Podcast / On The Nose
On the Nose is our biweekly podcast. The editorial staff discusses the politics, culture, and questions that animate today’s Jewish left.
Camp Kinderland at 100
Duration
0:00 / 57:18
Published
August 3, 2023

In 1923, Jewish union activists affiliated with the Workmen’s Circle bought a plot of land in Hopewell Junction, New York, aiming to provide working-class children with an escape from the city. The camp, which was founded with a commitment to Yiddish and to instilling leftist values, broke with the socialist Workmen’s Circle several years later, as it came to be affiliated with the Communist Party. Over the years, everything that touched the left made its mark on the camp—from the Spanish Civil War to McCarthyism to the emergence of the New Left. In honor of Kinderland’s centennial, editor-in-chief Arielle Angel spoke with longtime Kinderlanders (and JC councilmembers) Judee Rosenbaum and Mitchell Silver about the legacy of Communism in camp, the difference between education and indoctrination, what’s changed at camp in the last 100 years, and why it’s survived this long. For more information on the Camp Kinderland Centennial, click here.

Thanks to Jesse Brenneman for producing and to Nathan Salsburg for the use of his song “VIII (All That Were Calculated Have Passed).”

Articles mentioned and further reading:

Camp Kinderland Centennial Anniversary

What We Did: How the Jewish Communist Left Failed the Palestinian Cause” by Dorothy Zellner, Jewish Currents


Transcript

Arielle Angel: For our next episode, we’re going to try something new for On the Nose. We’re going to do our first mailbag episode: Send in any questions you have for the Jewish Currents editors––anything at all that’s on your mind that you’d like to hear from us on––and we’ll do our best to answer them. Send written questions or voice notes if you want to be on the air to Editor@JewishCurrents.org with the subject line MAILBAG and include your name or initials and location. If you send a voice note, please quickly summarize your question in the body of the email as well. We’re going to be recording this probably around August 10 or 11, so don’t wait: Send in your questions now. Looking forward to reading them!

[Excerpts from episode]

Judee Rosenbaum: I mean, you blink your eye and there’s something new and you have to learn how to––

Mitchell Silver: You Millennials talk about––well, people 10, 15 years younger than us––

AA: They are way ahead of us, but they’re also way behind us.

MS: Various social skills, I’m sure.

Arielle Angel Yeah. They don’t have sex.

JR: Oh, no. Right.

AA: The younger generation doesn’t have sex.

JR: Kids in camp, you know––I’m talking about teens and 20s––they have sex. But the person to ask is somebody who’s about 40 years younger than I am.

MS: But we’ll make up shit. It’s like true as attested to by the person who’s bullshitting it. [crosstalk] Well, I may never lie, but I stray from the truth quite frequently. [crosstalk]

JR: I’m very upset to hear that. Seriously, like when I think about people who have an annoying amount of integrity, I think of you.

MS: Well, I find as many different ways of being as annoying as I possibly can.

[intro music]

AA: Okay, so I’m going to start: Judee, you want to pick up your mic?

JR: Okay.

AA: Welcome back to On the Nose, the Jewish Currents podcast. I’m your host, Arielle Angel, Editor in Chief of Jewish Currents. I’m here today with two very special guests. Actually, we’re recording in person, which is a treat. I’m here with Judee Rosenbaum and Mitchell Silver. They are both members of the JC Council, which is the body that grew out of the editorial board of Jewish Currents under the previous editor, Larry Bush, and who now still work on the magazine with us and discus it with us after every issue. But I’m talking to them today about Camp Kinderland, which was founded in 1923. Founded by Jewish labor activists.

JR: Connected to the Workmen’s Circle.

AA: Connected to the Workmen’s Circle, Camp Kinderland turns 100 this year. They’ve been through a lot, and a lot has been brought into camp, from the Spanish Civil War to McCarthyism through to the New Left. And obviously, we’re in kind of a new political moment now. So I wanted to talk with Judee and Mitch. Judee was a camper at Kinderland, and Mitch joined later as an adult. So I wanted to talk to them today about Kinderland, which has also intersected with the Jewish Currents community over the years. So I guess the first question is, maybe you could both give us a collaborative history of Camp Kinderland?

JR: Should I yield to you, Mitchell, or do you want to wait to contradict me later?

MS: I’m always happy to be yielded to, myself, so if you want, let me start off with the thesis and you can come in with the antithesis. So my sense of the founding is that there were Jewish activists who were, by and large, members of Der Arbeter Ring before Der Arbeter Ring had what we might call a left-right split, although those labels are, of course, imprecise and changing all the time.

