One hundred years ago, Jewish life was full of debates over languages. At the Czernowitz Language Conference in 1908, attendees argued about what the Jewish national language should be, Yiddish or Hebrew. In the Jewish community in Palestine, educators and public figures debated what the language of instruction should be in schools: French, German, English, Arabic, or Hebrew. At much the same time, east European writers like Semen An-sky and Shmuel Niger were arguing about the proper language for modern secular Jewish literature, Russian or Yiddish.
These linguistic rivalries have been relegated to history, but questions of language, specifically questions about Jewish languages, surface in other contexts. While there are many different definitions of a Jewish language, I am referring to languages that, historically, were spoken and/or written by Jews and were distinct from the languages spoken in the surrounding non-Jewish world. I believe that Jewish languages have a central place in the Jewish Studies curriculum. The question that we should be asking is not whether or not Jewish Studies programs should require students to study a Jewish language, but rather which Jewish languages students should be able to study.
A Jewish Studies curriculum should reflect the broadly interdisciplinary nature of the field, ranging from the analysis of Jewish texts to the diversity of Jewish practices and cultures to the politics and history of premodern and modern Jewish life. Language study has a critical role in the attainment of these learning objectives by cultivating an awareness of the multiplicity of Jewish existence. Jewish communal values and history, religious practices, and textual and oral traditions seep into language and language study. Practically speaking, the language offered by most Jewish Studies programs in North America is Hebrew. But the Jewish language should not have to be Hebrew.
Jewish Studies programs need to find ways to cultivate the study of a variety of Jewish languages by offering courses in lesser-taught Jewish languages like Yiddish and Ladino, adding flexibility to major and minor requirements, or sponsoring events that spotlight Jewish languages and multilingualism. Recognizing and teaching Jewish languages is critical for preserving these tongues and for understanding the dynamics of Jewish life, past and present.