Dan Ben-Amos, a former professor of Near Eastern languages and civilizations in the School of Arts and Sciences and a renowned expert on folklore, died on March 26. He was 88 years old.
Dr. Ben-Amos received his BA in 1961 from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, then earned an MA (1964) and Ph.D. (1967) from Indiana University Bloomington. While earning his Ph.D., he spent a year as an assistant professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, but joined the Penn faculty immediately after graduating in 1967. Appointed as an assistant professor of anthropology, he was promoted to associate professor in 1971. , and in 1977 he became full professor of folklore and popular life. In 1999, he joined Penn’s department of Asian and Middle Eastern studies, and after that department split into subspecialties in 2004, he joined the department of Near Eastern languages and civilizations. During the 1980s and 1990s, he also taught at Penn’s College of General Studies (the equivalent of today’s College of Liberal and Professional Studies).
“Dan was a great mentor, a committed teacher, and a wonderful colleague and friend,” his colleagues in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations said in an online tribute. “Learning and scholarship meant the world to him. Full of energy and enthusiasm, he was teaching his NELC (Jewish Folklore and Jewish Humor) classes until a week before spring break. We will miss the joy of meeting Dan at Williams Hall or Locust Walk and engaging in conversations filled with his trademark insight, enthusiasm, and indeed humor.”
Dr. Ben-Amos was a leading specialist in folklore and popular life trained in the comparativist tradition. He edited a number of translations of folklore classics by European scholars and published many articles on folklore theory and the history of the field. His books include Sweet Words: Storytelling Events in Benin (1975), Cultural Memory and Identity Construction (1999), which he co-edited with Liliane Weissberg, and Folk Concepts: Stories and Criticism (2020). In 2006, his edited volume, Folktales of the Jews, Volume 1: Tales of the Sephardic Dispersion, won the National Jewish Book Award in the Sephardic Culture category. Dr. Ben-Amos was a member of the American Folklore Society (AFS) and won their Lifetime Scholarly Achievement Award in 2014.
“Dan was 88 years old and still keeping his promise never to retire, therefore, as Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett put it, he kept ‘the flame of folklore at the University of Pennsylvania to the very end,’” said Mary Hufford, president of the afs. fellows and former director of the Penn Center for Folklore and Ethnography. “His signature of his seminal contributions to the field are innumerable, but it is the prospect of running into Dan in a hallway at Penn or at an AFS meeting, and the ensuing exchange, both humorous and scholarly, that I regret and want to celebrate.” .
A funeral was held on March 30 at West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.