Diana Dean lives with her family in Saint Paul, including husband David Lipset and daughter Sophia. We initially met and talked briefly at a recent Tzedek Committee meeting, where I quickly realized that she might have a story to tell in this forum. As it turns out, Whole Foods was an appropriate place to meet, though the display case at Mount Zion seemed the ideal location for this photo.
Can you tell me about your growing up years?
I was born in Connecticut, but my grandparents owned a farm in Rhode Island, and we frequently went to visit them on weekends and summers. When my grandparents passed away, my father inherited the farm so we moved there when I was about eight or nine years old. It was a small, rocky, New England farm, in the Glocester township, where my grandpa had raised poultry – turkeys and chickens – and had a little apple orchard. So, our family has lived there for a few generations, doing subsistence farming, sometimes making a little income on the side. My sister is still living on the farm, but my brother now lives in Colorado where he started a helicopter business, including leasing and teaching.
In retrospect, by the time my dad moved us to the farm I think he had decided to embrace the life he had grown up with. He had also been interested in solar energy, during its earliest stages, and he built us a solar shower inside its own little house on the farm, where we could go out and take warm showers. It was great. In retrospect it was a great childhood because we really learned how to value our own labor. It was a good upbringing.
What did your folks do, before or besides farming?
My father, John, was the first of his family to go to college, and he went to Brown University. He was used to getting up for farm work at 4:30 in the morning, and my grandparents never had a car, so they used a horse and buggy to get around. And I can still remember that. I always tell my students that I feel like I have one foot in the 19th century and one in the 21st. So my grandpa would take my father each morning into the local town, in Greenville, and he would get on a streetcar that would take him to Providence for his classes at Brown. After finishing at Brown he received a fellowship to Columbia where he got his PhD in chemistry. He worked a variety of jobs when I was young, but the one I remember best was when he headed up the Nicaro nickel plant in Cuba. His specialty was nickel and there was a big deposit there. I remember hearing stories about Cuba, and he was one of the last people to leave there before the revolution.
And my mother, Flora, went to college for her first two years at Sarah Lawrence College, where she met my father, who was teaching there at the time. She finished up at Pittsburgh, and her major was art history, but she spent her years being a wife and a mother. That was really important to her. She had grown up in a privileged family, with a ranch in Colorado and a home in Bel Air, California. Her grandfather had started a company making farm machinery, in Massillon, Ohio, and it was eventually sold to International Harvester. So she had gone to boarding school when she was a very young girl, but when she met my dad she decided to build a life with him. And by the time they moved to the farm, she was a real trooper. She did everything there was to do on the farm.
What was high school like? I’m picturing a one room schoolhouse.
It was a modern building, but in a rural community, so there was an emphasis on things like crafts, and agricultural extension classes, and auto mechanics. They didn’t expect to send many people off to college, though my parents certainly expected each of us to go. And I think the best thing they did was to have a fabulous music teacher. He was really brilliant, and he created a wonderful wind ensemble. So, my sister and I both played in that. I played French horn.
Do you still play?
You know, after 38 years, I’ve just taken it out, and I’m practicing again! But that experience in high school was at such a high level that it inspired us to do other things. And to excel in other ways. I continued to play in college, and then played professionally for a while after that, including with the Vermont Orchestra.
Where did you go from high school?
I went to Dartmouth College, and I was in one of the first classes that accepted women. It was also there that I developed my interest in anthropology. I started out as a comparative literature major, though we were required to take classes in other areas, including science. So I wondered, what science class can I get away with, and someone suggested anthropology. So I took it, and I absolutely loved it! And I knew right away that that was it.
What has been your career path been like?
I received my PhD here at the U, and have taught anthropology continuously ever since, including as an adjunct at Macalester College, and at the U, and I am currently now at Metro State, where I am teaching topics relating to gender studies.
Is that the location overlooking downtown Saint Paul and I-94?
Yes. Our building used to be St. John’s Hospital, so when we first moved in, each of our offices had its own bathroom attached to it! But that has changed since then.