AA: By left-right, you mean more socialist and more communist?

MS: Well, it was people, I think, that split over a number of issues, but primarily, their attitude towards the October Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. It took a while before the various organizations and groups that all considered themselves Jewish socialists really sorted themselves out. So when Kinderland formed in ’23, my understanding is that the individuals that took it upon themselves to find a campground and create something for kids in the summer were people who were on the way to, or ultimately became, associated with the communists.

JR: According to one of the founders––one of the people who bought the camp––the Arbeter Ring tasked a group of people with finding a camp for kids. They found this place in 1923. They set up the camp, they rented the place, the first year was successful. But when they went to the board of Der Arbeter Ring and said, “Let’s buy the place, this is great” the Arbeter Ring said, “No, we’re not going to give you the money for that.” Now, this is where we get into disputed territory. There were all these stories––there’s the kartoffel story, which is probably apocryphal,

AA: What is that story, Judy?

JR: The story is that they went to the Arbeter Ring and they said, “Look, the camp was successful. We made $5,000 in one summer, let’s buy it.” And the Arbeter Ring said nothing until–what’s his name? The head of The Forward?

AA: Abe Cahan.

JR: Until Abe Cahan said, “And what language are the children going to use in camp?” And they said, “Well, we want it to be a Yiddish-speaking camp.” And Cahan said, “What are you going to teach them? You’re going to teach them to say kartoffel instead of potatoes?” They said, “Of course.” And he said, “No, they have to learn how to say potatoes, because we want them to assimilate into the greater American culture. We cannot support a camp that is going to be a Yiddish speaking camp.”

AA: Wait, let me just clarify a few things. The original Kinderland was a Yiddish camp?

JR: Oh, yes.

AA: And how long was it in Yiddish?

JR: Until the ‘50s. You could not work as a counselor or a group leader unless you spoke Yiddish. Didn’t have to be a primary language, but you had to know how to speak it up until maybe ‘49. or so. There were Shola classes. I mean, we have visual proof, we have pictures.

MS: I think that the Abe Cahan story may not be apocryphal, I have no idea. But it’s very believable. But my reading of the history, actually, is that the role of Yiddish, while always prominent in Kinderland’s history, would fluctuate with the Communist Party’s line on nationalism, which was not always consistent through all that period. And that there were debates, among some of the cultural leaders in Kinderland at times: Is Yiddish a tactic for reaching the Jewish masses that has no intrinsic value? Or people that had more of a Bundist line, which was that even after the revolution, there’ll be a multicultural world, and the Jewish people have a right to have their cultural creations there. My sense is that the heart of most of the people involved in Kinderland were with those nationalists (for want of a better term), you know, those people that felt that Yiddish––Jewish culture, Jewish secular culture, in particular and more specifically, the Yiddish language––had value as a cultural artifact and expression of the soul of the Jewish people. And that was intrinsically valuable. And that’s who kind of dominated in camp. But of course, as party members, if the line was to deemphasize it, there ended up being disputes in camp, and the role of Yiddish would sometimes wax and wane. At least that’s what I’ve seen from what I’ve read from various debates on it.

AA: Well, Judee, when was your first year at camp?

JR: My first year at camp? I was little. It was ’45.

AA: So you lived some of this.

JR: I lived some of this.

AA: Does this sound familiar to you?

JR: I would know nothing of the debates among the directorium at that point. Everything Mitchell said is true. But there’s a big piece missing: The people who were Yiddish-dominant––the people who believed that Yiddish was very important––saw it as an expression of the hopes and dreams and daily life of working class people who were secular and progressive, as opposed to either Polish, Russian, or Hebrew. It was a revolt against those languages. And that’s the line when I came back a few years later. That’s the line as a preteen and a teenager that I heard and understood: Yiddish is the language of the working class, the language of the secular progressive working class. Now, when I was in camp, as a preteen? I mean, we didn’t speak Yiddish among ourselves. In 1967, in the height of the New Left and everything else going on, the CIT group put on a production of a play called A bunt mit a statshke, which––it’s an operetta, it’s all in Yiddish, you know? So there was still the sense that Yiddish is very important to us, because we are progressive left Jews. You know, secular Jews.

