What is the role of language study in the undergraduate Jewish Studies curriculum?

Jennifer Hoyer

University of Arkansas

As we create our new Jewish Studies program and minor at the University of Arkansas, we often discuss how best to integrate a language component, because we feel that some amount of language study is essential. Whatever approach a student takes to Jewish Studies, another language besides English will play a role. The deeper a student wishes to go, the more familiarity with languages beyond English is necessary. At the very least, central ideas in Jewish thought are inseparable from Hebrew, while study of Jewish life around the world requires knowledge of other languages, whether for practical purposes, or for historical cultural significance (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, for example, or questions of assimilation, emigration, or repatriation).

We approach the issue of language study with three concerns in particular: staffing; feasibility of completing the minor; and the university's decision to remove language study from its core course requirements. Will requiring language study discourage or even prohibit students from minoring? And if we do require language study, should we require Hebrew? Ancient or modern? What about other current or historically important languages like Latin, Greek, French, German, Russian, Spanish, or Arabic? What about Yiddish or Ladino? We are currently unable to offer Hebrew, Yiddish, or Ladino on a consistent basis; since we are nonetheless of the opinion that some basic familiarity with Hebrew and Yiddish, at least, is essential, we developed a course called "Introduction to Jewish Languages," in which students can learn the basics (alphabet, significant and frequent phrases, important historical information) of Aramaic, Biblical and Modern Hebrew, and Yiddish. As our program is a minor, there is also some room to encourage students to study another language in more depth.