Alumni Interview: Debra Caplan

Yiddish Learning

For Debra Caplan, the authentic joy of Yiddish revealed itself on a summer morning after a long night trying to translate a poem by Avrom Sutzkever—“The Lead Plates at the Rom Press.”

“It’s a World War II poem about a printing press taken over by partisans who melt the plates [of Hebrew tomes] to make bullets,” Debra recalls. “It’s not a simple poem. And I was up all night, looking up every single word in the dictionary, going over grammar tables. Going at it line by line.”

Groggy from lack of sleep, she returned to her language class at the Yiddish Book Center, where she had been chosen as a summer intern that year. Though her father had spoken Yiddish around the house (often to the family dog), it was Debra’s first formal instruction in the language. Her teacher, Justin Cammy, went over the students’ work line by line. “My god,” Debra says, “I’d never had an experience like this before. It was thrilling.

“It was a revelation of what knowing a language—especially a language that has such complexity to it—can open up for you.”

Debra went on to study Yiddish culture in college classes and bolstered her facility with the language at intensive workshops around the world, from New York to Vilnius to Tel Aviv. She graduated from Hampshire College with a senior project that involved translating and producing two Yiddish musicals. “My thesis,” she says, “was titled ‘Historical Perspectives on Modern Jewish Identity.’ But in reality everything I did had to do with Yiddish and Yiddish theater.”

That remained her focus while obtaining a PhD from the Yiddish studies program in Harvard University’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. She recently accepted a teaching position in the theater department of Baruch College at the City University of New York.

“A lot of what I want to transmit to my students is about theater and culture and art,” Debra said one morning recently, sitting in her office at Baruch’s fourteen-story “vertical campus,” with the skyline of downtown Manhattan in the window behind her desk. “And it’s thrilling for me to pass on a love of theater.”

But, she added quickly, “I’m teaching theater at the only college in the country that has a resident Yiddish theater company—the Folksbiene Theater performs here. Some of what I want to transmit is about Yiddish.”  And so, with variations, is how it has gone for any number of students who have come to the Yiddish Book Center as interns or, more recently, as Steiner students. They learn a threatened language and become eager ambassadors of a neglected culture. In recent decades, learning Yiddish in a secular setting has usually been something students could only do as they reached college age. And while opportunities for formal instruction are increasing, it is still not a path of study that can be set upon blithely.

“To be honest,” Debra says, “it was exciting how difficult it was to learn Yiddish. I couldn’t just go and find a group of people who spoke it. It was a lot of work and effort just to figure out how to do it. It’s not simple like, say, learning German. Not that German is easy to learn, but it is easier to figure out how to learn it. With Yiddish there’s no simple how.”


John Marchese