Making history: Ashton takes reins as editor of 'American Jewish History'

Dianne Ashton, a professor of Religion Studies at Rowan University, is the first female editor in the 118-year history of American Jewish History, the premier journal in the study of Jewish history in America.
When Dianne Ashton finished the manuscript for her upcoming book on Hanukkah, she went looking for a new challenge. She found one--and also made some history in the process.

This fall, Ashton, a professor of Religion Studies at Rowan University, became the first female editor in the 118-year history of American Jewish History, the premier journal in the study of Jewish history in America.

Ashton took over as editor in September, succeeding Eric Goldstein of Emory University, who held the post for five years. She did so not knowing she was the first female editor of the journal, which presents research in the field of American Jewish life. Ironically, Ashton has spent much of her academic life writing about the lives of trailblazing American Jewish women such Rebecca Gratz, a civic leader and religious education pioneer in Philadelphia.

"When I accepted the editor's position, I didn't realize I was the first woman," says Ashton, a Rowan professor since 1988 and the founding director of the University's American Studies program. She teaches in the Philosophy and Religion Department in Rowan's College of Liberal Arts & Sciences.

Published quarterly (March, June, September, December), American Jewish History was founded in 1893 as the Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society. The American Jewish Historical Society was founded in 1892 and holds more than 20 million documents and 50,000 books, along with photos, art, and artifacts produced by Jews in North America since 1654.

Six years ago, some scholars in the field of American Jewish history approached Ashton about taking the editorship of the journal. But, with two books to write, Ashton felt the timing was wrong.

In 2009, her book, Four Centuries of Jewish Women's Spirituality, A Source Book (2nd edition), was published by Brandeis University Press.

Next fall, her newest book, Hanukkah in America, will be published by New York University Press. The book will explore how a holiday that historically hasn't been a hugely important day on the Jewish calendar has gained in popularity since the late 19th century.

With Hanukkah in America now in press, Ashton relishes the chance to work with other scholars to bring new areas of American Jewish history to light through the journal.

"For me, the editor's position is the next big challenge," says Ashton, a Cherry Hill resident. "I learned so much about writing and editing from the last two books. I've gained such an appreciation for a well-written paragraph, a well-written sentence.

"American Jewish studies has really become a substantial area of scholarship. It's a real challenge to stay on top of the new work because it has grown so much."

According to Ashton, newer topics of interest in the field include: how people live in physical spaces and how that reflects how Jews have lived; and, also, American Jewish life from a transnational perspective.

One of her first decisions as the journal editor was to present a special, guest-edited edition focusing on Jews in the Civil War. The edition will coincide with the observance of the 150th anniversary of the start of the war.

Ashton is quick to point out that she's not the only Rowan professor involved in American Jewish History. Melissa Klapper, a history professor at the University, serves as the journal's book review editor.

Klapper currently is completing a fellowship at the Frankel Center of Jewish Studies at the University of Michigan, where she is conducting research for her upcoming book, Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace: American Jewish Women's Pre-World War II Activism. The book examines Jewish women's role in the suffrage, birth control and peace movements.

Ashton anticipates staying on as the journal editor for a few years. After that, there may be another book on the horizon focusing on the life and writings of an American Jewish woman during the fall of Richmond in 1864.

"I love to bring out material on Jewish life in the United States that has not been looked at," Ashton says. "Our goal as scholars should be to move the field forward."

Former chair of Rowan's Department of Philosophy and Religion, Ashton also is the author of Rebecca Gratz: Women and Judaism in Antebellum America (1997, Wayne State University Press) and dozens of articles, essays and book reviews.