AA: Well, so I have 6,000 questions just based on all of the things that you’ve just said. But maybe one of the things that we can talk about is the Communist Party and the legacy of the Communist Party and McCarthyism in camp, how it affected camp. Because I know that it did affect it quite seriously at the time. I would love for you to talk a little bit about both how that affected camp and how camp survived the McCarthyist era, considering the way that communist life was totally destroyed in this country, and also about what the legacy of that kind of Stalinist ideology was on the camp.

JR: I should definitely let Mitchell speak for us so that I can disagree with him.

MS: I could speak better to the legacy. Judee probably could talk about what it felt like on the ground level, so to speak. I suspect that in some ways, Camp was damaged seriously––and helped––during the Stalinist period by being so closely associated with the Soviet Union, with Uncle Joe himself. But I feel like the legacy of it, ever since I was in camp––which started in 1976––has been mostly positive, ironically. I do remember a couple of incidents in which the Stalinist legacy interfered with what I thought should have happened at camp, that people were reluctant to engage in certain kinds of criticism and explore certain kinds of issues. My first years in camp, anything overtly critical of the Soviet Union didn’t feel comfortable. And here, we’re starting to develop human rights curricula, and––I don’t think we use this term––but what is essentially deep, radical democracy, and clearly, the Soviet Union would have been problematic from those perspectives. But we tended not to go there. Now, the whole national culture was going there more than enough, on the Soviet Union. So I personally felt it’s okay,

AA: And sorry, you were––

MS: At some points––I was called, for a long period of time, it was Cultural Director, so titularly in charge of this, but all these decisions at that level were made, to a certain extent, by the whole camp community, because everyone had input. But the people that even officially were trying to set the agenda was: me, in collaboration with a lot of people. It’s not like I had really any more clout than the Camp Director or senior staff, like Judee and other people. I didn’t have this personal Stalinist background––not that any of my contemporaries were Stalinist, but they may have been brought up in Stalinist households and had emotional feelings about it. That was not a burden for me.

But I want to emphasize why I think it was mostly positive and is even more positive today: It’s because it deeply ingrained a class perspective, and I think a class perspective has sometimes, for various understandable historical reasons, has been downgraded. Now, I’m not sure I know what class perspective means precisely in every political issue. I’m not sure I have a class analysis that applies to America today that I’m confident of. Nonetheless, broadly speaking, thinking that people whose labor is exploited is a key and central oppression: I think that sometimes, that perspective is lost on the left. And it’s a struggle, sometimes, I think, to emphasize it at camp. But because the songs the kids have learned, the plays they did, the stories they hear about Camp, so much emphasizes that it’s more in the bloodstream of Camp than other institutions that consider themselves progressive and radical today. So in an ironic way, as horrible as Stalinism is––and as rightly, in my view at least, the strong condemnation it deserves––in the camp context, in the American context where it never had state authority: I think at this point, it does Camp good.

JR: I want to go in two directions. First, I’ll talk about what it was like in camp. I remember that when I was maybe 11, I was on a team, and it was called the Ana Pauker team. And I had no idea who Ana Pauker was until about 10 years ago, when I found out she was some very high official in the Polish Communist Party.

MS: Most camps named their teams after high officials in the Polish Communist Party,

JR: You know, and that kind of approach continued up until the early 50s. But it was moderated or modified, I guess, because those early shtarker, their children began coming, and they had been brought up to understand that it wasn’t necessarily about Stalin––it was about the Soviet Union, because the Soviet Union is the defender of the working class, etc, etc. But in 1952, Camp had over 500 kids in it, and then came the investigation. And immediately after that, registration dropped from over 500, to just under 200. We have notes from a Board of Directors meeting during the winter of that time, talking about the fact that because registration is down, we can’t hire the staff we hired, and one of the speakers says, “We really need to let these people whom we’re not hiring know as soon as possible so that they can find other jobs, because many of them were relying on this for their paycheck.” Now, to me, that is such a good example of why I love working class consciousness. And Elsie, who is the director, actually hid books, took books out, had us take books off the shelves and things like that. But somehow, among us––the young people––there was a foolish lack of fear and anxiety. We have a ton of writing from people who were 12 to 18 at that time, saying, basically, “Thank God for Kinderland. It was where I could feel safe. It was where I could say who I was, be who I was at heart.”

AA: Do you think that that’s part of why Kinderland survived? Just the fact that it was a place for children and that there was a way in which a certain kind of safety could be preserved?

JR: And the parents felt that, and the directorium felt that.

