Ruth von Bernuth

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Ruth von Bernuth, Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures, Published Spring 2011

vonbernuthFaculty Member Researches Relationship Between German and Yiddish Literature

Junior faculty members play a critical role at Carolina, and for the Center, by helping to expand course offerings, extend the curriculum, and further new and important  research. During the past few years, several new assistant professors have joined Carolina, including Professors Marienberg, Lambert, and Shemer, who are all helping the Center meet increasing student demand for Jewish Studies courses.

Another assistant professor to join Carolina in recent years is Ruth von Bernuth, who is based in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures. Her focus on Germany’s early modern period (15th to 18th Century) has filled a special academic niche in the German Department, and her new research focus on Yiddish literature is likewise filling an important curricular need for Jewish Studies.

“When I was seeking a faculty position, I knew Carolina was a perfect fit for me because of its strength in several areas, specifically its Early Modern program, German department and the Center for Jewish Studies,” said von Bernuth. In fact, Carolina was the only institution to receive an application from von Bernuth. “There really is no other institution that could provide the same level of opportunity for me and my particular research interests.”

Since joining Carolina in 2008, von Bernuth has taught a range of courses, furthered her own research initiatives, and helped guide undergraduate research. Last year, one of her students was honored with one of the Center’s first undergraduate research awards. The student, Trey Meeks, used the funding to travel to Germany to complete the duo’s translation of a Yiddish prayer book.

“What truly sets von Bernuth apart from her peers is the energy and enthusiasm she expends turning her research interests into innovative new courses for our students. Indeed, I know of no other colleague who’s done more to promote undergraduate research on campus. We’re thus very excited that she’s proposed a new undergraduate course on early modern Jewish literature. And when we get our major in Jewish Studies on the books—in the  very near future—she’ll be a natural choice to teach the capstone seminar  for Jewish Studies majors as well,” said Jonathan Hess, director of the Center.

Chapel Hill is a long way from the East German town where von Bernuth grew up. Her experiences growing up in East Germany and then witnessing the fall of the wall and the remarkable transformation in her home  country give von Bernuth a unique perspective for Carolina undergraduates. She has also  introduced some students to her parents, who have come to Carolina to share their personal experiences of life in Leipzig.

Her current research project is focused on Yiddish literature written in central and eastern Europe between 1450 and 1700 and explores representative works of the major genres of writing in Yiddish—biblical texts,  heroic epics, early novels and songs. Von Bernuth is currently writing a book based on her research, tentatively titled, “Shared Worlds, Shared Texts: Early Modern Contacts Between Old Yiddish and German Literature.”  She will spend much of next academic year in Israel, thanks to a visiting fellowship from Yad Hanadiv. While in Israel, she will work with Chara Turniansky, a highly renowned expert on old Yiddish literature. She also has received a fellowship award from YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City, giving her access to many of the works she is planning to study for her book.

“I feel so privileged to have so much time to focus on one project,” added von Bernuth.“There are so few people working on old Yiddish, but this project is introducing me to wonderful colleagues around the world and exposing me to remarkable writers and publishers from centuries ago.”