“I USE TO WALK WITH YOU ..."
Deep in December it's nice--no, necessary--to remember, from the corner of our minds, the way we were--in the summer of 1952 and to compare that experience, if possible, with our current scene. As Dickens wrote, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times when
Johnny Ray cried-Marilyn Monroe sighed-J. Edgar Hoover pried--Joe McCarthy lied-Yankees-Dodgers vied (as did Carl Sussman)-Adlai Stevenson tried-Mario Lanza skied--un azoi veiter.
Bring back the thrill of Eddie Fisher and memories conveying kisses sweeter than wine, albeit of Eisenhower vintage. A bunch of sixteen-year old pishers and pisherkehs ripened in a tzoiberland. under Bing Crosby blue skies and by shimmering Sylvan waters, we communed in a rather special place which remains forever fixed in what Lincoln called "the mystic chords of memory."
Ober die yorn geyen zich-die reyder dreyn zich as the miller lamented. All of us are changed--nem mich mir arum arum. Ich bin bloiz a bisl groi—some, nishtu, are dead.
What does it all mean? What did Camp Kinderland signify? Camp K was really our immigrant parents’ legacy. They wanted to bind us umbilically to their yiddishist traditzia at the same time that they paved roads to a progresiver, sozialisteseh zukunft. Yet out of their proletarian matrix grew, like Bette Smith’s tree in Brooklyn, a middle-class sensibility. The faith of our fathers could not withstand the external assaults on their--and by the transmission belts of shule and Camp--our faith. The man of steel, Stalin not Superman, after whom this writer was probably named, soon descended into patent madness. Many innocents, Jews included, succumbed in a vast blood bath. God failed even in Birobidzhan. We in Camp, hip to hypocrisy. grew impatient with moochers and cynical towards “super-dupers.” One who epitomized both and waddled under a massive un-Marxist girth we dubbed, Die Zhaba, a shameless bullfrog who croaked endlessly for contributions--host ge/t gib ge/t, host nisht gib oich--from our less than affluent parents. Stubbornly resistant to the constraints of ideologies, prematurely interred by Daniel Bell, we culted around Brando rather than Mao: bellowing for our Stellas by starlight. The rhetoric of revolution issued from our lips freely, indeed cheaply. We espoused all the correct positions except, as a former roommate and fellow-traveler, Sol “Piggie” Stern reminded me, on Israel; we sang the best songs although, as Tom Lehrer tartly observed, the reactionaries usually won the wars. Around the campfires later doused in Freudian fashion, we celebrated Joe--as opposed to--Fanny Hill, La Quince Brigada rather than the Fifth Column, Down by the riverside, we vowed to lay down our swords and shields even as we came, if at all, in heiseh hoizn. Hoib oif deine hoizn, und zeh...
We became aware of other dialectics as well. To be sure, not all Negroes were Stepan Fetchit or Beulah. Neither, it appeared, were all Blacks cast in the heroic mold of Paul Robeson or W. E. B. DuBois. We met Blacks in the dining room and on the ball fields, on the Casino stage, and in our group. Interracial liaisons did occur. Sex, race, and class provided many knotty contradictions in Camp which defied facile formulae as well as Hegelian synthesis. Clearly, it was easier to sing and dance about utopias to come than to implement social change. KinderIand, in the last analysis, projected a mirror image of our immigrant parents: their needs, their anxieties, and their dreams.
Their quest for socialism, brotherhood and above all, generational harmony laced with yiddishkeit seemed a palatable potpourri in Roosevelt’s America when the Front was Popular and the future, bright. In the Eisenhower-McCarthy 1950's, however, cracks in the synthesis began to show. In the 1960's a resurgence of idealism rooted in Kinderland soil resurfaced permitting praxis, that is, social action geared to political philosophy. Not only did we have the best songs and "chicks", we also moved on a variety of fronts: civil rights, anti-war activity, community organization, and alternative modes of education. Granted there were aberrations such as Leslie Campbell, the person who unleashed venomous anti-Semitic bromides in the Ocean-Hill Brownsville conflict despite a Kinderland past cushioned by scholarship. Most of us, however, remained true to the faith of our fathers and loyal to our mothers too. Though we deviated, like my broken nose, we continued to embody certain core values: social justice, enduring friendships, compassion (rachmonis), a sense of community, and elemental decency. Many years later they still shape our lives just as they inspire our actions and they provide a moral compass in a meshuginer veldt (crazy world).
