Marissa Brostoff was the 2004 summer intern at Yiddishkayt L.A., where she prepared the promotional material for that year’s Yiddishkayt Festival around the theme, “The Hidden History of Yiddish L.A.” She became intrigued with the vibrant political life and conflicts in Boyle Heights, where Yiddish-speaking workers settled in the 20s and 30s. Her research on Kinderland grew out of that experience. (This year’s summer intern is helping to prepare a pilot project that will introduce the teaching of Yiddish and Yiddish culture in three Hebrew day schools.) Marissa never attended camp Kinderland.
Notes on Camp Kinderland
by Marissa Brostoff
If you were a kid at Camp Kinderland in the 1940s, and it struck your fancy to spend an afternoon out on Sylvan Lake in your wooden rowboat, you had to watch out for socialists. The socialist summer camp, Kinder Ring, was on the other side of the lake, and sometimes its campers rowed out in their aluminum boats. Aluminum boats, according to the communist party line at Kinderland, were for fascists.
“They were the rekhte,
the right wing,” says Hershl Hartman, who spent his teenage summers at
Kinderland over sixty years ago. “As anti-Soviet, they were not really
Hershl and I, as well as Kinderland alumnus Henry Slucki, are sitting on folding chairs just outside the door of the Yiddish Culture Club in Los Angeles. The evening program of Yiddish music and poetry has ended, but the one-room Culture Club is still hopping. The secular Yiddishists inside— some leftists among them — have lived long enough to see decades of history blur the differences between their political stripes, and are now congregated around the rugelekh table. Hershl is Henry’s senior by only four years, a short enough gap that the two briefly attended Kinderland together—Henry as a camper, Hershl on staff as office boy (later, stage manager). But the age difference shows. Henry wears suspenders and slicks back his grey hair. He looks like he would be equally comfortable making corned beef sandwiches at Zabar’s or lecturing future doctors in USC’s residency program about child and adolescent behavioral psychiatry, although as it turns out, he only does the latter. Hershl, a one-time journalist and Education Director of the Sholem Community, as well as faculty at the International Institute for Humanistic Judaism, has thin white hair that lies flat on his head. He speaks slowly and softly with a slight lisp; Henry frequently interrupts him with the eagerness of a kid who knows the right answer. Both men wore large glasses (Hershl’s were gone after cataract surgery a few months later), and both have a startling ability to weave together decades of inside jokes and an encyclopedic knowledge of twentieth century social movements. Hershl calls Henry “Frenchy,” a nickname Henry, who was born in France, picked up at Kinderland. When the two of them name drop, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s son Robert is Robbie, and Israel Davidman, a pioneer in the audio-visual field, is Blackie.
Kinderland has been a “summer camp with a conscience since 1923,” its Web site informs visitors. Dreamed up as an inexpensive way for Jewish workers to get their kids out of New York City for the summer and into a progressive, Yiddish-infused environment, the camp grew out of the then-thriving world of the immigrant labor movement. After 1930, it was run by the Jewish-American section and then the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order (JPFO) of the International Worker’s Order (IWO). Kinderland would go on to survive the liquidation of the IWO by the state of New York, the collapse of the Communist Party in the U.S., and the tumult of several subsequent waves of political redefinition. Despite its many incarnations, the camp began and has remained a microcosm of the American Jewish left—an entity more amorphous, but no more static, than Kinderland itself.
In its early days, the camp’s population drew heavily from IWO shuln, after-school programs in which students were taught the Yiddish language and culture, along with Marxist theory and Soviet work anthems. For many, the learning continued over summer, as suggested by Kinderland’s motto at the time: “from shul to camp, from camp to shul.” “It had very much the same effect, but [at camp] you could do it in a much more leisurely way,” Henry says. Folk dance, swimming, and play production supplemented study. Hershl and Henry attended shuln in their respective hometowns of Brooklyn and the Bronx, and in the summer they headed for camp in Hopewell Junction (better known to campers as Hopeless Junkyard), a tiny town near Poughkeepsie. By the time of their adolescence in the forties, a generation of campers had already invented Yiddish baseball, cried over the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti, and built a dock in Sylvan Lake.
