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The faculty, staff, and students in the Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are profoundly shaken by the sudden and unexpected loss of their beloved colleague and dearest friend Jonathan M. Hess.
A stellar scholar and colleague, a passionate teacher and mentor, and dedicated leader and administrator, Jonathan grew to become the heart of our Department in every sense of the word. His remarkable compassion, dedication, and grace were felt by everyone who had the privilege to work, study, teach, mentor, and research under his guidance.

Jonathan completed two Masters of Arts degrees, one in German from The Johns Hopkins University and another in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory at the University of Pennsylvania where he continued his doctoral studies. Immediately following the completion of his dissertation entitled “Aesthetic States: The Political Investments of Aesthetic Autonomy” in 1993 under the direction of Liliane Weissberg, Jonathan joined the faculty of the then Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He remained at UNC for the entirety of his esteemed career.

Jonathan was a prolific and internationally renowned scholar of German-Jewish literary cultures of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He is the author of four prize-winning monographs: Reconstituting the Body Politic: Enlightenment, Public Culture and the Invention of Aesthetic Autonomy (Wayne State University Press, 1999), Germans, Jews and the Claims of Modernity (Yale University Press, 2002), Middlebrow Literature and the Making of German-Jewish Identity (Stanford University Press, 2010), Deborah and Her Sisters: How One Nineteenth-Century Melodrama and a Host of Celebrated Actresses Put Judaism on the World Stage (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018). He also co-edited Literary Studies and the Pursuits of Reading (Camden House, 2012) and Nineteenth-Century Jewish Literature: A Reader (Stanford University Press, 2013). In addition to a dozen chapters in anthologies, he published scholarly articles in journals such as Amsterdamer Beiträge zur neueren GermanistikEighteenth-Century StudiesGerman Quarterly, Jewish Quarterly ReviewJewish Social Studies, New German CritiqueStudies in Romanticism, and Transversal: Journal for Jewish Studies.

Known among undergraduates for his popular lecture course “German Culture and the ‘Jewish Question,’” Jonathan also shared his expertise in German-Jewish Studies with UNC’s undergraduates in his First Year Seminar “Germans, Jews and the History of Antisemitism” and his capstone course for Jewish Studies majors “Literature and Jewish Modernity.” Jonathan was to teach in the fall 2018 a brand-new lecture course entitled “Springtime for Hitler: Jews on Stage from Shakespeare to Mel Brooks” inspired in part by his latest book. A near-native speaker of German, Jonathan was committed to the important task of teaching required courses for German majors and minors in German like “Introduction to German Literature” as well as his seminar “Austrian Literature and Culture.” Regardless what he taught, Jonathan was always generous with his time when helping every one of his students. A faculty member in the Carolina-Duke Graduate Program in German Studies, Jonathan regularly taught a wide variety of graduate seminars on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century prose and drama, Jewish cultural history, and aesthetic and social theory. Jonathan’s legacy continues on in the work of dozens of graduate students who had the privilege to mentor under him.

Jonathan was promoted to full professor in 2003 and appointed the prestigious Moses M. and Hannah L. Malkin Distinguished Professor of Jewish History and Culture in 2006. Jonathan became the director of UNC’s Center for Jewish Studies in 2003 and that same year was also appointed as adjunct faculty in the Department of Religious Studies. In 2012, the Center became a undergraduate degree program with ties to eight different academic departments in the College of Arts and Sciences. In 2016, Jonathan was appointed chair of the Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures. The entire Carolina community knew him for his exemplary service to the Department, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the University. Jonathan regularly attended professional conferences held by the Association for Jewish Studies, the German Studies Association, the Goethe Society of North America, the Leo Baeck Institute, and the Modern Language Association, and he regularly shaped the careers of scholars throughout the United States and abroad by serving as an external reviewer for many peer-reviewed publications and tenure and promotion committees.

We will always admire Jonathan’s zeal for life; his boundless energy; his genuine care for colleagues and students alike; his enthusiasm, generosity, and steadfast guidance; love of family; his humor; and that smile.

We miss Jonathan terribly and keep in our thoughts his wife, Professor Beth Posner of the Law School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and their three remarkable daughters.

Please also visit the tribute to Jonathan written by our colleagues from Carolina Center for Jewish Studies. 

Jonathan M. Hess Career Development Term Assistant Professorship

To honor Jonathan’s commitment to supporting junior scholars and cultivating future faculty leaders, memorial gifts may be made to the Jonathan M. Hess Career Development Term Assistant Professorship in the College. The fund will support a term professorship for a tenure-track assistant professor in the fine arts and humanities. Click here to make a contribution to Jonathan’s legacy.


Moments of Enlightenment

German Jewish Interactions from the 18th Century to the Present:
Jonathan M. Hess Symposium (April 13-15, 2018)

A celebration of our colleague Jonathan Hess’s pathbreaking scholarship, this conference brings together international scholars to reflect on the major themes that informed Jonathan’s career. More information including the program and registration information will be posted shortly.