MS: Socialism, at least late 19th and early 20th century socialism, was an ideology that just didn’t see itself about political and economic arrangements but saw itself as creating “the new person,” we’d say. And so it was a complete view of life, which meant creating working class culture, which meant choruses, which meant the way you did art, the way you did life, understanding that even your personal relationships should somehow be viewed in a socialist ideological context. And so a children’s camp is, in Gottman’s terms, a total institution, right? Everything got viewed through a lens of: How are we creating the kind of people that we envision for our utopia? That we’re politically organizing for? You know, for many years, I directed the play, and always one desideratum was: How does this play advance our agenda? Or support it? Or at least not contradict it? It was seen as this broad attempt to not just change ourselves but a vision of how human beings should live together.

We sometimes use this term in camp now “the little cultural program,” which means that politics are important, and what we teach and what we sing, but that it means nothing if it doesn’t also permeate what we consider our human relationships. And so, little things, like when you get a package of candy, you share candy—a “kassa,” we called it. That was always part of it: making it a place that is kind, a place that can be safe and exciting, so that people could experiment earlier than they did in other institutions. Like boys felt comfortable wearing, like, dresses; if this is what this person feels like doing, we’re not going to allow some sort of mocking, teasing. This is a place that you could try it. Not that I’m sure it was free of bullying, and I don’t know what went on in bunks and stuff. But you’d see people do stuff like that way earlier than you saw in the culture at large.

JR: We’re not perfect. I mean, there was a lot of bullying at one time. People come to camp for seven weeks out of 52 weeks of their lives––out of the big culture. Kids are still kids, teenagers are still teenagers, and I wouldn’t want us to be presenting ourselves as some kind of paradise, it’s just that we work to address it, where I think in the larger society, it’s glossed over or put aside or punished.

AA: A lot of the contemporary arguments playing out right now are about education, and particularly a term that the right has now adopted, Critical Race Theory, which obviously has its own meaning, but it’s become sort of a boogeyman on the national stage. And there’s this question about whether children are being indoctrinated with left-wing ideology in schools. Now, I think for the most part, it’s pretty clear to me that that is not a major concern. But I do think that in an organization that was affiliated with the Party in some kind of way, to the extent that Kinderland has an ideological agenda––that it had always, had been founded with an ideological agenda: How did you think about the line between allowing children to develop their own way of thinking through things and the ideology that the camp wanted to promote? I mean, where was the line? And do you have a sense of how people thought about those things in the days of the party, and actually, up until today?

JR: It’s always a question. The son of our former director, Aldous Grunfeld, he said, “The purpose of the camps program isn’t to indoctrinate; it’s to inspire.” That’s been kind of a lynchpin, an idea that I think works. Everything Mitch said before about the socialist ideal of how human beings should be: if that’s indoctrination––in other words, if teaching people that everyone is worthy of respect, that human beings have a bond, that the fruits of one’s labor should be enjoyed by one’s own self, that racism is not a good thing, that homophobia is not a good thing––I guess you could say that’s indoctrination, but I think it’s education. Every now and then, over the course of the past decades, let’s say we’re having an antiracist team, a camper will say, “You’re only telling one side of the story.” The answer to me, is “What’s the other side of the ‘racism is not a good thing’ story?” You know, “What’s the other side of ‘the Holocaust should never have happened’ story?” One summer we had teams of different organizations around New York. And one of the teams was the Young Lords––

AA: The Young Lords being?

JR: An organization at the same time as the Black Panthers for Latino rights. I wanted the Young Lords, Mitchell didn’t want the Young Lords. It doesn’t matter whether or not that had become a team, the issue would have still been how to treat people well.

AA: In other words, regardless of the individual groups and tactics and ideologies that goes along with a particular group, you would still be asking the question: How do we teach the liberation struggle for people in the United States?

MS: It was a theme that got picked.

JR: Right. And how do we maintain––I am going to use a word I’m not particularly fond of––how do we maintain a humanist approach? Because the point is, when children understand that they are worthy of respect (and other people around them need to get the same respect that they want), and when they learn to treat each other well, and they learn how important it is that people be well-treated? Other lessons come from that. A harder lesson, and we’ve struggled with this and it’s good, it goes back to what Mitchell was talking about, about working-class ideology. When we were doing Occupy, it was the summer of Occupy, and the camp was divided into Occupy Housing, Occupy, you know, different…

AA: Right, right. Got it.