Politically, families like Hershl’s and Henry’s identified as revolutionaries of the working class, while culturally (but not religiously) they were Eastern European Jews. Henry’s parents were both shopworkers, and his mother worked all summer to send him to Kinderland. Hershl was only able to attend one of the camp’s two-week sessions because that was as much as his aunt, “the rich wife of a dress manufacturer,” was willing to pay. In this milieu, teaching Yiddish to the younger, American-born generation was in itself seen as a political act. For the adults, Yiddish was a link to the past, to Europe; it was the language of theater, literature, and conversation; but it was also a marker of difference that challenged the assimilationist mindset held by many immigrants of their generation, including other native Yiddish speakers. Members of the Workmen’s Circle, a Jewish socialist organization less radical than the JPFO but with parallel institutions like shuln and Camp Kinder Ring, were derided by JPFO members not only for being alrightnikes (arrivistes), but for tainting their Yiddish. Abe Cahan, a celebrated writer and founder of the Workmen’s Circle-allied newspaper, the Forverts, promoted what was called “potato Yiddish”—a dialect of the mameloshen peppered with English words even for things from the old country, like bulbes, kartofl (potatoes). To the JPFO, this signaled the beginning of an assimilation process that would end with a potato-Yiddish speaker’s disappearance into the American middle class. But linguistic differences between the two organizations did not always seem to result directly from their respective political positions. A rift could occur over something as innocuous as transliteration; communists spelled the name of the famed theater group, folksbine, while socialists spelled it as folksbeine.
“It’s the old story,” Henry says. “The closer the other side is to your point of view, the greater you magnify the differences.”
In the outside world, though, a commie was just a commie.
“I had a Republican teacher in junior high named Elizabeth Taylor—Miss Elizabeth Taylor,” Henry remembers, his New York accent untouched by an adulthood spent in L.A. “She engaged us in a conversation: ‘what should we do about this country coming to a standstill, with workers going on strike and leaving the whole place in jeopardy?’ I raised my hand—in those days you stood up—and said, ‘Well, if the means of production were in the hands of the workers, then there would—’ and she just pointed her finger at me and said, ‘That’s communism, sit down!’”
At Kinderland, shule kids and other young radicals lived among their own kind. Growing up among union organizers and activists, even many of the youngest campers had already absorbed a Marxist sensibility, which was nurtured at Kinderland.
The camp’s political leanings were no secret. Politically-minded celebrities sometimes dropped in: Paul Robeson was a regular, Pete Seeger once spent two weeks at Kinderland teaching songs while adding a few Yiddish labor anthems to his repertoire, and the wife of jailed labor cause celebre Tom Mooney visited. And when the camp could afford it, no expense was spared to create aesthetically stunning works of propaganda. One summer, the camp director’s wife had the dirt roads around the quad painted green to create a virtual meadow, the backdrop for a reenactment of the Red Army’s liberation of the Western Ukraine.
“There were, without question, indoctrination meetings, where we would have an evening, all gathered at each bungalow, and the counselor would teach us the basics of political economy,” Henry says. “Or some other issue having to do with progressive Jewish identification, whether it was, why we don’t discriminate, and why we think the KKK is bad, to how we want peace in the world.”
Even when they were less explicit, politics seeped into daily life at Kinderland. If a camper’s parents sent her candy, it went into her bunk’s kase (Yiddish for treasury) and became communal property. The counselors who monitored the grounds were called dzhurna (guards, in Russian), and legend had it that they functioned primarily to watch out for those bourgeois aluminum boats coming across the lake. Henry remembers one of the many instances in which campers acted as their own dzhurna, guarding Kinderland against activities with political implications the adults hadn’t considered. Every year, they were divided randomly into blue and white teams for Color War, a week of sports and games. The competition got so heated that friends from opposing teams put their camaraderie on hold until the week ended. In the summer of 1947, a group of campers walking back from lunch after a game of Capture the Flag had a sort of collectivist epiphany.
“We said, you know, this is bad,” Henry recalls. “And we said, we’re going to do away with that. Well, how do we do that? Right in the middle of it? But we just turned the whole thing around and the competition was eliminated! No longer were you identified as blue or white, but simply as a camper.” It was the kind of thing that made Kinderland parents kvel. Color War, later known as the Peace Olympics, would pass through many incarnations, but the “Kinderland tie,” which became a nearly ubiquitous outcome of competitions held at camp, remains a gently mocked emblem of life in summer’s parallel universe.
Some Kinderlanders who attended camp a few years before Henry and Hershl did not limit themselves to wars that involved Capture the Flag. In the late 1930s, a number of the camp’s young men joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the volunteer U.S. contingent that fought against Franco’s fascists in the Spanish Civil War. One of those who never returned was Efraim Bromberg, who sent Kinderland a letter on a blood-stained handkerchief before he died. Written in Yiddish, concluding “with fists raised in a red ‘Salud’!,” the letter instantly became an icon of what Hershl calls Kinderland’s “marrow-penetrating hatred of fascism, a self-preserving form of anti-fascism that went far beyond politics or philosophy.”
