I’m supposed to meet Deena Liffmann at the RISD Museum, but she’s nowhere to be seen. I step outside to look for her along Benefit Street, and I suddenly realize that I’m in the wrong place. I rush down to the lobby on North Main, running past her before doubling back and sheepishly introducing myself. She accepts my apology and then calls Kenneth, her husband of 62 years, to let him know that I’ve arrived and that she doesn’t need a ride home just yet.
I’m nervous about having made a poor first impression, but that anxiety vanishes as soon as we start talking. Liffmann, who will be 85 this month, quickly proves herself to be bright and friendly, with an easy smile and a contagious laugh. With these qualities, it’s not hard to understand why, with over 200 five-star reviews (and none lower than four stars), TripAdvisor lists her as the number-one tour guide in Providence.
To understand how Liffman, who taught for 30 years at Providence Hebrew Day School, became such an expert on the city, I first ask about her personal history. She tells me that she grew up in an Orthodox household in South Providence, went to Classical High School, and majored in biology at Brown University. As a child, she received private tutoring in Hebrew and Yiddish.
After graduating from Brown, she went to work in a research lab in Boston, where she met her husband, a now-retired general surgeon. She kvells a little about their three children, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Continuing her story, Liffmann tells me that after deciding that three children were enough, she “needed something else to do.” She made a spur-of-the-moment decision to enroll at Rhode Island College for a master’s degree in teaching.
After graduating, Liffmann applied for a job at Providence Hebrew Day School, where her children were students.
“They knew me as a mother” at Providence Hebrew Day, she says, “and they weren’t sure I could teach, but they took a chance and gave me two classes, and I kept going … until one day [in 1998], I said, ‘I think this is enough, and I should do something else.’ ”
Liffmann continues, “I didn’t know what I was going to do, and then I saw an ad in the paper for the [Rhode Island] Historical Society … they were looking for docents for the John Brown House. I learned a lot [in that position], and I really enjoyed it, and I met people who said, ‘you should volunteer here, and you should volunteer here,’ so I began volunteering all over the city.”
In time, Liffmann trained with, and gave tours for, the RISD Museum (for 16 years!), First Baptist Church, and the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau. It was there, Liffmann explains, that “the woman who was in charge of volunteers said to me, ‘you should do this on your own, and then I can refer [people] to you.’ ” That was in 2007.
“Anyway,” Liffmann continues, “she convinced me. I signed up. I did a tour, and someone called me and said, ‘I want to write a review on TripAdvisor and I don’t see you there.’ So, I signed up … and I started getting calls from all over the world. It was very addicting.”
Asked about some of her most memorable clients, Liffmann immediately recalls a mother and daughter from Dubai, and various groups of Portuguese clients, and then says, “My most, most favorite people are most of them who come in, and they look, and they go, ‘what is that for?’ and ‘what does that mean?’ and that’s nice.”
She says that most visitors find Providence to be “a beautiful city, and they’re surprised at how quiet it is.”
Over her years of giving tours, Liffmann says Roger Williams has become her hero.
“I think back to what my origins are – Eastern European Jewish – that this was a place [Rhode Island] that saved all our lives. That the doors were open, and here we came. So I think about it like that, but it’s always been home to me, where my whole family was.
“I love walking on the old streets of Providence now that I know the stories, and things that I hadn’t seen before, and stories that have opened up.”
She finishes her thought by adding, “I start most of my tours at Roger Williams [National Memorial], because that’s where the history begins,” and then adds, with a twinkle in her eye, “and I have a place to park!”
As we continue to speak, our conversation becomes organic – natural, free-flowing and undirected; it becomes a conversation between friends, facilitated by Liffmann’s boundless curiosity. She is philosophical and pragmatic, and we shift easily from topic to topic, touching on religion, family roles and personal freedoms. We discover our mutual love of nature, which gives Liffmann a chance to talk about spending part of every year on her father’s farm in North Scituate when she was a child, an experience she describes as “very close to nature … that became a part of me.”
That love of nature served Liffmann well during four summers of her teaching career, when she worked as a naturalist for the Department of Environmental Management, at Goddard Memorial and Colt State parks. She also spent a summer running an Audubon Society day camp at the Emilie Ruecker Wildlife Refuge, in Tiverton.
Her eyes light up as she speaks about her experience working for the DEM. With a laugh, Liffmann says, “I like woods, and bugs, and stuff like that, rocks and trees and dirt. I never grew up to be a proper lady!”
Liffmann plans to retire from giving tours at the end of the year, citing her age as the deciding factor.
“I’ll be 85 in September; that sounds OK, but to be 86 and still walking the streets ….” This last statement is accompanied by a wink and a laugh.
Then I ask, “What’s next?”
She says she’s not sure, but she mentions her desire to travel, spend more time with her family, and perhaps write about her experiences. Liffmann says many people have encouraged her to write these stories. She is uncertain about doing so, but it’s an idea that has come up several times in our conversation, and I suspect that whatever comes next, Liffmann’s story doesn’t end here.
For more information on Deena Liffmann’s tours of Providence, go to providencetours.blogspot.com, or email Liffmann at firstname.lastname@example.org.
MICHAEL SCHEMAILLE (email@example.com) writes for Jewish Rhode Island and the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.