Michael S. Bernstein, who was killed at the age of 36 in the 1988 Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, unquestionably led a life of distinction. After graduating from U-M with honors, he earned advanced degrees from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Chicago Law School. He went on to join the Office of Special Investigations (OSI), the Nazi-hunting unit of the U.S. Department of Justice, where he was appointed assistant deputy director. Bernstein was responsible for the deportations of seven former Nazis who had entered the United States illegally.
This month, we salute the first two recipients of the newly created Michael S. Bernstein Dissertation Award, who honor his memory with their excellence of scholarship, research, and contribution to Judaic Studies.
MA: Judaic Studies
PhD: Near Eastern Studies
“Fine Lines: Hebrew and Yiddish Translations of Alexander Pushkin’s Verse Novel Eugene Onegin, 1899–1937”
(photo by Sarah Nesbitt)
About her dissertation: “My dissertation is about the ways in which Jewish writers from Eastern Europe used their knowledge of Russian literary history as a means of building up their own literary culture in Jewish languages. I examine 19th- and early 20th-century Yiddish and Hebrew translations of the Russian verse novel Eugene Onegin, which is notoriously difficult to translate. These texts allow me to examine both the overt pronouncements that they make about Jewish cultural development and the actual problems and achievements of their projects.”
About studying at U-M: “I became interested in Jewish Studies because I suspected that the contemporary phenomenon of “Off the Derech” Jews—those who leave Orthodoxy—had its predecessor in 19th- and early 20th-century Eastern European Jewish culture. I wanted to explore the relationships between Jewish and Russian culture as well as the iconoclastic development of modern Hebrew from its roots in liturgical language. I chose Michigan not only because of its strengths in Hebrew and Russian, but also because Michigan was an outstanding place for Yiddish.”
Future plans: “I am currently working to build up the Hebrew and Yiddish programs at the University of Illinois, where I teach language courses and have begun hosting a film series. After publishing a monograph based on my dissertation, I intend to pursue my research interests in Russian-Jewish cultural intersections as well as in contemporary Orthodox/Off the Derech culture. I will also continue to pursue activities for the preservation of Yiddish and for the protection of public higher education.”
Graduate Certificate: Judaic Studies
“Yiddish Returns: Language, Intergenerational Gifts, and Jewish Devotion”
About his dissertation: “I’ve always been interested in the connections between global capitalism and Jewish cultural production. In my dissertation, I explored this topic by asking how American Jewish philanthropy has impacted Yiddish culture in the United States. Transformations unfolding within the world of Yiddish serve as windows into social, economic and political processes that strike at the heart of American Jewish life.”
About studying at U-M: “I studied religion at Wesleyan University, and was involved in Jewish life there. Afterwards, I worked briefly within the American Jewish nonprofit sector. These contexts foregrounded questions about American Jewish life that I wanted to pursue on a deeper level. I knew that Michigan offered one of the best anthropology departments and one of the strongest Jewish Studies programs in the country. It was a perfect fit.”
Future plans: “My first publication based on my research will be released soon, and I plan to continue publishing in academic forums as I work toward transforming my dissertation into a book. I ultimately want to be a college professor. My own academic mentors, at Wesleyan and Michigan, had a major impact on me: intellectually, professionally, and personally. In my research and teaching, I want to do the same for undergraduate and graduate students.”
(Frankely Speaking, April 2016)