Oddly, there is another story of Kinderland and the Spanish Civil War that reflects the story of the handkerchief as though in a funhouse mirror. Along with a deep conscientiousness, campers had developed a sense of irony that would have been unwelcome in the strict party ranks of the Soviet Union, and unfamiliar to many other Old World Communist ideologues. In the early 1930s, a charismatic Kinderland habitue, the famed puppeteer and satirist Yosl Kotler, wrote a satirical revolutionary poem to his love interest, a young woman named Marion. The poem, composed in Yiddish, “was strictly a gag,” Hershl says. “‘Today, dear Marion, we meet at the rim of the canon, and before anything else, take a shear, cut off your braids, put on the military uniform’—on and on, and the last verse—‘if I should fall let’s have none of that womanly sobbing; take another one from our Red Army, and go on.’” “Marion” was published in a collection of poetry by Kotler, and may have appeared in an issue of the communist newspaper Morgn Frayhayt—in any case, it somehow wound up in the hands of the Naftali Botwin Company, a Yiddish-speaking volunteer section of the Polish brigade in the Spanish Civil War. Members of the brigade took the poem seriously and set it to music. During World War II, the same Polish Jewish Communists who made up the Botwin company would fight in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. “Flash forward, 1947: a delegation of survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto comes to New York,” Hershl says. “It’s summertime, so of course they’re brought up to Camp Kinderland.” One night during this visit, Warsaw resistance members and the Kinderland cultural staff were sitting around in the camp store, drinking tea and talking. Mendy Shain, Kinderland’s choral director, asked the guests what songs they had sung in the ghetto to keep up morale. “And one hundred yards from where the poem was originally written,” Hershl concludes exultantly, “they sang ‘Marion.’”
The dislocation from Europe that led to stories like this one played out more subtly in the loss of Yiddish among Hershl and Henry’s generation. Some shule teachers doubled as Kinderland counselors, who taught Yiddish classes at camp and conversed with the more fluent speakers. English, though, was the language of casual conversation among the American-born, especially because not all of those who attended Kinderland were Jewish. “Unless, if you were among the guys and wanted to talk about a certain girl or something, you wanted to describe her as zaftik or something, you would do it in the Yiddish terminology and not translate,” Henry says. During the school year, shule kids mined Yiddish for its characters and used it to pass encoded English notes in class. And Club Betsalel Friedman, an outgrowth of Kinderland that bounced among affiliations with progressive youth leagues, found in Yiddish a vehicle for creating group spirit. “Somehow,” Hershl says with pride, “Woody Allen knew about us, because of that line in Annie Hall that totally describes Club Friedman—‘riding on the Staten Island Ferry at midnight singing ‘Freiheit’ at the top of your lungs.’” (“Freiheit” was the anthem of the German anti-fascist volunteers of the Thaelmann Brigade in Spain.) For Hershl and Henry and some of their peers, the language became something to preserve. For many others, it was already slipping into the past.
When Judith Klausner’s mother went to political rallies, Judith’s grandmother made sure she wore a dress. An activist in her own right, Judith’s grandmother had been a PTA president until she was indicted as a fellow traveler. She encouraged her daughter’s commitment to social justice, with one stipulation: “You should look nice when you’re demonstrating.”
Every summer, Judith and the other grandchildren of the workers of the world unite in Tolland, Mass, Kinderland’s current home. Judith’s family is part of what Hershl calls the “semi-incestuous shtetl” of people associated with Kinderland. Her father grew up in Queens and had friends who attended camp. Every summer he went to visit them, and every summer he got kicked out by Elsie Suller, Kinderland’s director at the time, for breaking visitor policies. Later, he became a group leader at Kinderland; through him, Judith’s mother became a counselor. Judith calls Mitch and Ora Silver, two of Kinderland’s directors, her “pseudo-aunt and uncle.” When she was four, her parents took her on what would be the first of many summer excursions up to Tolland to visit them. Judith is now eighteen and a sophomore at Wesleyan University. She has yet to spend a summer away from Kinderland.