JR: Okay. And kids on one of the themes, even some staff were like, “Why is it wrong for some people to have money? I mean, they own the factory.” So then you talk about it, you don’t say “No, it’s wrong.”

MS: Of course, you bring a perspective. And any institution that claims “We have no ideological perspective,” is either fooling themselves or haven’t reflected on it deeply. Right? There are assumptions that are in your practices. And to me, what’s the difference between education and indoctrination is that we’re together, we built this institution, because we do have common views. And we want to create an institution that reflects those, practices those, and tries to expand those and further those. But we’re not dogmatic, and not dogmatic in this sense: We don’t tell children “This is true. We know it’s true. And you have to accept it.” This is a catechism right? These are not articles of faith. This is our perspective. And we know our perspective is limited and has not been perfected yet. So everything we’re telling you is the best we believe now, and we want to explore it with you and show you what we think is right about it, and exciting, and you can explain your problems with it. So I always felt when I was talking to the kids that what was important was not that I said it, but that I’m prepared to explain why I believe it and I’m prepared to listen to them, why they find it unbelievable or problematic or wrong. We are together responsible. Liberation is a project we’re bringing you into as a partner, not as a work of the liberation, but we’re all trying to work out our common liberation together. And if that’s the perspective, that, it seems to me, entails a respect for the children that turns telling them about stuff into education, and not some form of brainwashing indoctrination.

JR: No staff member in Kinderland in the last 20 years at least––maybe 30––will say to a kid “Apologize. You have to apologize for what you did.”

AA: Wait––why not say that?

JR: Well, because if one person hurts another person, they have to understand why they hurt that person. And then if they understand that then they would want to tell the other person something.

AA: Right.

MS: It’s not a tight command institution; like what individual supervisors do with their staff, what individual counselors do with their kids, it’s not so closely monitored––

JR: Oh no, it is.

MS: Obviously individual personalities, individual values, some diversity too, certainly affects relationships. And I’m sure there’s way too much bullying that still occurs, I’m sure a camp that has many young counselors, things that Judy and I would consider foolish or not really a good thing to say to kids. I’m sure all that occurs, because it’s not a top-down command institution.

AA: So obviously, Kinderland is a camp of the Jewish left, and both of those things in the last 100 years have changed: Jewish has changed, and the Left has changed. And so, I wanted to ask about the way that that has changed Camp and what that means about who the campers are now versus who they were, and how we think about that change.

MS: Well, let’s do some obvious stuff first. It’s founded by people who are genuinely working class. Now, I’m not a demographer. I don’t know precisely the nature of the class profile of the Jewish people in America, but it’s certainly different than what it was in the 20s and 30s.

AA: They’re not overwhelmingly working class.

MS: So that’s one difference, right? They’re not the children of Yiddish speakers. Most cases, they’re not the grandchildren of native Yiddish speakers, at least. So that’s another huge difference just in terms of the Jewish population it’s calling upon. Over the years, I suspect that a much higher percentage of the campers and the families that go to camp have a heritage that’s not exclusively Jewish. I think the actual slogan of the camp has changed from calling itself a Jewish camp to a camp that honors its Jewish roots. Now, that’s a very significant difference. It’s not saying we’re Jewish, it’s saying we recognize and feel good about the fact that we came from the Jewish community. But it there’s a certain kind of distancing from the Jewish community in that phrasing to me. And the other thing that I think is important is what Jewish secularism meant when Camp began. It was clearly “We are anti-religious, we are rejecting religion as part of it.” Now, it’s more like, “Well, certainly we’re not traditionally religious in any way.” But there’s room for––and I think there’s lots of reasons for this, partly to do with the New Left’s relationship to New Age stuff––but from my perspective, there’s more acceptance of what often is called “spirituality.” It doesn’t affect camp greatly, but the Jewish population that goes on is no longer militantly anti spiritual.

AA: I mean, something that you’re saying, interestingly, is as it’s become less, quote, unquote, “jewish,” it’s become more Jewish, in a way, Big J, a small j. I mean, this has been a huge issue with Jewish Currents. As you know, the lineage of this kind of old party ideology––secular is a core thing, and I’m always asking myself––I understand what it meant, historically, to be secular. But today, obviously, that distinction, the idea of secular Judaism, in my personal opinion––Judee, you’re giving me a look already––doesn’t mean the same thing. I mean, the people in your generation, Judee, who had that secular outlook, didn’t socially reproduce their Judaism to the extent that people in my generation, who are now reclaiming Jewish Currents, for example, don’t come from that lineage. Because they had to kind of burn out of the mainstream Jewish establishment, or the day schools or whatever, in order to take up that mantle. A lot of people who were in the secular Jewish movement maybe two, three generations ago, their grandchildren are not interested in the Jewish community. It’s almost like when Yiddish was gone, and the cultural institutions were gone, and the Party was gone, there was nothing to hold on to. And so I just wonder about that legacy of secularism in the camp.

