Why did you go into Jewish Studies?

Anita Norich

University of Michigan

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.