Judaica Division Publishes Student Papers

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Yuri Vedenyapin in his office in Vanserg Hall. Vedenyapin's senior thesis, "Doctors Prescribe Laughter: The Yiddish Stand-Up Comedy of Shimen Dzigan" was published earlier this year by the Harvard College Library Judaica Division.

November 19, 2008 - From an early age, Yuri Vedenyapin was fascinated by the voice and language of Yiddish stand-up comedian Shimen Dzigan. That passion would later serve as the inspiration for his thesis, which was published earlier this year as part of the Judaica Division's Student Research Papers series.

The paper, titled "Doctors Prescribe Laughter: The Yiddish Stand-Up Comedy of Shimen Dzigan," is the ninth paper published in the series, which began in 1996 as part of an effort by the Judaica Division to reach out to undergraduate students and encourage them to make use of the collection's resources. Other papers in the series have focused on Jewish and Israeli music, Hebrew literature, and Israel, said Charles Berlin, the Lee M. Friedman Bibliographer in Judaica in the Harvard College Library.

"Publishing undergraduate research, primarily senior honors theses, that make use of the Judaica Collection alerts students to the college library's Judaica resources," Berlin said.

Were it not for those resources, Vedenyapin might never have completed his paper. Though he can recall listening to Dzigan's records as a child, Vedenyapin's scholarly interest in Yiddish culture and language didn't begin until much later. He initially studied acting at a school in Moscow, in his native Russia, but became interested in Yiddish after meeting a Yiddish writer. Before long, he'd founded a student Yiddish center and began interviewing Yiddish speakers in Moscow.

"To me, Yiddish was a language from a different era," he said. "My great-grandparents, they all spoke it. I remember my great-grandmother spoke it fluently."

After being invited to participate in a summer-long Yiddish program at Columbia, Vedenyapin entered Harvard in 2001, where he was able to study under Ruth Wisse, the Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature. Three years later, as he was nearing graduation, Vedenyapin began casting about for a senior thesis topic, and found himself returning to the Dzigan recordings he loved as a child.

"I was thinking about writing a senior thesis, and I was looking for a good topic," he said. "Then I remembered these comedy sketches I used to listen to. They'd left a very strong impression on me."

When it came time to begin studying Dzigan's routines for his thesis, Vedenyapin turned to the Harvard College Library, and the Judaica Division at Widener.

"I discovered they pretty much had everything, which was a huge relief," he said. "I was able to listen to all the recordings - over 100 routines - and watch the films and television shows Dzigan appeared in. The Judaica Division is amazing when it comes to this type of material. Having one of the most important collections of Judaica in the world at your disposal, it's a rare opportunity students should be aware of, and take advantage of while they're here."

Though the publishing series began in 1996, Berlin said, papers are published only when students produce research with significant merit in terms of original research content. The papers selected for the program are often recommended by Judaica Division staff members, who assist students as they conduct research. In other cases, faculty may recommend a thesis for publication, Berlin said. Papers which have won a Hoopes Prize are also reviewed by Judaica Division. All papers are accompanied by a brief preface by the faculty member who was the thesis advisor highlighting the merits of the paper.

Once published, the papers are cataloged in HOLLIS, Berlin said, and distributed to faculty and other researchers.

"We distribute these publications at no charge to Judaica libraries, faculty at Harvard and elsewhere and to donors and visiting committee members," Berlin said. "They serve to acquaint a wider audience with the resources of the collection and the ways in which it is used."

"Students are very happy to become a "published author" so soon after graduation," Berlin added, of the series. "They become part of the corpus of works in the subject area in question, and are sometimes cited by others in the literature."

"It felt great, being part of this series is quite an honor," Vedenyapin agreed. "As a student you're always told that you need to think about being published, and being published by an institution like Harvard University is a privilege."