JR: You’re raising many, many interesting points. It’s hard, because I don’t want to offend.

MS: Offend!

JR: Secularism rose centuries ago in response to religious orthodoxy, right? To pose secularism against spirituality is harder. It’s mushier––

AA: Than to counterpose it to orthodox religion. Yeah.

JR: And what you said about you know, absent organizational support, absent some kind of organizational framework, people search to find what they can where they can and sometimes fall into one thing or into another that they wouldn’t necessarily have fallen into. To me personally––and this is not Camp’s position, this is Judee’s position––it’s hard for me to say this because of how much respect I have for you, Arielle.

AA: No, please. When have you ever held back with me?

JR: I think spirituality is a distraction from the work that needs to be done to make a better world. And I think secularism is part of doing that work to make a better world. I don’t mean that people shouldn’t be spiritual, it’s terrible, it distracts them from the liberation of the working class (which it does)––

AA: But that’s not like––

JR: No, no, but that isn’t exactly what I mean, because it needn’t! It needn’t. I mean, there’s this group called UNCOR––the United Council of Resistance––that’s been around in Camp for like 37 years. Almost none of the kids in it were young people. 50% people in their mid 20s. Few of them consider themselves spiritual. But two of our strongest people are kind of spiritual, but it’s a limited spirituality. They might even believe in tarot, but they wouldn’t bring it to camp.

AA: This is a personal dig at me because I’m learning Tarot right now. But I’m not talking about––I mean, leave the occult out of it for a second, I’m just talking about Jewishness.

JR: Okay, so when Mitchell’s wife, Ora, worked in camp as an office worker and then as a director and dance teacher and the many, many things she did, she did Shabbat. And we struggled, we struggled with it, and we were wrong to have to struggle. It was wrong of us to have to struggle. But our first reaction to it was kind of sticking our noses up in the air.

MS: When you say “Our first reaction,” whose?

JR: Mine, Alice’s even, you know.

AA: That was the camp director, right?

JR: Right. Especially when it turned out that there were kids who wanted to do it with her. I mean, that was it when she was doing it herself, nobody cared. But when kids wanted to do it with her, we got anxious. Then it turned out that among the very few kids who wanted to do it with her anyway was one of the most radical kid in camp

AA: Which, by the way, Judy, that kind of thing goes together a lot these days. And I know that in the Jewish Currents community, a lot of our most radical folks are observant.

MS: In defense of Ora, for the record, I want to know that she does light Shabbos candles, we light them regularly, but she’s as much of an atheist as anyone.

JR: I do know. I do know that. The Kinder show I teach at, we celebrate Hanukkah, we celebrate Purim, we celebrate Pesach, without God. And at Camp, when Mitchell was the Cultural Director at Camp, or even before you, Mitch, we would sometimes do Purim in July.

AA: But what makes it Jewish today?

JR: Today, it doesn’t call itself Jewish, as Mitchell pointed out, but for some bizarre reason––and I have no idea where it comes from or why––Mitchell started, after dinner, after kids’ hangout, for a while there’s something called Share, where the whole camp gets together. And one of the things Mitchell started at that (I think it’s you who started it) was the Yiddish Word of the Day. So every day, somebody would get up, teach the camp a Yiddish word, and then they’d forget it. And that was it. For some reason, that’s taken on a new life in the past seven, eight years.

AA: So the revival of Yiddish has kind of taken hold.

JR: Right. So it used to be just Mitchell. Now, it’s like there’s a cohort of kids who graduated from the kinderschule, they get up, they teach it. And then the next day, they say, “Who remembers what you learned yesterday?” and we post the words in the dining room. So it grew. And I’m not saying that makes it a Jewish camp. I’m gonna first adumbrate the Jewishness part of it. When camp was a Jewish camp, kids sang English songs, they sang Yiddish songs, they sang African songs, they sang Spanish songs, they sang Italian songs. Now that camp is so much less of a Yiddish camp. They sing English songs and some Yiddish songs.

