Chava (née Punsky) Turniansky was born on July 21, 1937 in Mexico D.F., Mexico. Her father, Avrom Punsky (1906–1977), born in Visoki Dvor (today Aukstadvaris), Lithuania, where he received a traditional Jewish education (heder and yeshivah), emigrated to Mexico in 1924 and earned his living as a merchant. In 1936 he married Bela Pomerancenbaum (1905–1975), who was born in Grajewo, Poland, where she attended elementary and middle school and earned a living as a seamstress before emigrating to Mexico in 1935. The Punskys also had a son, Moshe (b. 1942).
Chava attended kindergarten, primary and secondary school at the Yidishe Shul in Meksike (Colegio Israelita de Mexico), took additional private Hebrew lessons and in 1947 joined the Ha-Shomer ha-Za’ir youth movement. After graduating she was sent by the Yidishe Shul in Meksike to attend a one-year program of studies (1955) at the Bet-Hamidrash le-Morey ha-Gola al-shem Hayyim Grinberg (Seminar for Teachers in the Diaspora) in Jerusalem. She returned to Mexico to teach Hebrew and Yiddish at her school for two years (1956–1958), during which she studied pedagogics at the Faculty of Humanities of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. In 1957 she emigrated to Israel and worked in the Yiddish section of Kol Israel. In 1958 she married Uriel Turniansky (1930–1989), an economist and statistician, with whom she had three sons: Elisha (1960), Avner (1964) and Meir (1969).
Following a year of studies at the Department of Elementary Education of the Hebrew University and a second year at the David Yellin Teachers’ Seminary she received her teaching diploma in 1960, and began her B.A. studies in Yiddish literature and Jewish history at the Hebrew University. After graduating in 1963 she started teaching Yiddish at the university and obtained her M.A. degree in 1967. Among her university teachers were some of the most prominent scholars of the time: Israel Halpern, Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson and Shmuel Etinger in Jewish History, Dov Sadan, Chone Shmeruk and Shmuel Werses in Yiddish and Hebrew literature. Her Ph.D. thesis, on bilingual (Hebrew and Yiddish) literature in Ashkenaz in the early modern period, was written under the supervision of Shmeruk and approved in 1974. Since 1963 she has been a member of the faculty at the Hebrew University and has for long terms served as head of the Department of Yiddish.
Her first published work—“The Metamorphoses of Peretz’s ‘Monish’”, Di goldene keyt 52, (1965)—is a detailed comparative study of four versions of the author’s first literary work in Yiddish. It demonstrates the gradual change of attitude towards Yiddish of one of the classical writers of modern Yiddish literature, from clear disapproval to its adoption as a main language of writing. Turniansky’s primary research interests are centered on Old Yiddish literature (fourteenth–eighteenth centuries), a field in which she is a leading scholar. Her research, based on a combined (literary, philological, historical, sociological) analysis of Old Yiddish works—manuscripts and printed books—places the text in the wider cultural context and considers its sources, functions and implications in the framework of Jewish bilingual (Hebrew and Yiddish) life and society as well as its contacts with the surrounding cultures (German, Italian, Slavic). Her publications shed light on many diverse aspects of Ashkenazi life, literature and culture such as internal bilingualism, literacy and transmission of knowledge, education and instruction of males and females, book production and book reception, the addressee of Old Yiddish Literature, and women readers and writers. She pays special attention to the function of Yiddish as a vehicle for the Hebrew sources (mainly the Bible: translations and adaptations, derashot (oral and written sermons), teaching in the heder, epic poems, Ze’enah u-Re’enah); to the interaction between Yiddish and Hebrew (various genres of bilingual songs and poems); to works dealing with actual events (“historical” songs); to the traces of old Yiddish language and literature in works of modern writers (Abraham Sutzkever, Isaac Bashevis Singer) and to the critical edition of Glückel of Hameln’s book of memoirs (the original Yiddish text and Turniansky’s new Hebrew translation), which is now in print and sheds light not only on the life of one exceptional Jewish woman in central Europe, but on the world of Jewish women and of a whole Jewish society in the early modern period.
For her outstanding research work Turniansky has been awarded the Emma Schaver Prize (1987) and the Itzik Manger Prize (1988).
Alexander ben Yizhak Pfaffenhofen: Sefer Massah U-Merivah, 1627. Edited from the Original Manuscript with Introduction and Annotations (Hebrew and Old Yiddish). Jerusalem: 1985; “Language, Education and Knowledge among East European Jews.” Unit 7 of Polin, The Jews of Eastern Europe: History and Culture (Hebrew). The Open University of Israel, Tel Aviv: 1994; “On the History of the ‘Taytsh-Khumesh’: ‘Khumesh mit khiber.’” In Talks in Honor of Dov Sadan on the Occasion of His Eighty-Fifth Birthday (Hebrew). Jerusalem: 1988, 21–58; “Translations and Adaptations of the Ze’enah u-Re’enah.” In Sefer Dov Sadan (Yiddish), edited by N. Rottenstreich, Ch. Shmeruk, Sh. Werses, 165–190. Jerusalem: 1977; “The ‘bentsherl’ and the ‘zemiroth’ in Yiddish” (Hebrew). Alei Sefer 10 (1982): 51–92; “On Didactic Literature in Yiddish in Amsterdam, 1699–1749” (Hebrew). Studies in the History of Dutch Jewry 4 (1984): 163–178; “A Bundle of Yiddish Letters from Jerusalem from the Seventh Decade of the Sixteenth Century” (Hebrew). Shalem 4 (1984): 149–210; “The First Translations of Sefer ha-Yashar into Yiddish” (Hebrew). Tarbiz 54 (1985): 567–620; “The Evolution of the Poetical Contest in Ashkenaz.” Studies in Yiddish Literature and Folklore, Research Projects of the Institute of Jewish Studies, Monograph Series 7, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem 1986, 60–98; “Yiddish Songs as Historical Source Material: Plague in the Judenstadt of Prague in 1713.” Jewish History: Essays in Honour of Chimen Abramsky. London: 1988, 189–198; “Literary Sources in the Memoirs of Glikl Hamel” (Hebrew). In Studies in Jewish Culture in Honour of Chone Shmeruk, edited by Israel Bartal, Ezra Mendelsohn and Chava Turniansky, 153–178. Jerusalem: 1993; “Oral and Written Sermons as Mediating between Canonical Culture and the Public.” In Studies in the History of Popular Culture (Hebrew), edited by Benjamin. Z. Kedar, 183–196. Jerusalem: 1996; “The Sources of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Der sotn in Goray.” In Isaac Bashevis Singer: His Work and His World, edited by Hugh Denman, 243–264. Leiden and Boston: 2002; “Special Traits of Yiddish Literature in Italy.” In Yiddish in Italia: Manuscripts and Printed Books (Italian), edited by Chava Turniansky and Erika Timm. Milano: 2003; Glikl, Memoires 1691–1719, edited and translated from the Yiddish by Chava Turniansky (Yiddish and Hebrew) Jerusalem: 2006.