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‘Commie Camp’ Documentary Captures Camp Kinderland’s Idealism, and Its Imperfections

Once a utopian getaway for children of socialists and left-wing organizers, the camp remains an essential haven for ‘weird Jews’

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Kinderland, 1951. (Courtesy Katie Halper)
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A 12-year-old professes his love for the Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton. A middle-schooler defines the “buffer zone” mandated around an abortion clinic, a regulation won by the Center for Constitutional Rights. A 9-and-a-half-year-old explains that Hannah Senesh “went to Pakistan during World War II, and she parachuted into Hungary and tried to save her country, but she got caught by the Nazis and was killed.”

These are a few of the slightly dorky, very adorable, comically precocious city kids at the heart of Commie Camp, a new documentary about a Jewish socialist summer camp in the Berkshires called Camp Kinderland, premiering June 28 at VisionFest. OK, so the kids get a few facts wrong (Hannah Senesh went to Palestine, not Pakistan). But, in the words of Katie Halper, a Kinderland veteran and the film’s director: “How many female anti-fascist paratroopers who suffered capture, torture, and death in an attempt to free her country from Nazi invasion can you name?”

These kids instantly signal that Kinderland—which I attended for six years starting in 1995, then worked at for two summers as a counselor—is no average summer camp, even for the run-of-the-mill “New York, Jewish, left-wing, liberal, intellectuals” Woody Allen pegs so uncannily in Annie Hall. Instead of G5 or B7, bunks have names of radical activists, from mainstream icons like Anne Frank and Harriet Tubman to obscure lefty heroes like Morris Rosenfeld and Ernestine Rose (once described as “the deepest of left-wing deep-album-cuts” by Guardian journalist and Kinderland alum Spencer Ackerman). Instead of a Color War, there are the Peace Olympics, where each team learns about a group or movement, alongside track and swimming events, based on a summer-long theme. (Last year’s? “Occupy,” naturally.) There are days set aside to commemorate both the Holocaust and Hiroshima. Kids learn songs about draft dodgers and exploited railroad workers and Mother Jones. I bet that a conservative watching this film would feel as uneasy as I did watching Jesus Camp.

Halper anticipates this parallel; the documentary’s hook is that Kinderland was targeted last year by the Daily Caller and Rush Limbaugh when it was discovered that an Obama appointee was “indoctrinating” her child at camp. (The vast majority of the footage, however, was filmed half a decade ago.) That dustup seems downright quaint when compared to the McCarthy era, during which the camp director and dance teacher were interrogated by a legislative committee. But Commie Camp’s release is really just an occasion to profile, and therefore preserve, a specific sect of Jewish culture that, in ways both tangible and symbolic, is vanishing.

Camp Kinderland was founded in 1923 as a respite for children who were living in New York City’s tenements. Its founders were mostly immigrants—factory workers, tailors, Yiddish teachers, union organizers—who put their houses up for mortgage and bought the camp. These were the “weird Jews,” longtime staffer Judee Rosenbaum explains in the film, socialist Jews who didn’t keep kosher or have bar mitzvahs but who had deep ties to the anti-czarist movements back home and the labor and anti-racist movements in the United States. And even though they weren’t religious, Rosenbaum says, they connected their Jewishness with a sense of social justice. She paraphrases the prophet Amos:

[He said] you shouldn’t go to God with your rich sacrifices knowing that those rich sacrifices were provided to you by the labor of very poor people whom you’ve been exploiting so that you can get those rich sacrifices and bring them to God. He didn’t use those words and he spoke in Aramaic, but that’s a socialist thought to me.

Rosenbaum and the other camp elders interviewed for the film have strong New York accents that draw attention to their age; the undercurrent is that while some traditions endure, others are becoming harder to pass on. There’s a scene where Maddy Simon, an energetic octogenarian who has been the camp’s music director since 1962, painstakingly teaches the kids a Yiddish song called “Zog Nit Keynmol,” an anthem of Holocaust survivors inspired by the Warsaw ghetto uprising. The kids give it a good-faith effort, but it’s a chore. They appear sweaty and bored. I have vivid memories of fidgeting and folding paper fans to pass the time while I learned that same song with Maddy. I’m glad I still recall the words, but at the time they seemed so foreign, three or four times removed from my daily life—both linguistically and ethnically.

The everyday cultural politics at camp, on the other hand, seem to be just as relevant and necessary as they always were—perhaps more so in an age of cyber-bullying and the Kardashians. Rosenbaum estimates that there hasn’t been a Socialist or Communist party member in camp for 50 years, but the legacy of Kinderland as a haven for “weirdos” remains. The camp is framed in the documentary as unconcerned with material matters, a place where quirkiness thrives and nerdy outcasts are accepted, even heralded (well, sometimes). Halper films one former camper detailing a complete turnaround in the span of a summer: He arrived yearning for the $140 Nikes his family couldn’t afford, and he left boycotting the company because they used child labor.

The first week of ninth grade, after returning from my fourth summer at Kinderland, I wrote in my diary: “In camp, I became the realest version of myself. I didn’t feel self-conscious, nervous, stressed-out or anything. Also, I didn’t give a fuck about makeup, big-heeled boots … or any of that bullshit.” Later: “I act more intelligent with camp people.” Many of my fellow campers are still my best friends; one of them lives across the hall from me in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. It’s hard to pin that “overall feeling of kindness” exclusively onto camp’s politics. But it does soften typical teen pressures when the most important thing is what you say, not what you look like.

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‘Commie Camp’ Documentary Captures Camp Kinderland’s Idealism, and Its Imperfections

Once a utopian getaway for children of socialists and left-wing organizers, the camp remains an essential haven for ‘weird Jews’