I interview Judith in the costume shop at Wesleyan, where she works. We talk as she sews “the world’s largest seam” on a shimmering silk dress. Judith has blue hair that seems to tell its own history of dye jobs and subsequent dye jobs; it is a wispy sky blue in some places and a deep cobalt in others. Her sweatshirt says, in glittery fabric paint, “I Was Going to Conquer the World, But I Got Distracted by Something Sparkly.”
Judith earned her costuming chops backstage at Kinderland. Every year the CITs put on a musical with a political message, even if they have to add the message themselves. The year Judith was a CIT, Assistant Director Mitch Silver spliced together Cradle Will Rock, “an obscure Communist musical, which to be perfectly honest, kind of sucks,” with “hilariously bad” rewrites of songs from Oklahoma that comment on, yes, the lack of social consciousness in Oklahoma. Rent, however, is the only musical popular enough at Kinderland to have spawned its own “Choice,” or elective activity. Two years ago kids in the Rent Choice performed some songs from the show; a camper Judith calls “the best twelve year old drag queen ever” put on a boa and heels to play Angel, the drag queen in Rent who dies of AIDS. To be the best twelve year old drag queen at Kinderland is to be a big fish in a big pond. “They dressed in drag a lot this year,” Judith says of the group of campers, now fourteen, with whom she has worked for the past four summers. “That group has a habit of doing that. Like, when they were eleven and I worked with them, drag. Twelve, drag.”
On the first night of camp when Judith was fifteen, she came out to her fellow first-year CITs as being “not so much with the straight.” At the time, she thought she was the only one. Now, though, she says that about half of the sixteen girls and six boys who made up her CIT group identify as something other than heterosexual. Some are gay, some are bisexual, some, including Judith, “just are.” Judith says that Kinderland fosters an environment in which sexuality is fluid enough that people can identify as “whatever.” As a CIT and a counselor, she has done her best to create a similar level of acceptance among her campers. Some of those who already identify as queer or questioning—“it’s getting younger and younger”—have adopted her as a mentor, while straight campers have learned to call each other out on homophobic behavior. After one such impromptu self-criticism session in the fourteen year old boys’ bunk, Judith read her campers a story called “Am I Blue?” In the story, a boy on a quest to figure out his sexuality acquires a fairy godfather, who gives him the ability to see people’s sexual orientations in the blueness of their skin. Judith likes the story because “there are infinite numbers of shades. It’s not like people are blue or they’re not.” In the end, the boy decides to wait for the girl of his dreams, or Prince Charming—whichever.
Listening to Judith, one might think that sexuality at Kinderland today has become what class struggle was sixty years ago—a central, unifying issue that was both a political program and a way of life. But another Judith—Judith Rosenbaum, Kinderland’s CIT group leader, who was a camper in the forties and has worked at camp since 1958—says that when CITs are asked which issues are most important to them, gay rights fall somewhere in the middle, scoring lower than race and labor but higher than the Israel/Palestine conflict. “But none are quite as vivid as identity politics,” Rosenbaum says.
A fissure has occurred: the problems that today’s primarily white, well-off Kinderland kids regard as most critical exist in third world countries, in inner cities, in the hole in the ozone layer—anywhere but the realm of their personal experience. It is one thing to have parents who are sweatshop laborers, and quite another to have parents who fight for sweatshop laborers in court and then go home to the Upper West Side, but this is the progression that the American Jewish left has taken. Where anti-Semitism and poverty once served as a crucible for the development of Jewish progressivism, the lessons of family and history have taken over, sometimes leading to odd hybrids of identity for campers of Judith Klausner’s generation. “I still had some of the ditziest girls you’ll ever come across, because, 14-year-old girls!” Judith says of her experience as a counselor. One camper, she says, came across in groups as an image-conscious teenybopper, but when talked to individually revealed a surprising depth of awareness. “And it just came out of nowhere!” she marvels. “So a lot of times [it helps] if you at least grow up in environments where they at least have tidbits of social consciousness, even if it’s not fully developed—but you will [also] come up against people who just don’t care about politics, and that’s okay too.”
The transformation at Kinderland from blocs of Red to shades of blue, as it were, began shortly after Hershl and Henry’s adolescent years at camp. Joe Dorinson, who attended Kinderland in the early fifties, offers a gloss of the transformation in one of the camp’s anniversary yearbooks. “Yiddishkeit, socialism, brotherhood and above all, generational harmony seemed a palatable potpourri in Roosevelt-Browder 1930s,” he writes. “In Eisenhower-McCarthy 1950s, cracks in the synthesis began to show.” From the perspective of the era’s campers, the synthesis first cracked under the weight of its own contradictions. Esti Reiter, also a camper in the early fifties, encapsulates her generation’s argument in another yearbook article: “Our parents had been radicalized as a result of their experience as Jews. But, we asked, if Kinderland stands for the ‘brotherhood’ of all peoples, if we really believe in internationalism, then why are we learning Yiddish?”
