Dora Askowith, author, historian, and college educator, believed that a knowledge of Jewish women’s history would serve as a catalyst for organization, activism, and moral leadership. She taught women at Hunter College for a total of forty-five years, and wrote that she was anxious to teach college students Jewish history because they were “poorly versed in the history of their own faith.”
Dora Askowith was born August 30, 1884, in Kovno, Russia, to Jacob Baruch and Sarah Golde (Arenovski) Askowith. Her family immigrated to the United States in the same year. Little is known of Askowith’s early years attending grammar school in Boston, or of her upbringing with her siblings, Charles, Saul S., Herbert, Bathsheba, and Pearl B. (Yoffa).
Dora Askowith graduated from Girls’ High School in Boston in 1902, and from its advanced course in 1903. She continued her education, receiving a B.A. from Barnard College in 1908 with general and departmental honors in history and anthropology. In the following fall, Askowith began studying medieval and modern history, sociology, and philosophy at Columbia University. Askowith counted Professors James T. Shotwell, Richard J.H. Gottheil, William W. Rockwell, Solomon Schechter, Louis Ginzberg, Alexander Marx, and Cyrus Adler as her advisers and mentors in her studies. She earned an M.A. in 1909, and a Ph.D. in political science in 1915. Askowith also studied and conducted research abroad at the American School for Oriental Research (Jerusalem), the American Academy (Rome), and in Syria, Egypt, Central Europe, France, and England.
Askowith began teaching in New York City in 1908. She was an instructor at P.S. 18 in the Bronx for one year, and a history teacher at Morris and Wadleigh High Schools for three years. By the time she completed her graduate studies, Askowith had already instructed Hunter College students in history for three years. She taught at Hunter from 1912 to 1957. Askowith’s courses at Hunter, the New School for Social Research, and several New York and Massachusetts synagogues, schools, and cultural associations included topics such as ancient civilization; biblical history; comparative religion; cultural, political, and religious history; and social ideals.
Askowith’s first book-length publication was her doctoral dissertation, The Toleration and Persecution of the Jews in the Roman Empire: Part I: The Toleration of the Jews Under Julius Caesar and Augustus (1915). By her own admission, this work dealt more with comparative religion and Jewish communal life than with legal or political history. Subsequently, Askowith contributed chapters to two books, one entitled “Prolegomena: Legal Fictions or Evasions of the Law” in Jewish Studies in Memory of Israel Abrahams (1927) and one on the life and work of scholar-politician Luigi Luzzatti in his God in Freedom (1930). Askowith’s second book, Three Outstanding Women (1941), celebrated the lives and accomplishments of Mary Fels, Rebekah Kohut, and Annie Nathan Meyer, and highlighted Askowith’s own commitments to a Jewish homeland in Palestine, to ending poverty and oppression, to woman suffrage and higher education, and to strong female Jewish role models. Additionally, Askowith wrote and published over a hundred articles on historical and biographical themes, including “The Earliest Jewish Settlers of Cape Cod” (1953), a nod to her summer residence. In the last years of her life, Askowith collaborated with Professor H.L. Friess on a map of world religions, and began writing a book on government and religion and an autobiography.
Askowith devoted herself not only to scholarly pursuits, but also to community organization and activism. She founded and advised the Hunter Menorah Society (the forerunner to campus Hillel associations) from 1913 until 1957 and advised other Hunter student groups. She was a member of the Palestine Oriental Society, Zionist Organization of America, Jewish Historical Association, American Historical Association, and League of Women Voters. Her latter affiliation may have spurred Askowith to help found the Women’s Organization for the American Jewish Congress. Not only was she the organization’s first national director, she articulated its purpose and method of organization in A Call to the Jewish Women of America (c. 1917). This manifesto invoked the memories of Jewish female heroes from biblical times through her own day and the sense of privilege, responsibility, and moral guardianship of her Jewish American sisters in calling for their participation in the struggle for equal rights for women and for world Jewry. She asserted that the unique history of Jewish women would inspire them to put their “mighty force” to work for social justice.
Dora Askowith died in a New York hospital after a protracted illness on October 23, 1958. In her quiet and modest fashion, she looked to the past in imagining a future of harmony, equality, and morality shaped by American Jewish women.
SELECTED WORKS BY DORA ASKOWITH
A Call to the Jewish Women of America (c. 1917); “The Earliest Jewish Settlers of Cape Cod.” Paper presented at a meeting of the American Jewish Historical Society, February 1953; “The Life and Work of Luigi Luzzatti.” In God in Freedom: Studies in the Relations Between Church and State, edited by Luigi Luzzatti (1930); “Prolegomena: Legal Fictions or Evasions of the Law.” In Jewish Studies in Memory of Israel Abrahams (1927); Three Outstanding Women: Mary Fels, Rebekah Kohut, Annie Nathan Meyer (1941); The Toleration and Persecution of the Jews in the Roman Empire: Part I: The Toleration of the Jews Under Julius Caesar and Augustus (1915).
Askowith, Dora. Correspondence with Dr. Judah Filch, August 1956. Collection I-75, box 3. Association for Jewish Education Papers. American Jewish Historical Society; Obituary. NYTimes, October 25, 1958, 21:2; UJE; Wilson Library Bulletin 33 (December 1958): 265; WWIAJ (1928, 1938).
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Miller, Adinah S.. "Dora Askowith." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 21, 2019) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/askowith-dora>.