute teaching in Massachusetts, worked for six months in Jackson, Mississippi, helping a Jewish museum there start up an oral history program, and then I saw the ad for the NYSCA job. I was ready for big city living. The best part of the job was not being confined to one ethnic or cultural group: I got to work with them all, upstate and downstatethe bluegrass of the Tug Hill, the Chinese opera groups of the Lower East Side, the Jews at Eldridge Street.
Hanna, tell us about your new position.
My new job is deputy director of public programming and public information at the Eldridge Street Projecta small but incredibly prolific nonprofit organization. It was established to preserve the Eldridge Street Synagogue, the first great house of worship built in America by Eastern European Jews, as a center for historical reflection, aesthetic inspiration, and spiritual renewal. Concerts, literacy events, art installations, workshops for schoolchildren, and other cultural and educational programs at the site serve diverse audiences of diverse ages and backgrounds.
In June, for example, we had a tribute to Itzik Manger, a preeminent Yiddish poet of the twentieth century who created a remarkable body of work with aspects of folklore, modernism, and irreverent retelling of sacred texts. This fall, there will be many interesting concerts, lectures, and talks. We do lots with the local Chinese community and will be working more with other Asian and Latino groups.
What made you decide it was time to leave NYSCA?
Eldridge Street had been one of my first applicants when I started at NYSCA four years ago. I remember, when I was ushered into the sanctuary, thinking, "Oh my gosh, this place is stunning, I must work here." This place speaks to me. Its located deep in the heart of Chinatown. I have a fondness for Asian culture, having lived three years in Japan and traveling all over Asia while thereyet I have always had a strong connection to my own culture. No matter where I am, I always find a synagogue and fellow Jews to celebrate the holidays. In Utica, Mississippi (population ten, or something like that), for example, as I was giving an oral history workshop, I met a rabbi whose mother was from the same little town in Lithuania as my grandfather...I digress...
I think it is fate for me to be surrounded by the very stuff I love and know well. The Eldridge Street Synagogue reminds me so much of my mothers fathers synagogue in Portland, Maine, and I have many fond memories of going there. When the executive director, Amy Waterman, asked me whether I would be interested in working with them, I didnt hesitate a minute. NYSCA was a great place for me to start my adventures in New YorkI met so many lovely people and got to learn the state first-hand. After four years of helping people figure out their programming, I decided it was time for me to get creative again.
What is it about New York that keeps you here?
Endless, interesting walks around the city, and my sister and her family, who live on the bottom floor of my apartment; Im on the third. My sister and I were always close, no matter where I livedand happily, now that we are so close, we still love each other!
Are you doing any research these days?
I do a little bit of research with oral histories. I have been a consultant with the Jewish Womens Archive in Brookline, Massachusetts, for over five years. Theyre working at collecting oral histories in Baltimore, Omaha, and Seattle, and hope to spawn similar projects all over. I have enjoyed helping them craft the study. I love travel writing, memoir writing, and oral histories and am trying to get the energy to turn my many journals into something publishable. While in Japan, I did a lot with traditional textiles, indigo dyeing, and embroidery; I would love to get back into working with that, too. My new job is so full of folklife every day, I hope to discover something in the neighborhood to spark my interest.
This place [Eldridge Street Synagogue] speaks to me. Its located deep in the heart of Chinatown. I have a fondness for Asian culture, having lived three years in Japan and traveling all over Asia while thereyet I have always had a strong connection to my own culture.
This article appeared in Voices Vol. 28, Spring-Summer 2002. 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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