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Professor of Folklore and Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations Dan Ben-Amos (Photo from Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations).

The Department of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations and the Jewish Studies Program are hosting a symposium in honor of professor of Folklore and Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations Dan Ben-Amos, who died this spring. 

The symposium on Nov. 19 will honor the life of Ben-Amos, professor of African, Jewish, and Middle Eastern Folklore, for his contributions to the field and his impact on students, colleagues, and family. Ben-Amos, who began teaching at Penn in 1967, died in March at the age of 88.

The symposium in the McNeil Building will begin with a welcome from Penn Museum Deputy Director Stephen Tinney and Batsheva Ben-Amos, the wife of Dan Ben-Amos. Batsheva taught courses on diary writing at Penn’s Department of Comparative Literature. 

Batsheva will speak about her husband’s passion for work and dedication to his family, including their two sons, Ariel and Itamar. She told The Daily Pennsylvanian that Ben-Amos was her “intellectual inspiration” in his commitment to students and the study of folklore.  

“He was very clearly and totally immersed in his field of study,” she said. “I love his human attitude to students, to colleagues and to people in general.”

The welcome speech will feature memories from folklore scholars reflecting on Dan’s contribution to the field. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, professor emerita at New York University and chief curator of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Polish Jews, relayed her appreciation for his friendship and intellect. 

“Before Dan, there was a desert in Jewish Folklore,” she wrote to Batsheva. 

Wolfgang Mieder, an emeritus professor of German and folklore at the University of Vermont, will deliver the keynote speech. According to Batsheva, Mieder will speak about his 50 years of correspondence with Dan as a fellow folklorist. The tribute will include readings of poetry that Dan translated from Hebrew. Afterward, students and colleagues will have the opportunity to share memories of their mentor.

Amy Shuman, who received an M.A. in folklore and folklife from Penn in 1978 and a Ph.D. in 1981, will share a video interview she conducted with Dan as part of the symposium. She told the DP that Penn was the “premier program” in folklore when she attended. 

“He was a very formidable professor," Shuman said, reflecting on her experience as a student and advisee of Dan’s.

According to Shuman, Dan developed a groundbreaking definition of folklore that moved away from a conventional focus on the word 'tradition.' Instead, his definition focused on artistic communication in small groups, anticipating how technology would change how people transmit culture.   

“He was trying to carve out a new direction for folklore,” Shuman said. “He was anticipating this in the late 1960s, just before computers, so that definition is still very important to folklorists.” 

She added that attendees of the symposium can expect to hear about how Dan played a key role in transforming the field of folklore. 

“Penn was the center of a significant paradigm shift in the world and thinking about culture,” Shuman said. “Folklore was at the center of that, and Dan was at the center of that."