The next crack came from the outside. In 1954, Kinderland’s sponsor, the IWO, was liquidated by the state of New York for being “subversive,” and Kinderland, now without financial support, was ordered to pay off its mortgage or be liquidated itself. Contributions from the camp’s supporters saved it economically, but the New York State Committee on Labor and Education, a statewide version of HUAC, subpoenaed several of Kinderland’s directors. On the stand, much-beloved Dance and Program Director Edith Segal delivered an impromptu lecture on Jewish history, sang Yiddish labor songs, and, according to what may or may not be legend, danced before the committee. Unable to convict Kinderland’s administration of more than the dissemination of Yiddish poetry, the committee ended the hearings.
Throughout the McCarthy era, Kinderland’s attendance was decimated by the fear of association with a camp singled out as a haven for subversives. Those who kept coming experienced a muted version of camp under the cautious leadership of Elsie Suller, Kinderland’s director at the time. In the name of security Suller cracked down on Cuban flags hung in bunks and protests of the Rosenberg executions. At the same time, the American Communist movement was collapsing in on itself, fragmenting what remained of Kinderland’s original affiliations. In 1956 in the USSR, Khrushchev denounced Stalin, and at Kinderland, Color War became the Peace Olympics. Teams were named for countries in the Security Council—the U.S., France, the Soviet Union, England, Italy—rather than for Communist leaders, as they had been a few years earlier. During World War II, unlucky campers had sometimes even been drafted to play for the Fascists during Color War, although they were highly encouraged not to win. Now it had become harder to see the political landscape as a moral binary, and camp, along with the rest of the Old Left, was forced to reinvent itself or risk fighting on the wrong team.
At Kinderland, the idea of the New Left as the rebellious progeny of its Stalinist parents came to literal fruition. The era of looking nice while demonstrating was on its way out for the campers who came of age in the sixties, leaving the older generation of parents and Kinderland staff temporarily bewildered. “There was certainly conflict with the administration at the time about the drug use, the long hair,” says Alice Shechter, who was until recently Kinderland’s full-time director, and now acts as Administrative Director. “That sort of thing was somewhat frowned on by the administration until they caught up with themselves.”
Elsie Suller, a former Communist Party member who had been, according to Judith Rosenbaum, “embittered by Khrushchev’s speech,” facilitated the camp’s transformation from Stalinist orthodoxy to the New Left’s emphasis on personal freedom. Her staff’s eventual willingness to embrace the tumult of the sixties breathed new life into Kinderland. Groups like SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) became for campers and staff what the IWO had once been; civil rights demonstrations and Freedom Rides to the South replaced the May Day parades and Henry Wallace campaign rallies that Kinderlanders had attended en masse in Hershl and Henry’s day. Internally, camp went from having a highly structured curriculum rooted in the shule system, to a more flexible daily program that downplayed the roles of Yiddish culture and Jewish identity, emphasizing multi-culturalism instead. The younger generation had won out, and they had persuaded their elders to join them.
Concomitant to these changes in ideology, Kinderland families were moving up in the world. Some fell out of the progressive fold altogether; especially during the Red Scare, the attempt to mobilize upwardly was not aided by a questionable political past. In 1951, Henry spotted a familiar face in his UCLA general chemistry class. “I looked at this guy and I called him by name and I said, ‘We were bunkmates at Camp Kinderland!’ and he says, ‘Shhh! I don’t want anyone to hear about it, I have nothing to do with that commie outfit!’ And that was it. He has since become a lawyer and I haven’t crossed paths with him.” And yet Henry himself has become a successful professor of psychiatry. Like many Kinderland graduates, he ascended the American status ladder without the classic move to the right. The campers that followed, those who grew up in the sixties and seventies, made up Kinderland’s first generation of widespread privilege. For many, this meant not only financial privilege but also the privilege to be “out” about their political views, and even to expect compatible views from others.
