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The Forgotten Summer Camps

A new book shines a light on Yiddish-oriented programs

Rokhl Kafrissen
May 31, 2023
Inset image: Center for Jewish History/Flickr
Inset image: Center for Jewish History/Flickr
Inset image: Center for Jewish History/Flickr
Inset image: Center for Jewish History/Flickr

Once upon a time, I (very briefly) dated a man who hated summer camp. He hated it so much, he only went once, and, to my horror, quit midsummer. I should’ve known right then that this was not going to work out.

My horror stemmed from the fact that the camp he had (briefly) attended was in fact the same arts-intensive day camp I myself had attended, for many happy summers. It’s hard to overstate how meaningful those summers were for me, both as a place to blossom socially and a space to find myself creatively. It was hard to contemplate not just hating it, but hating it enough to drop out midsummer. Thirty-something years later, I’d still give my right arm for a few more precious weeks of summer camp. Looking back more rationally, it’s quite possible to say that this gentleman simply didn’t need what camp offered. I probably wouldn’t be the writer I am today without those summers. He, on the other hand, was already well on his own unique artistic path.

People feel very strongly about their summer camp experiences—especially Jews, and especially me, it seems. Summer camp is an American phenomenon that cuts across economic, religious, and ethnic lines. But American Jews took to “Jewish” summer camping, especially sleepaway camping, with a devotion unmatched among other religious groups. American Jews spend far longer periods at camp than other groups and often return to the same camp year after year. To be honest, my identity is far more tied to my summer camp than the university I attended, though it feels a little strange to say it out loud.

Though Jewish camping has roots going back to the Progressive Era, it really came into its golden age, along with American Judaism itself, in the postwar era. Jewish summer camp became not just a place to spend a summer, but a place to learn how to be Jewish, as well as an ideological proving ground for the American Jewish future.

All of this is wonderfully explored in The Jews of Summer: Summer Camp and Jewish Culture in Postwar America, the brand-new book by Sandra Fox, Goldstein-Goren assistant professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University and the director of the Archive of the American Jewish Left in the Digital Age. In addition to being a scholar of tremendous talent, she is also a friend of mine and a colleague in Yiddishland.

One of the fascinating insights in Fox’s book is that even as Jews make up a tiny part of the American population, Jewish camping is the most-studied of any American camping sector! That isn’t such a surprise to those who have spent any time in the Jewish nonprofit world. Given the weighty goals carried by many Jewish camps, it seems natural that they would be studied and their Jewish “outcomes” closely analyzed.

Despite the close attention American Jewish camps have received, very little has been given to the postwar history of the Yiddish-oriented camps featured in Fox’s book: Hemshekh, Boiberik, Kinder Ring, and Kinderland. Fox’s book is the first scholarly intervention into this fascinating corner of Jewish camping, and will hopefully not be the last. It’s especially relevant to the ongoing mainstream fascination with a so-called “Yiddish revival.” As Fox writes, “[r]ather than emerging suddenly, the perceived Yiddish revival … actually relied on an unbroken generational chain of cultural keepers, creators, and teachers, many of whom were educated and inspired by camps like Hemshekh, Boiberik, and Kinderland.” Excessive focus on a “revival” all but ensures erasure of these crucial continuities. Personally, I’m hoping that we will see more books about the camps themselves and the political and social movements they grew out of, such as Camp Hemshekh and the Bund, and Camp Boiberik and the Sholem Aleichem Folk Institute.

Fox herself was a camper at the Zionist Camp Young Judaea, Sprout Lake. Nonetheless, the seeds of future Yiddishism may have been planted when she became friends with another Young Judaea camper, Shifra Whiteman, daughter of beloved Yiddish teacher Paula Teitelbaum, also a product of Camp Hemshekh. As Fox writes in the book’s acknowledgements: “I am overwhelmed by appreciation for another camp friend, Shifra Whiteman, who introduced me to the possibility of a Yiddish-speaking life when I was only a kid in her house in Queens.”

I’m fairly sure that I met Fox sometime around 2013, when I visited the then-new Yiddish Farm, in Goshen, New York. Yiddish Farm was offering intensive, Yiddish-only language immersion summer courses. Fox was at Yiddish Farm for two summers, first as a language learner, then as a guest, using, as she told me recently, the skills she acquired during her own camp experience, to facilitate social activities at Yiddish Farm.

Rather than being situated on a beautiful lake or offering drama courses, students lived on the spartan farm grounds, praying together, doing farm work, and reconnecting with the land. From my brief time there, I got the impression that Yiddish Farm, at least in the beginning, harked back to the much earlier versions of American camping, when, as Fox writes, “fresh air reformers saw camps as ideal settings for providing children with recreation, character development, and physical health, ‘translating anti-modern anxieties into youth-specific terms.’” Not that Yiddish Farm was explicitly for children, but that the ethos was one very much of developing an alternative to urban, deracinated Jewishness.

Of course, The Jews of Summer is about much more than Yiddish camps. The book focuses on four major categories of summer camps: Zionist, Yiddishist, Conservative movement, and Reform movement. Rather than focusing on their differences, Fox draws out the broad similarities of the camps, exploring how they approached things like Holocaust memorialization through their own ideological lens.

The section on Tisha B’Av is particularly interesting. Fox notes that by midcentury, Tisha B’Av had fallen into obscurity among American Jews. That certainly resonated for this ’80s kid. Despite growing up in a fairly Jewy environment, I had never even heard of it until I was at my arts camp one summer, probably when I was around 13. It was there that I made a friend named Ziva. I remember her coming to camp and fasting and I was absolutely dumbfounded. I honestly had no idea, up to that point, that there were other fast days apart from Yom Kippur. And the fact that you had to fast, but could still do “fun” stuff, like go to camp, blew my mind.

