A Fond Farewell to Our Hanna Griff-Sleven
By Courtney Byrne-Michelle and Eva Brune.
Sixteen years ago Hanna Griff-Sleven, Director of Cultural Programs & Internships, was like a kite that brought new life, new friends, and more love than can be measured into The Museum at Eldridge Street. In fact, when Hanna started the organization was still the Eldridge Street Project! After this week, Hanna will be moving on to continue following her dreams; this post is to honor all that she has done. We want to let Hanna know that even if she is no longer an official staff member, she will always belong at Eldridge Street.
When Hanna first joined the Eldridge Street staff fifteen years ago, the synagogue was in decrepit condition. The restoration was in full swing. The buliding was bitterly cold in the winter, steaming hot in the summer. Yet Hanna worked away, always with a smile on her face.
Hanna’s legacy at Eldridge will live on in many ways. As a folklorist, during her time at the Museum she lit up the space not only with her warm heart, but with the sights, sounds and flavors of the neighborhood. The countless concerts, workshops, classes and walking tours she designed have provided a space for cross-cultural dialogue that transcends traditional conversation.
Hanna created the Museum’s signature event – the Egg Rolls, Egg Creams and Empanadas Festival. Her genius idea drew 500 people in its first year. Fifteen years later, the joyous Festival attracts 11,000. Her programs have allowed people from around the world to taste the hard work baked into a Lower East Side bialy, the sweetness of a well-mixed egg cream and the spice of kosher empanada! Who else could throw a party where 10,000 people are sipping on egg creams and savoring egg rolls and empanadas while enthralled by a Peking Opera performance?! Her legacy of celebrating immigrant communities and the core of cultural connections are more important now than ever.
The music of countless artists has allowed our visitors to joyously connect with their roots. The expressive melodies of klezmer mixed with the contemporary sounds of microtonal music, transporting guests back to Eastern Europe or propelling them into the future of musical innovation. No matter the genre, those concerts awakened the walls of Eldridge and hearts of our visitors. Seasoned musicians and emerging voices all found a stage at Hanna’s Museum at Eldridge Street – evoking memories of a time remembered as well as inspiration for artistic evolution.
As a mentor, Hanna created and nurtured the Museum’s college internship program. She has helped prepare our former interns to go on to professional positions in the arts organizations and museum across the country; we’ve even hired our former interns for key positions at Eldridge Street!
Hanna’s appreciation for cultural tradition spans decades, religions and continents. From her work on the Folklore Archives at Indiana University/Purdue University, to teaching in Japan, to working with Iowa’s Jewish community, Hanna has a natural ability to connect with individuals from around the world. Hanna is again like a kite, a beam of shining color that fluidly moves through varied skies, never losing sight of herself, only deepening her ability to see connections between the communities she interacts with.
It is easy for us to write about the sights and sounds that Hanna has contributed to Eldridge Street, but we struggle to convey the feeling she brought to the space for the last sixteen years. It is a feeling of warmth that one cannot easily translate into words.
Personally, we have grown to love and care about Hanna as not only a colleague, but also a dear friend. If you’ve been welcomed by her smiling face, we know you’ve felt it. If you’ve witnessed the passion with which she presents the history and continuing evolution of the neighborhood, you’ve felt it. And, if you’ve ever worked alongside Hanna, you’ve felt it. We don’t yet know where Hanna’s kite will be flying next, but we’re sure we will always be able to feel its presence here at Eldridge Street.