von-bernuth18th- and 19th-Century Studies; German-Jewish Studies; Theatre; Popular Culture; Intellectual and Cultural History.

Before coming to UNC-Chapel Hill in 1993, I earned a B.A. from Yale University (1987), received an M.A. from The Johns Hopkins University (1989), and then completed my graduate training at the University of Pennsylvania, where I earned my Ph.D. in 1993. Since coming to Carolina my research and teaching have focused on German cultural, intellectual and literary history from the eighteenth century on, with particular interests in both German-Jewish studies and the legacy of the Enlightenment. Undergraduate courses I have regularly taught include “Age of Goethe,” “German Culture and the Jewish Question,” ” Readings in German Intellectual History,” and a first-year seminar on “Germans, Jews and the History of Antisemitism.” I have taught a wide spectrum of graduate courses. I have frequently taught the first segment of our two-semester “Foundations” sequence and “Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture” and I have also offered a variety of topics courses: “Theatre, Culture, and Commerce in 19th-Century Germany,” “German Culture and the Making of Modern Melodrama,” “Germans, Jews, and the Pursuits of Literature,” “Nostalgia and Its Discontents: History and Memory in 19th Century Literature and Culture,” “The Quest for the German-Jewish Novel, 1837-1914,” “Germans, Jews and the Discourse of Enlightenment,” “Hannah Arendt,” “Literary Pathologies: Eighteenth-Century Psychology and the Novel,” “Kant and Schiller: Aesthetics, Politics and the Invention of Aesthetic Autonomy.”

My newest book, Deborah and Her Sisters: How One Nineteenth-Century Melodrama and a Host of Celebrated Actresses Put Judaism on the World Stage, scheduled to appear this fall with the University of Pennsylvania Press, offers a cultural history of one of the great blockbusters of the nineteenth-century stage, S. H. Mosenthal’s Deborah. Following its 1849 premiere in Hamburg, Deborah rapidly became an international sensation. For decades, this blockbuster melodrama about an exotic Jewish woman forsaken by her non-Jewish lover gave millions of theatregoers across Europe, the British Empire, and North America the pleasures of compassion with female Jewish suffering—whether they saw the play as Leah the Forsaken, Miriam the Deserted, Naomi, Clysbia, or simply The Jewess. A favorite star vehicle for international celebrities from Adelaide Ristori to Sarah Bernhardt, Deborah spawned operas in Italian and Czech, burlesques, poems, musical selections for voice and piano, a British novel fraudulently marketed in the United States as the original basis for the play, three American silent films, and thousands of souvenir photographs of actresses in character as Mosenthal’s forsaken Jewess. For a sixty-year period, Deborah and its offshoots provided audiences with the ultimate feel-good experience of tearful sympathy and liberal universalism. Playing Jewish offers the first comprehensive examination of this transnational phenomenon, focusing on its unique ability to bring Jews and non-Jews together. Paying careful attention to local performances and the dynamics of transnational exchange, the book asks that we take seriously the feelings this commercially successful drama provoked as it drove its diverse audiences to tears. Playing Jewish reconstructs the allure that Jewishness held in nineteenth-century popular culture, exploring how the Deborah phenomenon helped generate a liberal culture of compassion with Jewish suffering that reached beyond the theatre walls.

My last book, Middlebrow Literature and the Making of German-Jewish Identity, explored the vast corpus of popular fiction produced by Jews for Jews in nineteenth-century Germany. I was interested in this material because of the ways it enabled Jews to balance multiple identities in an era when they were ascending rapidly into the ranks of the middle classes, undertaking projects of religious modernization, and engaging with the secular world in ways their medieval ancestors could not have fathomed. Middlebrow Literature and the Making of German-Jewish Identity studies the ways in which fiction came to assume an unprecedented role in shaping Jewish identity during this period, ultimately arguing that German-Jewish popular literature helped launch a tradition of modern Jewish belles lettres that is in many ways still with us today. Focusing on the period that saw the creation of a German-Jewish middle class in Central Europe, it considers the development of German-Jewish fiction from the emergence of popular Jewish newspapers in the 1830s to the upheavals triggered in the 1890s by the need for organized responses to political antisemitism, the rise of political and cultural Zionism, and the emergence of widespread critiques of bourgeois culture. This study positions German-Jewish middlebrow fiction within the context of the broader discussions about minority culture that punctuated its emergence in the German-Jewish press. In terms of method, it integrates discussions of literary texts with both intensive reception studies and a consideration of the business of Jewish book and newspaper publishing in the nineteenth century. Taking seriously a body of material that has been largely ignored by historians and literary critics alike, Middlebrow Literature and the Making of German-Jewish Identity argues that middlebrow literature played a crucial role in imagining hybrid and multiple identities for Jews; that it helped sustain a sense of successful integration into the German bourgeoisie; and last but not least, that it helped create a world in which Jewish identity could become a function of reading secular literature.

My book Germans, Jews, and the Claims of Modernity (Yale University Press, 2002) dealt with the polemics between Germans and Jews over the heated issue of Jewish emancipation in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. For this project, I earned grants from National Humanities Center, the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Leo Baeck Institute in New York, the German Academic Exchange Service, and the UNC Institute for the Arts and Humanities. Germans, Jews and the Claims of Modernity attempts to open up the dynamic and conflicted legacy of the Enlightenment and its visions of secular universalism. I seek here to reconstruct an often neglected chapter in the history of secular antisemitism, tracing how images of Judaism and representations of Jews came to play such a central role in defining secular universalism and political modernization. Indeed, for many German intellectuals concerned with imagining a new political order in the era of the French Revolution, Judaism was often perceived as the symbolic antithesis of secular modernity. Against this backdrop, I consider the ways Jewish intellectuals intervened in the debates over emancipation, exposing a subversive quality to modern Jewish thought that is so often obscured by the vision of assimilation that have traditionally dominated German-Jewish historiography. Germans, Jews and the Claims of Modernity was awarded honorable mention for the Modern Language Association’s Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for Studies in Germanic Languages and Literature and was also cited by Choice magazine as an outstanding academic title for 2003.

My first book, Reconstituting the Body Politic: Enlightenment: Public Culture and the Invention of Aesthetic Autonomy, published in 1999 by Wayne State University Press, looked very much at the same period but unearthed a different dimension of Enlightenment thought. Reconstituting the Body Politic grew out of the concerns in my dissertation with the relationship between aesthetics and politics in the eighteenth century. The book explores the relationship between the emergence of the modern concept of autonomous art and the politics of public culture in the late Enlightenment period. In terms of aesthetic theory, the book focuses on both Karl Philipp Moritz’s popular philosophy and Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment, positioning Moritz’s and Kant’s very different formulations of the concept of aesthetic autonomy within a larger consideration of the shifting politics of Enlightenment culture in the 1780s. Reading Moritz’s and Kant’s aesthetics in the context of both their own political writings and those of their most immediate peers, I establish a dialogue here between the intersection of aesthetics and politics in the late eighteenth century and twentieth-century theories of the public sphere (Koselleck, Habermas, Foucault). By considering the site of the political in the invention of the modern concept of aesthetic autonomy in the late eighteenth century, I offer contemporary critical discourse an alternative to both the Hegelian paradigm of the “end of art” and Walter Benjamin’s fateful link between fascism and the aestheticization of politics.