Educating Jewishly with a Theatrical Flair Getting to know Jennifer Caplan, assistant professor of religious studies at Towson University
Jennifer Caplan is comfortable looking at difficult topics in her research, which includes Holocaust humor, gender and sexuality and Jewish stereotypes. As a contributing author in the April 2020 book Laughter After; Humor and the Holocaust, the assistant professor of religious studies at TU dives in the changing image of American Jewish masculinity. Caplan also explores Jewish identity and feminism in pop culture in her article "JAPs, JAMs, and JAWs? Jewish Women, Stereotypes, and the Boundary Bending of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" published in the Journal of Modern Jewish Studies, January 2020.
Since joining Towson University in 2017, where she is director of the Jewish Studies minor and a Baltimore Hebrew Institute affiliated professor, Caplan has added a fresh and contemporary perspective on Jewish topics. Caplan's popular course offerings enable students to merge popular culture with religious thought. Her areas of expertise include American religion, contemporary Judaism, religion and popular culture as well as gender and sexuality.
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Caplan earned her bachelor's degree in religion and theater studies at Wellesley College, a Masters of Theological Studies in world religions from Harvard Divinity School and a Ph.D. in religion from Syracuse University. She also has the distinction of appearing on Jeopardy, which her students find impressive.
As a teenager, Caplan wanted to become a rabbi. Because a learning disability made studying languages, such as Hebrew, challenging, she explored other options including writing and geology. In her sophomore year of college, however, she took an American religion course and the topic clicked. "Religion was one of those things I was always told not to discuss, like politics, especially because of the dynamics of my family," Caplan recalls. "Yet here I was, being encouraged to discuss it and it just grabbed my mind in a way nothing else had."
Caplan's father was a professional actor and circus clown and Caplan acted professionally as a child. Her love of theater continued into college and led her to take a few classes that easily turned into a major. Today, her theater experience comes in handy when lecturing large groups of students. Her theater background also exposed her to classic performers at a young age, such as the Marx Brothers. "Each generation moves further away from those early performers," Caplan says. "So I was attracted to the study of Jewish humor because I could see the long arc of it in a way that someone who wasn’t raised by a former professional clown might not."
In addition to Jewish humor, Caplan explores how gender roles have evolved in religions alongside American culture. At the Association for Jewish Studies annual meeting last year, she presented "Are There Any White Negroes Here Tonight: Whiteness, Masculinity, and Post-War American Jews". Her presentation compared Norman Mailer's concept of the "white negro" with Lenny Bruce's public persona to illustrate the ways Jews in the 1960's thought about their place in the racial tapestry of the United States. According to Caplan, Judaism has kept pace with other religions in adapting to changing ideas about gender. "Judaism has its hardline traditionalists and its reactionary progressives and everything in between. Judaism has, perhaps, a slightly harder time adapting than some other religions because of the way so many actual ritual acts —and not just leadership/clergy positions— are divided by gender which makes both egalitarianism and being welcoming to non-binary Jews difficult," she says.
"But as with other social issues there are segments of Judaism that have adapted well to these changes and those that have opted not to adapt".
At TU, Caplan has connected with the strong sense of community. "Towson works really hard to make everyone feel connected, even when we don’t all live on or near campus like at a smaller school" she says. Her course list includes American Jewish History; American Jewish Humor; and Race, Gender, Sexuality, and Judaism. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam one of her favorite undergraduate courses to teach because it attracts a wide variety of students. She enjoys when a student, taking her class, to fill a core requirement, gets excited about the class by the end of the term. At a graduate level, she said that "Race, Gender, Sexuality and Judaism is one of her favorite classes to teach. It covers so much ground that every student finds something that connects to their passion and interests."
More of Jennifer Caplan's publications:
“Public Heroes, Secret Jews: Jewish Identity and Comic Books” in The Journal of Jewish Identities, Spring 2021 “Serious Business: Teaching American Jewish Humor” in Teaching Options in Jewish-American Literature. Rosenberg and Rubenstein Eds. MLA, 2020 “Nebbishes, New Jews, and Humor: The Changing Image of American Jewish Masculinity Post-Holocaust” in I’m Allowed…I’m Jewish: Humor After the Holocaust. Slucki, Patt, and Finder Eds. Wayne State University Press, 2020 (In Press) “The Past, Lived and Imagined: Nostalgia in Jewish Women’s Comics” in Bodies/Borders in Jewish Women’s Comics. Syracuse University Press, winter 2020 (In Press) “Modern Judaism and the Golden Age of Television” in American Religious History, Wiley-Blackwell (In Press) “American Judaism and Popular Culture” in American Jewish History, Oxford University Press (Forthcoming) “Teaching Cross-Cultural Jewish Humor” in 3D's - Diversity, Dignity & Democracy: Constructive Ideals for Present Day Education