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AFS Review: In Memoriam

Barbro Klein, 1938–2018

Monday, January 22, 2018   (1 Comments)
Posted by: Rosalind V. Rini Larson

By Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett — 

When I first came to New York City in 1972, Alan Dundes said, “You must meet Barbro Klein. She’s now living in New York.” Of course, I knew Barbro’s work and admired it greatly. She had written her dissertation on Swedish immigrant folklore, and I had written mine on Jewish immigrant folklore. I called her, and we met in her book-lined apartment in a high rise near the United Nations headquarters, where she was raising her three young sons. There were no folklore programs in the metropolitan area (and still aren’t) and no opportunities to teach. We commiserated over this sorry state of affairs and started brainstorming about how we might bring together the many folklorists in the metropolitan area and raise awareness of folklore as an exciting field of study.

We ventured forth into the city, which was on the verge of bankruptcy in the 1970s, a time of abandoned property, vacant lots, drugs and murders—and a surge of grassroots creativity: community gardens, casitas, subway graffiti, break dancing, and hip hop. There were Purim plays in the Bobover Hasidic community in Borough Park, Stations of the Cross on the Lower East Side, New Year’s dragon parades in Chinatown, and the Giglio in Brooklyn. Urban folklore research and public folklore were on the rise thanks to Shelly Posen and Maxine Miska, Joseph Sciorra, Steven Zeitlin and Amanda Dargan, Marty Cooper and Henry Chalfant, Robert Baron and Kay Turner, and Shifra Epstein, among others. We organized landmark conferences on urban folklore that prepared the ground for the creation of City Lore, which is still going strong 25 years later.

Our constant companion on our fieldwork forays was Jakob Klein, Barbro’s middle son, then not quite a teenager and today a social anthropologist specializing in food studies and Chinese studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Her youngest son, Joel, performed in Miriam Makeba’s band, and her eldest son, Adam, is CEO and artistic director of Ballet West in Salt Lake City. Barbro was enormously proud of her boys. The two youngest eventually joined her in Stockholm, where she found professional opportunities without parallel in the United States. It was there that she made her stellar contributions to the academic and museum world and to scholarship—through her own work and by supporting the work of others at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study at Uppsala.

About a year ago, over lunch in Paris, I mentioned to Brunhilde Biebuyck that Barbro was recovering from a serious heart operation. We decided to spend a weekend with her. A few weeks later we were in Stockholm—three dear friends, old colleagues, folklorists all. King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden had just honored Barbro with The King's Medal for her contributions to scholarship, and we insisted that she wear it as we toasted her with a glass of champagne. It was a cold February night, warmed by our love for Barbro, whose generosity to others was matched only by her modesty. To know her was to know a person of intellectual brilliance, impeccable integrity, and a profound capacity for friendship. May her memory be for a blessing.


Ellen E. McHale says...
Posted Friday, January 26, 2018
Thank you Barbara for sharing this. I first met Barbro in Stockholm in 1989 (on a Fulbright that I think she had originally written for you). Jakob and Joel were older teens. It was great to be reminded by you of her contributions to folklore in New York City and your words really captured her essence. I thank you for that. Barbro became my guide, friend, and mentor while I was in Stockholm and we were able to re-connect regularly at the AFS conferences. I will miss her.

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