Baruch College Associate Professor Receives National Prize for First Published Book
January 11, 2021
A combination of intrigue and inspiration led Debra Caplan, PhD, to write her first book—Yiddish Empire: The Vilna Troupe, Jewish Theater, and the Art of Itinerancy—that has won high praise and now a national award from the Modern Language Association of America (MLA).
An associate professor of theatre at Baruch College’s Weissman School of Arts and Sciences, Caplan recounts how she was “inspired to write this book by some chance encounters with stories of the incredible careers and lives of the Vilner, the members of the Vilna Troupe. They were World War I refugees and idealists who founded a theater company in a very dark time and against nearly impossible conditions; and yet they succeeded beyond everything they had imagined possible.”
The MLA awarded Caplan the Fenia and Yaakov Leviant Memorial Prize in Yiddish Studies, and she will receive her award at the organization’s annual convention taking place online on January 9, 2021.
Caplan added, “I’m thrilled to receive this award from the Modern Language Association. The Vilna Troupe nearly vanished in the annals of theater history for over 100 years. I’m delighted that this book is bringing their remarkable story back to the table.”
The Vilna Troupe: Equivalent of a Viral Sensation Today
Yiddish Empire (University of Michigan Press, 2018), tells the story of how a group of itinerant Jewish performers became the interwar equivalent of a viral sensation, providing a missing chapter in the history of the modern stage. During World War I, a motley group of teenaged amateurs, impoverished war refugees, and out-of-work Russian actors banded together to revolutionize the Yiddish stage. Achieving a most unlikely success through their productions, the Vilna Troupe (1915– 36) would eventually go on to earn the attention of theatergoers around the world.
According to Caplan, the Vilna Troupe routinely performed in major venues that had never before allowed Jews, let alone Yiddish, upon their stages, and operated across a vast territory, a strategy that enabled them to attract unusually diverse audiences to the Yiddish stage and a precursor to the organizational structures and travel patterns that we see now in contemporary theater.
In selecting Caplan as this year’s winner of the Fenia and Yaakov Leviant Memorial Prize in Yiddish Studies, the award committee said her book “tells the gripping story of how a ragtag group of refugee amateurs became an international phenomenon for a global audience by embracing itineracy as an organizing principal of their theatrical project. Tracing the various itineraries of the members of the Vilna Troupe as they negotiate the uncertainties and upheavals of the interwar period, Caplan brings theater into the larger conversation about Yiddish cultural modernity as well as interwar theater history. Unearthing this story, Caplan’s work shows the interwar Yiddish stage to be a vibrant site of Jewish mobility and creativity, at a pivotal moment in Jewish cultural history.”
At Baruch, Caplan teaches about theater history, as well as other drama performance courses. Her writing has appeared in Theatre Journal, Theatre Survey, Modern Drama, Comparative Drama, Aschkenas, New England Theatre Journal, Performance Research, Pakn Treger, and American Theatre Magazine.
About the Award
Established in 2000 by the Leviant family, the Fenia and Yaakov Leviant Memorial Prize in Yiddish Studies award honors those writers who have published an English translation of Yiddish literary works and scholars who have written a cultural study or critical biography in the field of Yiddish or edited a work on Yiddish folklore or linguistics.
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