Can you describe what anthropology involves, and in particular, where you fit in?
Anthropology is the study of the human species, but that can be very broad so it’s usually broken down into different subdisciplines, such as biological anthropology, cultural anthropology, linguistics, and archaeology. I focus on cultural anthropology, including living cultures, and within that, religion and religious rituals. Beginning in grad school I studied religions that were formed by African slaves in the Caribbean, and in Cuba in particular. These slaves wanted to retain their sense of identity and a sense of their worldview, in a world where they themselves were basically viewed as less than human. I studied a secret male, religious society from Cuba called Palo Monte. It is one of the “religions of resistance” that formed over time, so it needed to be secretive. And they were also quite localized, depending on the mix of regions that the slaves themselves would have come from.
I assume these religions still exist today?
Yes. In fact, I did my research here in the Twin Cities, but there are many more still in Miami and Cuba. I had been planning to visit Cuba over the years, but during grad school I had two young children, so that never worked out. But just before starting grad school, I worked as a cook at Café Kardamena, which later led to Café Brenda. And while I was there I became friends with a dishwasher who had come from Cuba on the Mariel boat lift. So in grad school, I began to work with him, and others that he introduced me to, to study their religion. I actually ended up sponsoring another immigrant from that group, and over the years he’s become more like family to me.
A central focus of Palo Monte is the ability to communicate with ancestors even after they die. So through divination, and dreams, and visionaries, and through spirit possession, they can continue to communicate directly with their ancestors. These religions try to maintain an African sensibility about the world. And they are syncretic, so they bring together different elements from different religious traditions.
Have you ever taken part in these rituals?
Did you feel more like an observer or a participant?
The rituals are very powerful and not something you can do as a casual observer, but because of the secretive nature, I needed to be let in little by little. And it is also considered somewhat dangerous for women, so it only permits men and women that are beyond their child-bearing years to take part.
Back to your college years. Where did you go after Dartmouth?
I had gotten married, and my husband and I moved here with our ten-day old baby for his job in St. Paul. We eventually had a second child, but our marriage later ended, so I needed to decide what to do. After being a cook for a while, I went to the U for both a Masters and then a PhD in Anthropology.
And what does your family look like now?
My husband David is also an anthropologist, and he teaches at the U. He has studied the culture of Papua New Guinea over the years, and is currently studying the effect of climate change and seawater displacement on the people and culture there.
He was born in New York City, and his father had been a social scientist who taught at both Harvard and Berkeley, so he grew up between the East and West Coasts. I knew of David while I was in grad school, but we didn’t meet and start dating until after I had started teaching at the U. I remember for our first date he invited me to his house and made a Shabbat dinner. That was really sweet. He had also been to Israel a couple of times working on a kibbutz, in and around his college years, and when he told me that he had milked cows on the kibbutz, I thought okay, this is a guy I can hang out with.
David also had two children from his first marriage, and I had two from mine, including my son who is now in law school and my daughter who is a professional French horn player in the Boston Area. So eventually we were married, and blended our families together in St. Paul, and had our daughter Sophia, who has grown up at Mount Zion, and is now at Brandeis.
What has your own Jewish path been like?
David’s family originally came from Hungary and Russia, so raising our daughter in the Jewish faith was very important to him. We decided to check out Mount Zion one day, and I remember Rabbi Spilker delivered a sermon in which he talked about how Judaism was less about private convictions, and more about having an emphasis on action – repairing the world, and acts of loving kindness, and peace in the family, and welcoming the stranger. And David and I just looked at each other and said, this place is for us. So, we joined, and Sophia has gone through religious school and became a Bat Mitzvah.
How does that compare to your own religious upbringing?
I started out in the Baptist Church. My grandmother’s family were Huguenots, which came from the history of French Protestants. And I was active in the church until I was eighteen, and then I formally left it. There was dissonance between my own beliefs and those of the church. I never thought I would become part of a formal, institutional religion again, until we joined Mount Zion years later. But over the years I have come to embrace Judaism and honestly feel that Mount Zion is my spiritual home. So it’s been a long process for me, and I still feel like I’m on the learning curve.