Through the haze of Edward R. Murrow's cancerette smoke, and through a glass brightly, I can see them now: the boys as well as the girls of Kinderland summer. There's Solly, amphibian. Liquid grace in the lake and on the dance floor; on terra firma, however, he is another kettle of fish. In the dining room, my mother "Red Light Rifka" (a reference to her politics, not morals) testifies to his insatiable, porcine appetite. Do I still begrudge his way with women, especially Shelli Paul? Ira Goldenberg, my “roomie” supreme wit, sensualist, mischief maker, athlete. A latter day B'rer Rabbit, he always wins. Another buddy, Bobby reappears with a sweet almost angelic punim, which masks a killer's cool in pursuit of women, at the gaming table, money, or academic glory. I followed in his wake at camp, college, graduate school, and in academe. Tony Curtis handsome, sporting a katchka's tuchus, Carl was a macho man who, cut a dashing figure in quest of Violet, sweeter than any rose. His sidekick Sancho, also a New Utrecht High School, Lenny projected a lovable nebbish, no doubt a put-on to win a maternal Mickey and other femmes fatales. There’s Allan, wise introvert, belly low, tushy high, a Jewish Buddha who remains emotionless under the assault of enemy batsmen. The most hittable matzoh ball pitcher ever, he provided constant adventure for his fielders: Sol at first, Lenny, second, Ira, short, Bobby, third, Carl, left, “Kugel” and his awkward throws from right, and this writer, after hero, Joe D, c’est moi in centerfield. Pass Der Kugel whose phenomenal strength belied his nickname. Warm and generous to a fault, a straight-shooter without guile or artifice, he fulfilled Feurbach's observation: "Mann ist vas mann esst."
Food for cerebration, fuel for memory. To those outside our in-crowd, Jerry, Sol, Arby, Abe and others whose indifference to sports evoked stigmata, we offer a belated apology. Because you lacked our competitive urges, shameless products of die capitalistishe ordenung, we propelled you to Josh White's corner "way on the outskirts of town."
Let us now praise famous women. Only rarely the object of carnal lust in retrospect's cold light, they seem bright beautiful, and more together than us guys. Perhaps that's due to Edith Segal's choreography. Jeannie vaults, Icarus-like, to the sun followed by Alice, Violet, Anita, Julie and company. Jeannie invites comparison with the biblical Susanna!"
espied by the elders through a bathhouse peep-hole, a victim of puerility if not prurience. Despite an official policy repudiating male supremacy, we did not escape its ugly web. Preoccupied with mammaries (“Mammy, mammy, I’d walk a million miles…), the guys scrutinized the gals for Tsurikgeshtaneh Brust Antviklung . We punned outrageously: "Have you seen Alice Baer?" "No, but I’d love to!”
The girls had brains as well as beauty. I remember Nina, turtlenecked and bejeaned, towering above us intellectually and. She turned us on to many good things, especially George Shearing's music. Carrie was as mentally sharp as she was tart-tongued. The other intellectual heavyweights included Minna, Anita and Judee, everyone's confidante or surrogate mother. never superior, Judee always found a silver lining in everyone’s attire. Who can forget Julie, a golden brown beauty? She represented our first encounter with black sisterhood and the equation of black and beautiful.
I also remember mamas--Brushkeh, Yudis, Frimeh, and Rifkeh not to mention our version of Auntie Mame, as colorful and eccentric as her caps, Elsie. Most have crossed the Rivers Jordan and Sambatyon to join the shadows. They constituted a second front in the battle against fascism, depression, and insecurity. They constituted the heart and soul if not the lifeblood of Kinderland. Not the Yiddishe mamas of Second Avenue Shund genre, they were hard-boiled, intensely driven women. Since our fathers were largely inaccessible (Die arbei treibt mich free arois und brengt mich shpet tsurick... ",) our mothers put a stamp on our souls with endless sacrifice, exorbitant demands. Hard to please (my mother for example would only accept less than a hundred percent when taking my temperature); harder still to deny their legacy, they remain a compelling part of our journey. Although "time's winged chariot" has carried us to distant places as well as to different destinies (like Paul Anka), we--their prodigals—have kept the faith after all. We have renewed, as the mythical phoenix in the ashes, our Kinderland on picket lines, Civil Rights crusades deep in the heart of Dixie, anti-war protests, and in our daily lives. Even as we became doctors, lawyers, professors, teachers, writers, and pardon the expression, businessmen, we could never forget.
A sandpaper rasps in one's throat as Nat King Cole sings once more: "I used to walk with you along the avenue/ Our hearts were carefree and gay/ How could I know I’d lose you?/ Somewhere along the way..." Now, we enter the middle of the journey in search of meaning. No matter that our Kinderland lies idle, overrun with weeds, for we can still hear Lake Sylvan lapping against the shore in that warm summer caress. Leaves rustle, crickets sing, while nearby, the voice of the Umac bird is heard in the land. Prisoners of nostalgia rather than of Second Avenue, we remember. The words of F. Scott Fitzgerald ring true: "...and it seemed only a question of a few years before the older people would step aside and let the world be run by those who saw things as they were and it all seems rosy and romantic to us who were young then, because we will never feel quite so intensely about our surroundings any more."
A song learned at Camp and Shule puts it even better: ”Mir gedenken alleh sonim, Mir dermonen alleh freindt. Eibik veIn mir farbindn unzer nechtn mitn heint."
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