- Tribute to Jonathan Hess
The sudden death of Jonathan Hess, the Moses M. and Hannah L. Malkin Distinguished Professor of Jewish History and Culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, on April 9, 2018, was a devastating blow to his family, friends, and colleagues. But it was also a terrible loss for Jewish studies: Hess was one of the field's most brilliant, engaging, and original voices.
Trained as a scholar of German and comparative literature at Yale University, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Pennsylvania, Hess moved decisively into the field of Jewish studies with his pathbreaking second book, Germans, Jews and the Claims of Modernity. Building on the work of historians who had begun to question long-held assumptions about German Jewish assimilation, Hess showed not only that nineteenth-century German Jews resisted the impulse toward homogeneity but that they actively critiqued the terms of the debate over emancipation. "Assimilation may have been modernity's injunction to the Jews, but it was one that was contested from the very beginning," he wrote.1 Hess recovered a vital tradition of opposition to dominant models of Enlightenment universalism grounded in the Jewish tradition itself.
If Hess focused in his second book primarily on Jewish philosophers, such as Moses Mendelssohn, he broke new ground in his third book by moving into the domain of fiction. Middlebrow Literature and the Making of German-Jewish Identity revealed what had long remained a kind of terrae incognita for Jewish studies: the vast body of popular literature produced by and for Jews in the nineteenth century. Hess did not discover a new Kafka here, but that was the point. He focused on the works of "middlebrow" authors such as Leopold Kompert and Ludwig Philippson, works with relatively modest aesthetic ambitions that were aimed at the rapidly acculturating Jewish middle class. As Hess brilliantly [End Page 203] demonstrated, these writers borrowed the genres and conventions of the popular European literature of their day—from the sentimental novel to the adventure tale—but used them to address specifically Jewish concerns. Often taking up the same subjects that were hotly debated in the very Jewish newspapers in which their work appeared, these authors used fictional narrative to experiment with imaginative solutions to the pressing social problems facing the Jewish community of the time, such as intermarriage and intergenerational conflict. Hess once again allowed us to see the question of assimilation in a new light by showing how nineteenth-century German Jews eagerly embraced the forms of the dominant culture—in this case, the literary forms—while transforming them into something specifically Jewish.
Although I had read and admired his work for years, I only got to know Jonathan Hess personally during the period when he was working on Middlebrow Literature. As it happens, I was working on a very similar book focused on nineteenth-century French Jewish writers. After a series of electrifying discussions in which we lamented how difficult it was to teach popular literature that had not been republished since the nineteenth century, we teamed up with Nadia Valman, a specialist of English Jewish literature, to edit Nineteenth-Century Jewish Literature: A Reader. This book, which contains luminous original translations by Hess of many of the works from the 1840s through the 1860s that he analyzed in Middlebrow Literature, sought to make a whole new area of Jewish culture available to scholars and other interested readers. It allowed us to tell a different story about the development of modern Jewish literature, one that shifted the focus from Eastern to Western Europe, from Hebrew and Yiddish to languages not normally considered "Jewish," and from the end of the nineteenth century to the middle. The ability to read and teach these texts in a modern edition also enables scholars to appreciate in a direct, hands-on way the important role that literary culture had in forming modern Jewish identities.
Hess's last book, which appeared shortly before his death, both builds on his prior work and moves in bold new directions. Deborah and Her Sisters: How One Nineteenth-Century Melodrama and a Host of Celebrated [End Page 204] Actresses Put Judaism...