Is there a connection somehow between your own religious path, and a career in which you’ve studied the religions of others? Any distinctions you can make or parallels you can draw?
It was when I met members of the local Cuban community, that I began to realize how their religious rituals provided a powerful source of affirmation for them. They had gone through generations of displacement, slavery, poverty, and racial inequality, and both religion and ritual became a source of well-being for them, and a source of strength.
Does any of that translate over to what you find at Mount Zion?
Yes, the reliance on ritual translates well. Over time I came to really appreciate the role that religious rituals can have – for good, and at times, for bad. They can provide you with a sense of identity, and it can be through acts of ritual that we can actually help to create the world we live in and manifest the values that we hold.
Do you get that sense from texts and teachings as well?
I haven’t studied the Jewish texts as much, though when Sophia became a Bat Mitzvah, she and I worked hard on her Torah portion. It was from Leviticus, so it was very exciting, about menstruation and boils and leprosy. I was able to draw on my background in anthropology to really talk with her about what was going on, and what this focus on the body was all about. And at about that period of time Sophia and I became involved with a group that met with members of a mosque, to discuss and compare the Torah and Koran. Michael Kuhne and Amy Ariel were both part of that and that was really exciting.
What led you to join the Temple’s Tzedek Committee?
I had left the church because of my commitment to social equality and views on both gender equality and sexual equality. When I was a kid, I began to read philosophy and thought a lot about justice and freedom, and I wanted to practice a life in which I was living my beliefs, not just thinking about them. And early on when I came to Minnesota I worked at the women’s advocate shelter, working with battered women and children, and that introduced me to issues of violence and gender violence in this country.
Thinking back to your growing up, did you have a favorite place to hang out on the family farm?
The cemetery! Each farm around there has its own cemetery, and our farmhouse was built in 1720, so there are graves in that cemetery from before the Revolution. I got to spend a lot of time thinking about the history of people and families that had lived on the farm. I would often go out there just to read, leaning up against a gravestone. And one day a man came by doing some research, and he said that he was a descendant of someone buried there, and he shared some stories. He talked about a woman whose husband had gone out west, to the frontier, but he never came back. And apparently she went mad in the attic and is buried in that cemetery. And in another section, there are many graves of family members who had died during the flu epidemic of 1918.
Any connection between that cemetery and your study of the Cuban religion?
I think so, especially considering how they communicate with the dead. Visiting a cemetery, and reading gravestones, seems to be a way of connecting with our ancestors that makes sense to me. Even my parents’ ashes have been spread on that cemetery at the farm. The slaves couldn’t go to their ancestors, because they had been ripped away from them. But their ancestors could come to them, through the dreams and the rituals.
Are there any particular rituals that you cherish today?
Shabbat dinner. Over time I’ve become more familiar with Judaism and our rituals at Mount Zion. The calendar of the year has become the calendar of our heart, and I’ve made a Shabbat dinner pretty much every Friday night for 20 years. We bring together as many as we can from our large, extended family that now includes five kids and eight grandchildren.
Though it really is a lot of work, and I complain about it sometimes, because I’m cooking for 12 or 13 people. And one time I remember thinking that I would pass on it for a week, but then our five-year-old grandson came over and said, “Tomorrow’s Shabbat!” and he was so excited! It’s so beautiful to sit down with the family. It binds us together around the table. And it strengthens us.
When I think about rituals, and the objects involved, I often think about our display case at Temple.
Yes, I look at those when we go to services, and I love them! I love the thought of cultural materials, and actually holding the objects, and thinking about the ways that people used them in their lives, and the role that they had.
Like the table. Each week we set our table with a white cloth, and the candles, and the good plates and the good silverware. We are using those things to mark that special moment in the week, and it really is a high point for me.