At the risk of seeming terribly old-fashioned or even cantankerous, I would have to answer this question by lamenting that it needs to be asked at all. I know it is a real question and one that—given the state of language instruction and acquisition in the United States— is posed with increasing urgency. It is a sign of the times and not an encouraging one. A liberal arts curriculum that does not have language study at its center makes no sense to me. We spend a lot of time in the academy seeking diversity and attending to difference. How can we hope to do that without teaching the languages in which other cultures flourished and understood themselves? And 'ad kamah ve-kamah (how much more so) is this true of Jewish Studies. Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, or the languages used by Jews in any of the lands and times of their existence seem to me absolutely essential if we are to know something about the civilizations they created and lived within.
In her story "Envy, or Yiddish in America" Cynthia Ozick reminded us that Elijah the Prophet is not the same as Eliohu hanovi and Bible Lands is quite different from eretz yisroel. There are an infinite number of similar examples. It is not just that one person's nakba (catastrophe) is another's milhemet ha-'azma'ut (War of Independence), offering antithetical perspectives on the same event, but that even excellent translations have different resonances because the source and target languages are directed toward and understood by distinct audiences. Surely, how we name things matters. To Ozick's reminder, we might add that Wissenschaft means more than "knowledge," yiddishkeyt more than Jewishness, and that Shoah, Khurbn, and Holocaust are not quite synonyms or translations. That kind of understanding cannot happen without language study.
Why not? Why wouldn't I "go into" Jewish Studies? That seems to me a good Jewish (Studies) answer, partly because it underscores the insistence on questions that is central to study of any kind, partly because it made me pause over where I was coming from and what I was going to when I began my study of Yiddish, Jewish culture, thought and history, partly because it assumes that people choose to go into a field called Jewish Studies. A generation ago literature students could not have chosen such a field, though the training we received in English, German, Slavic Studies, and other disciplinary homes has, I think, stood us in good stead.
The question suggests to me a coming of age because it assumes that Jewish Studies, while not a discipline or a methodology, is nonetheless a field people choose. I entered it initially, I am now a bit sorry to confess, partly out of pique. When I was getting my PhD in English and Comparative Literature (with a focus on Victorian Literature), I took language exams in French and German and then asked to take them in Yiddish as well. It seemed wrong for someone who was as educated as I was about to become to be functionally illiterate in her native tongue. My spoken Yiddish was excellent, but my reading was . . . let's just say neglected. Columbia refused my request (hence, the pique) until, following my advisor's suggestion, I said that I wanted to do a comparative field in the Yiddish novel. I don't think I could have named half a dozen Yiddish novels at that point but once I started reading I did not want to stop. I "discovered" a wealth of modernist poetry and satirical novels, funny characters, and those caught between what academics have been taught not to call tradition and modernity, stylistic experimentation and realism: in short, everything I knew about English literature. But in Yiddish and, for the most part, concerning Jews. Since both mattered a great to me personally, I wondered if they might matter professionally as well. And they have.