By Zev Eleff
Historian Dianne Ashton (1949-2022) passed away on Jan. 13. From 1987 until a few months before her death, Dianne was a professor at Rowan University. The greater Philadelphia area is home to more scholars of American Jewish history than any other region in the United States. And Dianne loomed large in our unofficial circle. The path she trailblazed raised new standards for the field of Jewish studies and yielded new possibilities for Jewish education.
Among her considerable scholarly output, Dianne produced three essential works on American Jewish history. Each deepened our understanding of “lived religion.” By that, I mean an awareness that Jewish life extends far beyond the synagogue, more multidimensional than the versions of prayer books used in those sanctuaries, and more middle brow than the sermons delivered from pulpits. Jewish life and culture can be found in our home décor, on our bookshelves, and the various offerings delivered by social service agencies.
Her first book was an important volume that collected sources about the Jewish women’s experience in the United States. Coedited with Professor Ellen Umansky, “Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality” appeared in 1992, before women’s studies was really in vogue in Jewish studies. The volume is filled with poetry, ethical wills and other materials that had been available to scholars but overlooked as key sources to everyday American Jewish life.
That sourcebook anticipated Dianne’s biography of Rebecca Gratz. Gratz was the focus of Dianne’s doctoral work at Temple University. But Dianne reworked the published version, insistent that a book on Gratz would need to measure up, in heft and depth, to biographies of Jewish men. Before Emma Lazarus and Henrietta Szold, Gratz was the leading woman of American Jewish history. She was one of Philadelphia’s leading philanthropists — Jewish or otherwise — and used her resources, knowledge and influence to establish the first Jewish Sunday school in the United States. Then — like Sarah Schenirer’s later efforts to popularize Bais Yaakov schools in Europe — Rebecca Gratz urged Jewish women in other American locales to start schools like the one Gratz had founded in Philadelphia in 1838.
Dianne’s biography made the case that Rebecca Gratz’s life was emblematic of the broader sensibilities of Jewish women’s culture that sought to improve education and social welfare. The bylaws of the organizations Rebecca Gratz established read like synagogue constitutions. This bespoke the importance of her work. Unlike those religious sites, however, Gratz was determined to keep women in charge and free of the overly dramatic battles between rabbis and laymen that took place quite frequently in synagogue politics.
“Lived religion” was also the driving force of Dianne’s final major work: “Hanukkah in America.” Published in 2013, Dianne’s brilliant monograph studied Chanukah as a window into American Jewish life. In certain times, Jews saw within Hanukkah an opportunity to summon young people back to their Jewish roots and culture. For some, it was symbolic of a Zionist cause. For others, Chanukah helped them construct a Jewish view of immigration and minority rights. Dianne traced the curious links between the rise of this “minor” Jewish holiday alongside Christmas and how that connection poured even more importance into Chanukah rituals.
Dianne enjoyed sharing her work-in-progress with her undergraduates at Rowan. There, Dianne taught religious studies classes. One of her favorite courses to teach was a seminar on American holidays. She challenged her students to think how Americans of all kinds made meaning of their religious (and federal) holidays. No doubt, these occasions are times for prayer, ritual and family. Holidays are also, contended Dianne, how Americans mark time and coalesce their traditional faith with modern-day concerns.
At her funeral held on Jan. 23 and on social media, Dianne Ashton was recalled for her jovial disposition and resilience to climb to the highest ranks of scholarship despite significant physical disabilities. Her husband, Richard Drucker, frequently accompanied her at Jewish studies meetings. In her final academic conference trips, I remember how Richard sat patiently and supportively beside Dianne’s wheelchair as she and I chatted about bygone 19th-century Jewish historical figures.
Upon moving to Philadelphia last autumn, I eagerly called Dianne. We were planning an ambitious project to collect and digitize Rebecca Gratz’s letters. We shared a vision, first articulated by Dianne, that Gratz’s letters were a window into “lived religion,” and ought to be made available to educators and anyone looking to teach and inspire others about the complexities of American life. Recently retired, Dianne’s hope was to annotate some 500 correspondences to ensure that an emerging generation of Jewish girls could learn from Gratz’s life and explore new possibilities of leadership and culture.
Last Thursday, I was preparing for a meeting related to this very project when I read about Dianne’s passing. I reported the sad news to my colleagues and insisted that the project move forward. It will miss Dianne’s determined erudition and counsel. Yet it will benefit from Dianne Ashton’s profound legacy of finding the untapped richness in American Jewish life.
May her memory forever be a blessing.
Zev Eleff is president of Gratz College.