An Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) mentoring program will allow Jenny Caplan G’15 to work this year with a top scholar of American Judaism and American Jewish culture. As part of the AJS Women's Caucus' Paula Hyman Mentoring Program, Caplan will work with Laura Levitt, professor of religion, Jewish studies and gender at Temple University.
“She’s great,” says Caplan, who is beginning her second year as visiting assistant professor of religion at Wesleyan University. “She’s a leading light who researches American Jewish life and gender.”
Caplan, a graduate of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Religion, researches American religion, particularly Judaism, in popular culture. Her dissertation, “All Joking Aside: The Role of Religion in American Jewish Satire,” examines how three generations of satirists talked about Jewish texts or rabbis and how that relates to Jewish culture and the changing relationship of American Jews to traditional religious forms. She’s also researching Jewish images in comic books and graphic novels.
For her dissertation, Caplan studied the satire of Jewish satirists who came of age in the 1940s and 1950s, the Baby Boom generation, and the contemporary generation. “The folks who were around during or near the end of World War II seemed to value the idea of Jewish peoplehood and Jews as people, but they also were very influenced by countercultural, antiestablishment rhetoric,” she explains. “They were opposed to organized religion, but protective of Jewish people. Now people are protecting the idea of Jewish text and rituals.”
Caplan has taught Jewish studies at several universities, including Syracuse, where she taught REL 320, “American Jewish Humor.” “Students may only know Jerry Seinfeld and Adam Sandler, but the course is chronological, so they learn about the Borscht Belt and they get to see how it’s connected and that this form of humor does not exist in a vacuum,” she says.
Caplan studied theater as an undergraduate and was exposed to Jewish humor as a child. Her father attended Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, then he worked on vaudeville-style shows and dinner theater. She doesn’t consider herself a comic, but “my students think I’m funny,” she says.
The mentoring program’s namesake, the late Paula Hyman, was professor of modern Jewish history at Yale University. The program typically pairs about six women with prominent females in the field for mentoring. The pairs meet at least bimonthly. The highlight will be a daylong session at the end of the Association for Jewish Studies conference in December.
Levitt, a highly regarded scholar of Jewish studies, is the author of “American Jewish Loss after the Holocaust” (NYU Press, 2007) and “Jews and Feminism: The Ambivalent Search for Home” (Routledge, 1997).
Caplan hopes Levitt can provide advice about publishing and the job market. “It’s nice to get a recommendation letter in your file from someone who is not on your dissertation committee,” she says. “It’s good to be able to show you’ve branched out.”