Without knowing it, I "went into" Jewish Studies the moment I veered into an interdisciplinary PhD dissertation on Holocaust literature. This would have been around 1979 or so, when I realized that the twin, interdependent aims of my research and writing on the Holocaust would always have to be both what happened and how this history has been passed down to me. That is, I needed to know both the hard history of this period and the ways this history has been shaped and remembered in narrative, poetry, music, film, art, and architecture, among other media. My study would necessarily cut across all kinds of disciplinary boundaries, to the consternation of some but not all my mentors at the time.
Among my dissertation readers, Murray Baumgarten, Sidra Ezrahi, Yehuda Bauer, and Hayden White all understood my approach and by 1981, they were encouraging me to present parts of my dissertation at the MLA, CAA, and AHA—and I did. But there was only one annual conference that had room for all of my research preoccupations (obsessions), and of course, this was the AJS—a professional organization composed of every possible discipline under the sun.
Indeed, as an area study, Jewish Studies has always been interdisciplinary, an amalgam of historians, linguists, Biblical scholars, literary comparatists, political scientists, and sociologists. More lately, the tent has expanded to include researchers and teachers working on Jewish themes in Art History, Musicology, Communications, Anthropology, Folklore, and Women's Studies, among others. Some of these fields are themselves area studies, while others hew more closely to traditional departmental disciplines. In fact, over the years, Jewish Studies has even served as a model for further interdisciplinary area studies programs, such as Gender Studies, Islamic Studies, and even Memory Studies.
As it turns out, enlarging the tent of Jewish Studies to include the research and teaching of scholars from such a disparate pool of disciplines has done wonders for the field overall. And as becomes clearer with every passing year, Jewish Studies continues to create a space where work in other, more traditional disciplines can find innovative and entirely unexpected expression. Rather than asking scholars in Jewish Studies to define their work as constitutively "Jewish," we ask each other to do the best work possible in our respective disciplines, allowing it both to inform a traditional discipline's offerings and to enrich that which we call Jewish Studies. As it turns out, choosing to do my work within the reciprocal, invigorating exchange between disciplines is when I "chose" to go into Jewish Studies.