For Sophia Heller, like other members of the ‘incestuous shtetl,’ this tale of demographic change is also family history. Sophia’s step-great-grandparents were Sonia and Ben Itzkowitz, two of Kinderland’s founders. Her grandmother held Communist Party meetings at her home on Coney Island; as a child, Sophia once walked in and everyone became deathly silent until her grandmother said, it’s okay, she’s one of us. This was in the seventies, but precautions forged in the shadow of McCarthyism apparently die hard. Sophia’s parents were socially conscious upper middle class Upper West Siders who enrolled her in French private school and took her to Europe every summer. They also briefly sent her to Kinderland, although at that point she was still too young to appreciate the difference between learning to swim and putting white peace cranes in the lake on Hiroshima Day. “It was just a way of being,” she says. Some combination of camp and family, though, imprinted her early on with a connection to progressive history that she assumed other people shared. Unlike campers of earlier generations, she was not immediately divested of that assumption upon stepping into the outside world. “Everyone’s parents were fairly well-educated,” she says of her Kinderland peers. “They weren’t rich, but they came from middle class or upper middle class families.” When high school rolled around, they went to New York’s “really good public schools”—Stuyvesant, Hunter, Bronx Science. Around the time Sophia went to Kinderland, her mother enrolled her in Hebrew school, and through her Hebrew school friends she eventually became involved in Young Judea, a Zionist youth movement. “It was much more mainstream,” she says. “A completely different world of Judaism.” On days that she had Young Judea events early in the morning, her mother didn’t wake her up.
The Kinderland of
Sophia’s youth in the seventies was a natural outgrowth of its sixties
incarnation, and, like much of the country’s counterculture, experienced the
decade as a kind of collective hangover. One of the camp’s main challenges of
the era, however, had little to do with larger historical currents. By the late
sixties the physical condition of Kinderland had deteriorated considerably,
thanks to a lack of funds for maintenance work and the conversion of Sylvan Lake
into a public beach, complete with motor boats and oil slicks. In 1971,
Kinderland sold its Hopewell Junction site to a developer, and thus began five
years of wandering through the desert of rented summer camps. After stints in
Fitchville, Connecticut, and Honesdale, Pennsylvania, Kinderland settled in
The moving process cost Kinderland many campers—“we were down to 56 kids or something,” Judith Rosenbaum says. But the camp’s shrunken attendance was also the result of a less tangible form of aimlessness. As Mitch Silver puts it in a yearbook essay, “the low political energy of the times perplexed the Camp Soul and troubled the Camp Mind.” The exhilaration of youth revolution had fizzled out, and with the exception of a few older administrators, the Yiddish-infused spirit of the camp’s earlier generations was gone. By some accounts, campers had become materialistic products of their upwardly mobile homes; by others, they were simply too drugged out to care. Some of Kinderland’s staff, meanwhile, was torn between factions of the New Left, SDS and its more radical offshoot, the RU (Revolutionary Union). The Peace Olympics, always the barometer for Kinderland’s political climate, became little more than song and dance.
Rosenbaum credits Mitch Silver, an SDS-nik at the time, for helping to rescue the camp from political oblivion in the early eighties. Silver, in turn, praises “Camp’s Great Helmswoman” Alice Shechter and the combined forces of Kinderlanders for the turnaround. “Ever the Vanguard…campers and staff spearheaded the introduction of feminism, environmentalism, and Gay liberation into Camp’s program,” he writes. “The new political winds did not blow away Camp’s traditional devotion to labor, anti-militarism, and racial equality. Indeed the old values took on a new life from the energies brought by the new movements.” National liberation politics became a touchstone issue; teams in the Peace Olympics were named for countries engaged in liberation struggles. “The Philipines were a team one year,” Rosenbaum remembers, “when Marcos was overthrown. The kids were like, ‘we did it, we did it!’”
Gradually, nations in the Peace Olympics gave way to issues, as human rights succeeded internationalism as the center of Kinderland discourse. The first year Judith Klausner went to camp, every team represented a strike; Judith was on the Flint Michigan Sit-Down Strike team. “In the nineties the left became more fragmented but less factionalized,” Judith Rosenbaum says. Rather than the IWO decrying the Workman’s Circle, or SDS rebelling against the Old Left, earth activists and gay activists get together for anti-war rallies. The factionalism that remains, Rosenbaum believes, stems from interest groups wanting “their” issue to take precedence in the laundry list of progressive crusades. Mirroring this trend towards piecemeal politics, campers can choose from a list of Choices—elective political crash courses taught by CITs on topics ranging from the military industrial complex to the war on drugs. When Judith Klausner was a CIT, she and a friend ran a Choice on gay marriage.
