When I was senior at Grinnell College, finishing up my degree in American Studies, a friend and I used to fantasize about moving to New York City, posting an ad in the Village Voice. It would say, “Need to get in touch with your roots? Contact Hanna and Sarah and we will research your family history and traditions and give you back your family.” Or something like that.
I have always been interested in people’s stories and tradition and when I found out I could get a Ph.D. in folklore, I went for it full force. Indiana University’s program was the first university to offer a Ph.D. in folklore and its program spoke to me so I moved to Bloomington in 1983. It was a long and rigorous program and was unique in graduate schools in that it provided opportunities to work outside the academy (even though the faculty really preferred that you teach). The summer after my first year of grad school I got a job as a folklorist in residence—in Putnam County, Indiana. My job was through a grant from the Indiana Arts Council and I was to document folk artists and create a directory so that the public library could use these folk artists for lectures and workshops. I knew nothing about Indiana folklife, being a New England Jew, but I took the job, started asking questions and recording stories and started my non-teaching career. I was fortunate to be able to balance my love of the lore with a way to support myself.
From Indiana I returned to Iowa as a part time lecturer in American studies and Director of Toldot Iowa, an oral history of the Jews of Iowa. I organized a team of students, trained them in oral history and documentation and sent them out around the state collecting stories of a once vibrant community. It was interesting and fun, but the pay was lousy and as I was finishing up my dissertation, I kept wondering what I would do next. I whined to everyone I knew and a mentor of mine at University of Iowa called me one day and told me had gotten a fax from an American professor in Japan whose college was just awarded a big grant to start an American Studies program and need to hire American Ph.D.s I took the job, which was a 5 year contract and stayed for almost 3 years. I loved a lot of it, learning a completely new culture, teaching young women to express themselves in English—I found that they felt free-er talking in public in English. But Japan was far from home, my father was in his 80s, two brothers and a sister, and I had nieces and nephews that I wanted to know better so I left the well -paying job and came back to the States.
Within a few months I was substitute teaching at my old high school and teaching in English in a nearby town. A few months later I got a job as an oral history consultant to a Jewish museum in Jackson, Mississippi; I really didn’t want to go there but it was a job. I took it and loved the South more than I thought I would. I traveled to New Orleans and Memphis and many tiny towns in between and really learned to appreciate the South. I served as an oral historian consultant at the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience in Jackson, Mississippi (a private, not-for-profit). I designed an oral history program for the Museum, which included a questionnaire and training workshops for various interested communities throughout the South.
After 6 months in the South, a job opened up at the New York State Council on the Arts as a folk arts associate where I provided technical assistance to various arts councils and folk arts organizations in New York State, which involved assisting them with project development and serving as a resource “clearing house” as their projects moved forward. This work included analyzing, evaluating and monitoring their programs and their fiscal competency. I helped them organize peer review panels, wrote evaluative reports of applicants and presented them to both peer panels and council member meetings. I represented the folk arts field to various nationwide constituencies across the country, including the American Folklore Society. The collegiality at NYSCA was tremendous, I count them still as friends and colleagues and work with them when students I work with from the Museum at Eldridge Street and The New School and CUNY want more experiences in the Arts.
I did not enjoy the travel though and after awhile I wanted to do more than fund programs; I wanted to create them. I called the Museum at Eldridge Street’s then director and told her I was looking to move on. Though there was no job for me at the time, she promised to keep me in mind. Three months later a job opened up and I have been there for 12 years!
In my current position, I conceptualize, manage, oversee and evaluate programming, as well as maintain budgets and assist with the promotion and fundraising for all adult public programs at the Museum at Eldridge Street (MAES). The Museum at Eldridge Street is a non-profit cultural organization, located in the landmark Eldridge Street Synagogue in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Its mission is to maintain the newly restored sanctuary and to provide cultural and educational programs for a diverse audience. These programs, which include concerts, lectures, readings and writing workshops, genealogy workshops explore themes and topics that emerge directly from the landmark site (Jewish culture, architecture and historic preservation; immigration and New York City history). I also assist with various forms of community outreach through festivals, cultural programs, oral histories and other kinds of public programming. I am also responsible for recruiting and training college interns during the year. I designed an 8-week Summer Internship Program and for the past 6 years have been awarded a paid internship from my alma mater, Grinnell College.
I continue to teach and lecture in folklore and American Studies; currently I am an adjunct professor at the Eugene Lang College at the New School for Liberal Arts, NYU Continuing Education and CUNY.
My training in folklore, ethnography and American culture has enabled me to travel far and wide to perfect these skills; living in New York City and working both on the granting side and the grantee side of the arts has connected me quickly to what is viable and vibrant in a community and I feel my Ph.D at work every day.