Tisha B’Av, the Fast of the Ninth of Av, is the only holiday falling within the summer camp calendar. Though its somber tone is at odds with the carefree spirit of summer camp, each camp found a way to harness the richness of the day to their own goals. As Sandra Fox writes, “American Zionist educators embraced Tisha B’Av with nearly unanimous and zealous enthusiasm. To Zionists Tisha B’Av reinforced the legitimacy of their cause, the Holocaust and other historical tragedies proof that Jews could never be truly safe in the diaspora.” Reform camps, on the other hand, explored diverse themes through their Tisha B’Av programming, some focusing on “ancient tragedies” and others on the value of tzedakah, charity.

The Yiddishist camps approached Tisha B’Av in a variety of ways. Some were internally conflicted about having such religious programming. Camp Boiberik’s leader, Leibush Lehrer, “presented a recitation of the traditional Eicha in Yiddish …” as well as leading a Yizkor (memorial) service. His decisions around Tisha B’Av evoked bitter criticism from his colleagues within the movement, as well as some parents.

Camp Hemshekh had been founded for the children of Holocaust survivors. At Hemshekh, rather than Tisha B’Av, the third Sunday in August was Ghetto Night, followed by Ghetto Day. Similar to the observances at other camps, Ghetto Night “fostered an emotion-probing experience for campers through scripted recollections of the Holocaust, candle-lit spaces, and somber song. For children of survivors, Ghetto Nights proved particularly emotional as many campers learned of what their parents had gone through in detail for the first time.” Ghetto Night was also a nexus for the tensions between the ideological plans of the adult leadership and the youthful desires of the campers.

Fox writes: “Hemshekh’s ceremonies ended with campers exclaiming, ‘Long live Yiddish!’—the message of the evening made explicit. By exalting resistance fighters in the Holocaust, the ceremony implored campers to form their own sort of resistance, confronting the temptations to abandon their language and assimilate into mainstream American and American Jewish society.”

“Long live Yiddish!” may have been the script read by campers on Ghetto Night, but it wasn’t an attitude that necessarily came naturally, especially to children of the turbulent 1960s. As much as I care about Yiddish today, I can understand their own reluctance to go to Yiddish class during the summer. According to Fox, Hemshekh campers “went to great lengths to avoid attending Yiddish class,” but after Ghetto Night, there was a “huge shift” in their attitude toward Yiddish. “One counselor suggested that the camp should schedule Ghetto Day toward the beginning of the summer rather than the end, because then the staff could remind them for the next seven weeks, ‘But you cried on Ghetto Night, didn’t you?’”

Reading that passage, I’m reminded of my own, very different Jewish education, in which the Holocaust became a kind of cudgel; I came to think of it as the “pedagogy of terror.” Is there, or was there, no other better way of bringing kids into Yiddish culture than profound guilt?

Obviously, the history is more complicated than that, and the future always holds surprises. I’m sure my parents and teachers could never have predicted that my life course would be altered by a burning desire to learn Yiddish, of all things. I was lucky that in my 20s, long past the age of summer camp, I stumbled onto Klezkanada, a beautifully intense, weeklong August retreat in the Laurentian mountains, outside Montreal.

Like many camp experiences, Klezkanada was made possible due to the heroic efforts of a core group of people. In this case, it was decades of work by Hy Goldman, who, with his wife, Sandy, pretty much single-handedly ensured that Klezkanada would continue from year to year. In his work outside Klezkanada, he spent more than 50 years as a physician at Montreal’s Children’s Hospital.

Goldman, known to everyone as Hy, passed away on May 19, 2023, at the age of 97. Eternally vigorous and dedicated to his work, you got the feeling that he would outlast us all. As attested by the many tributes on social media, Hy was a friend, a leader, a mentor, and, most importantly, a mentsh. He modeled the boundless love and dedication necessary to build and maintain not just an organization, but a movement. I will always be in awe of what he and Sandy built, and his memory will forever be linked with the extraordinary Yiddish continuity he made possible at Klezkanada. Koved zayn likhtikn ondenk.

MORE: Sandra Fox recently appeared on The Brian Lehrer Show to talk about The Jews of Summer. You can buy the book here. Donations to Klezkanada can be in the memory of Hy Goldman, here.

ALSO: I’m looking forward to the premiere of a new chamber opera called A Goyses (A Dying Person), inspired by the ethnographic work of Sh. Ansky, in which “a middle-aged researcher interviews an older woman on her deathbed.” The opera explores the idea of goyses, the Ashkenazi term for a state of being between life and death, and looks at what that might mean, for both individuals and cultures. June 12, at YIVO. More information and tickets here … Ever dreamed of spending a week speaking Yiddish with an international jet set crowd in Greece? The Paris Yiddish Center is offering its zumer-maraton (summer in Marathon) program, Aug. 14-20. The goal is for Yiddish speakers to have a chance to chill in a beautiful location, af yidish. More information here … If you want to spend a week in Yiddish, and can’t get to Greece, Yiddish Vokh will take place once again in Copake, New York. It is a laid-back week by the lake kind of experience, but everything, and I mean everything, is in Yiddish. Bring your dictionary and a bathing suit. Aug. 16-22 … Klezkanada will be in person this year, at a lakeside location in the beautiful Laurentian mountains in Quebec, Canada. Aug. 23-29. More information and registration here.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.