“We’re not creating little party members or soldiers in the Revolution,” says Alice Shechter. “I don’t think we’re either brainwashing or teaching in depth. We’re painting in very broad strokes what we think is right. Mainstream society will expose them to the other side.” Even if they wanted to enlist their campers in a revolution, the Kinderland administration would be hard-pressed to find one. Like the fairies in a classic tale that has nothing to do with pansexuality and everything to do with Peter Pan, every time someone says, “I don’t believe in revolutions,” somewhere a revolution dies. Activists can only clap their hands so hard.
One wonders what Hershl and Henry would think of Judith Klausner’s Kinderland experience, and what Judith would think of theirs. The ideological, demographic, and cultural changes that have taken place at Kinderland over the past sixty years have, in a sense, transformed the camp beyond recognition. But Kinderland’s generations are familiar, and in many cases familial, with each other to a degree unusual in eighty-year-old institutions (although perhaps somewhat more common in the world of Jewish summer camps). Hershl met his wife, May, through mitlshule (after-school Yiddish high school) and camp; in the ‘semi-incestuous shtetl,’ he says, this was not uncommon. Some of the children produced in Kinderland marriages attended camp, and some of those went on to marry other second-generation Kinderlanders. The cycle has in a few cases continued into the third and perhaps even the fourth generation of campers.
Whether or not there are campers who have four sets of Kinderland-graduate great-grandparents, the spirit of Hershl and Henry’s generation hangs over Judith’s like the branches of a family tree. Over the decades pieces of zeitgeist have been dropped and new ones picked up, but—with some notable exceptions—few have been completely abandoned. In recent years, labor unions, youth movements, and civil liberties, past and present, have each had their place in the limelight of Kinderland’s cultural program; a list of bunks reads like an activist iconography stretching from Harriet Tubman to Paul Robeson to Goodman, Cheney, and Schwerner, a group of Jewish and African-American teenagers lynched for registering black voters in the South. Even Yiddish, in the form of songs and folktales, has tenuously remained a part of camp.
Conscious of its own place in the history it relates, Kinderland’s version of leftist causes past reads like a memoir, presenting a movingly personal account of many historical episodes but skimming past some embarrassing moments. For Judith and some of her peers among the camp’s younger generation, the “glossing over” of Kinderland’s one-time support of Stalinism and Maoism constitutes a problematic revision of history. “They’re kind of not fessing up about the fact that camp does have its roots in the Communist party and that, oops, we were wrong,” she says. “And I think that that’s hypocritical in an institution that’s very, very big about pointing out that the U.S. glosses over all the places where it went wrong, like Japanese internment and the Spanish Civil War… that’s a problem and I think that’s something we need to fess up to really, and teach about, because that’s also the part of history that the parents are glossing over.”
Recently, Judith says, her father has begun to express regret at having supported the Soviet Union uncritically in his youth; likewise, Kinderland has since the eighties held a yearly commemoration of Soviet Yiddish writers killed under Stalin. The persecution of Soviet Jews was, until that time, a particularly touchy subject at a camp that identified as both Communist and Jewish. The executions were first denied, and then ignored, until the commemoration was added to Kinderland’s program—conveniently, the internal conflict that had led to embarrassed silence could be inverted so that Jewishness (instead of former Communist affiliation) occupied the foreground of identity, and Kinderland could remain, if not on the side of the victors, at least on the side of the victims.
Counter to this trend of sobering reassessments, Judith Rosenbaum observes that in the past fifteen years, a desire for “harder-core politics” has emerged among some of Kinderland’s younger staff members. “They want to be communist but they don’t know what that means,” she says. “There’s an absence of ideology on the left in general. It used to be, Marx said this, Mills said this—nowadays, nobody quotes anybody.” Filling this void, perhaps, are the identity politics dear to many of Judith Klausner’s contemporaries. “In [Kinderland’s] early days, the political was personal,” Rosenbaum says. “Now the personal is political. Being a Marxist was part of your life. When I was a teenager, in my group there was a guy going out with a girl in the group. They had a criticism session of him saying that his girlfriends were always petite blondes, which meant he was a chauvinist. People tried to live their lives by their political principles. People would say, ‘As a Communist….’”
