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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’

Nona Willis Aronowitz
June 27, 2013
Kinderland, 1951.(Courtesy Katie Halper)
Kinderland, 1951.(Courtesy Katie Halper)

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.

Not that camp was an unblemished utopia. The persistent idealism could be insufferable to a jaded teenager. (Halper cherry-picks campers who seem extra-enthusiastic about Kinderland’s social-justice message, but not every kid was thrilled about sitting through a civil-rights workshop on a sunny day.) And it merely tempered, rather than eradicated, the patterns and roles of the outside world. Mean kids weren’t tolerated at activities, but bullying still went on after bedtime. There were still cliques and sexual competitiveness and body issues. The official rule was that you had to share any candy or care packages your parents sent you (called kassa). This, of course, led to elaborate smuggling systems and late-night kassa-trunk raids.

Camp also came with its hypocrisies and contradictions. Us girls were tacitly excluded from playing basketball during “schmooze” (our after-dinner free time) and instead would idly watch the games on the steps of the sports shack, chatting about the players we had crushes on. Although not everyone was Jewish or white, and camp provided some financial aid, it was still pretty homogenous and seemed to get whiter with each price hike. I wrote my college essay about how camp’s bubble could feel suffocating and insular, leaving me thirsting for a place where not everyone agreed. In fact, I left the womb of Kinderland one summer to work at a camp for underprivileged kids; it taught me more about racism and poverty than Kinderland ever did, even as I craved Camp K’s hyper-nurturing environment. I remember having a mini-meltdown over “the bubble” during the 1999 Peace Olympics, sparking a laborious, tear-filled, 45-minute discussion with a male counselor and a tomboy in my bunk.

Yet, it was still the kind of place that encouraged having that 45-minute conversation—under a tree, or sunbathing on a raft in the middle of the lake. “I always hated the Olympics,” admits Sam Pitt-Stoller, one of the group leaders interviewed in the film (and a good friend of mine), who charges camp with being “very idealistic” and “not looking at all sides.” Yet he’s “always felt comfortable expressing those disagreements.” An essential caveat.

Commie Camp was filmed pre-recession, and it skirts around the severe financial issues Kinderland now faces. The camp has been having trouble recruiting enough kids to enroll each summer. It’s had to fundraise with increasing aggressiveness, launching an Indiegogo campaign early this year. Part of the problem is the sagging economy and rising expenses; the camp’s septic system and fire codes needed to be upgraded recently. One of the teachers from a major feeder elementary school in New York City just retired from the classroom. Perhaps it’s simply an ebb in the camp’s history; Kinderland shrank to a fraction of its size during the McCarthy era and eventually rebounded. But there’s part of me that worries it’s all slipping away as the last of the country’s native Yiddish speakers die off.

Artifacts like this documentary help quell my fears. There’s a line in “Zog Nit Keynmol” that loosely translates to: “We will carry it like a password from generation to generation.” Kinderland alums become activists and performers and writers and teachers, all with a shared sensibility, a shared language. It’s not Yiddish, but it’s just as evocative. And a lot easier to learn.


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Nona Willis Aronowitz is a writer, editor, and author of Girldrive: Criss-crossing America, Redefining Feminism. Her Twitter feed is @Nona.

Nona Willis Aronowitz is a writer, editor, and author of Girldrive: Criss-crossing America, Redefining Feminism. Her Twitter feed is @Nona.