The idea of identity as a matter of choice—for one’s all-important status as a Communist or a chauvinist to be determined by one’s words and deeds—permeated self-definition for the “political is personal” crowd with whom Rosenbaum grew up. For the “personal is political” generation, which at Kinderland most likely includes the counselors calling for a return to Marxism, identity is more variegated but less mutable. Many of today’s radical children of means—including the eighty to ninety percent of Kinderland campers that Rosenbaum estimates are white and fairly well-off—could recognize the inescapability of their privilege all day if given the chance. The encouragement by Judith Klausner and other counselors to explore the boundaries of gender and sexual norms, then, is the icing on identity politics’ forty-year-old birthday cake: the creation of guilt-free unity among privileged campers through a highlighting of individual difference. Compare this to the content of a letter Judith Rosenbaum received several years ago from a Kinderland graduate, ten years older than Hershl, who said he had “the bitterest memories of Kinderland because he couldn’t come out [as a gay man]. He would have been seen as an outsider,” Rosenbaum recalls. “He felt that if he came out he would have been criticized as a deviant, as anti-Marxist.”
“There is a good Yiddish word, hemshekh. (All Yiddish words are good; every Yiddish word spoken is a blow against cultural fascism),” writes Gerry Tenney, a camper in the 60s, in a yearbook essay entitled, “I Was a Red Diaper Teenager.” “Hemshekh means continuity. The Kinderland connection that we feel is based on the desire to keep the values of camp alive, to give to the next generation the lessons and experiences of the past. Through all the trials and tribulations of the progressive movement in general and the progressive Jewish movement in particular, we were able to prosper, to keep our focus on the goal of a just society and away from sectarian squabbles.”
Although it might be an overstatement to say that Kinderland never saw a sectarian squabble it liked, Tenney is right in a larger sense: that the camp is still alive, and still embodying the value of hemshekh, is a small miracle in a world of imploded progressive movements and assimilated Jews. But then again the essence of Kinderland may never have been its affiliation with a specific political movement. As Yiddishist organizations that made difference an integral part of their credo, institutions like the JPFO and Kinderland were always a thing apart from the Communist party’s mainstream. But the JPFO did not survive McCarthyism (and most likely would have died of old age shortly thereafter), nor has the shule system prospered in recent years. Kinderland, then, is differentiated both by its cultural origins and by something else, something that makes those origins compelling even to sophisticated parents and kids today. Barbara Cohen, a camper in the fifties, proffers an explanation. “It would be a very dry thing to have a social conscience without the joy, the music, the dance,” she writes. “I think I only recently fully ‘got it’—how the fierce immigrant struggle for justice intertwined with the impassioned creative sprit.”
The social conscience of Kinderland’s founders—the fight for self-preservation both as a distinct group and as workers of the world—could be seen as the original identity politic, a fusion of the political and the personal into one entity with no clear order of operations. Take two Jews, they say, and you get three opinions: “Jewish progressivism is a heritage, it runs through your veins.” “Jewish progressivism is a belief system, the result of your political commitment to a particular set of values.” “Jewish progressivism is a metaphor, a way to feel the present more deeply through the experiences of your ancestors.” And all three would probably be right. Unlike members of identity groups constituted along lines of race or gender, to identify as a progressive Jew—or a Jew, or a progressive—in 2005 is a matter of choice; on the other hand, the effects of collective memory on one’s worldview cannot be discounted. Or, as Judith Klausner succinctly puts it, “Part of the reason that we have this responsibility to be socially active is that we’re Jewish.”
The joy, the music, the dance. Piano music, an old Yiddish folk song, drifts out the window of the Los Angeles Yiddish Culture Club to the terrace where I am sitting with Henry and Hershl. “If you look at the obituaries and the eulogies in Jewish Currents [a progressive Jewish monthly],” Henry is saying, “it’s like a Who’s Who of Camp Kinderland people.” Hershl chuckles darkly. The two of them are part of a stalwart group of old camp friends who fly across the country for each other’s simkhes, and, increasingly, each other’s funerals. Not just Kinderland graduates but the whole mishpokhe of people schmoozing inside the Culture Club are among the last of their tribe. It could be said, perhaps, that in the battle of wooden and aluminum boats, Camp Kinder Ring won (albeit not today’s Kinder Ring, an apolitical sports camp). The descendents of an earlier Kinderland fit, by and large, into the Workmen’s Circle vision of progressive Jewish America—their values are strong but their Yiddish is weak. And even Hershl now serves on the District Committee of the Southern California Workmen's Circle.
Having survived success with politics relatively intact, there seems to be little danger that the younger generations will reject those values outright, but more that, having lost their secret language, they will continue to slip away from each other and from the fierceness of their grandparents’ struggles and joys. Only in the movies, now, does anyone ride on the Staten Island Ferry at midnight, singing “Freiheit” at the top of their lungs.
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