AA: Yeah, none of the internationalist stuff.

JR: Except when guest performers come up and sing with them. It seems to me that the less Jewish it becomes, the less internationalist it becomes.

AA: But I don’t think that that’s so strange, because I think that there’s a way that sometimes particularism opens a tunnel. Like, if you have a place that you’re standing that’s specific. You have a way to engage with all of these.

JR: Oh, no, no, I 100% agree. I am not less Jewish. And my position has always been that I go to people as a secular-left Jew. Not as a secular-left woman, not as the secular-left person, not as a secular-left, you know, whatever––I go as a secular left Jew.

MS: I want to get back to your question about reproduction, I think it’s a really important question. Camp, I think, is very much only a Jewish camp at this point, and it’s been dwindling. It may not be a bad thing––you know, institutions change. But it seems to me that if you’re going to socially reproduce something that we might call Jewish people, certainly religion has proven it can do that, right? And various religious traditions match to reproduce aspects that they don’t think they change. Of course, they’re always changing. The most ultraorthodox today are not what traditional Jews were, by any means. There’s no getting away from change. But what I do think is possible is that you can reproduce Jews by making them identify deeply with Jewish history. Now, identifying deeply does not mean approving of all aspects of it, but it does mean a knowledge of it. And by Jewish history, I don’t just mean some narrative of events. To know Jewish history, you have to know what the Talmud is. You don’t know Jewish history if you don’t know the difference between Mishnah and Gomorrah.

On the other hand, you may know Mishnah and Gemara, but if you don’t know about Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow, and Bernard Malamud, and Cynthia Ozick—

AA: And Grace Paley—

MS: —and Grace Paley, and these people––that’s Jewish history, and if you don’t know about Smolenskin––you don’t have to be a Zionist, but you need to know. I’m not saying that everyone’s gonna know all about it, but all of that is grist for the historical consciousness. And if you can make people say, “This is a story that I come from,” and not necessarily biologically, you know, but “This is a story I choose to identify with.” If you can identify with that history, and be made a part of it, and see yourself as continuing it in new routes, but you are a continuation of that narrative, I think that that is potentially reproducible.

Now, I want to put in the context, you also feel connected to all of human history, because the liberation struggle is about all of us. Right? But that your particular story that you’re interested in, that you bring to the larger human story, is history. And I think because of certain aspects––in part because of its Marxist socialist ideology that it didn’t see that religion went way beyond or contains more than supernatural beliefs––it can change the history of a people, was intertwined with the religion, and so that we needed to adapt them. Obviously, the Purim in July and the Passover in August was all small attempts at that. But I don’t think people realized (and no fault of their own, it just wasn’t available as an idea perhaps) that we could have done a better job. And I’m not in despair that it’s impossible to do again, because things always change. So that would be my hope, if honoring our Jewish roots is more than we just don’t want to offend all time. It’s like Mitchell and Judee, if honoring our Jewish roots means we’re going to do something that’s more than the tokenism––you know, a Yiddish word every now and the and a couple of Yiddish songs––then we have to find a way to reintroduce Jewish historical consciousness along with class consciousness.

AA: Judee–

JR: There’s a lot I’d like to say. I agree with Mitchell’s basic premise. I disagree with some of his examples. I mean, I agree that it’s transmittable, and I agree that you have to know the history. I will take the opportunity to probably misquote Elie Wiesel, who said, “The mission of the Jewish people has never been to make the world more Jewish. It’s been to make the world more humane.” I love that quote, and I use it again in the kinderschule all the time.

AA: Notorious anti-Palestinian racist.

JR: Wait a minute. It’s a good example, in a way, oddly enough, of my approach to some of the things Mitch said. And it’s something that younger people need to learn: That you take what’s helpful to you. Here are these weeds, but in the middle of the weeds is this beautiful flower: “I’m not going to touch that, it’s in the middle of weeds!”

AA: And the flower is what?

JR: In this particular case, it was the quote by Elie Wiesel. In my secular, progressive, left-wing Kinder shul, we use the Talmud, we use biblical laws, but we use the ones that are helpful to us, the ones that say, “You shall not return an enslaved person to his master.” Oh, good, that’s a great quote! Do we use the one that says, “Kill all the Gentiles?” No, not unless we’re teaching the fact that, “Oh, look! Look at the Bible, it’s full of contradictions.” Talking about knowing your Jewish history, you leap straight from biblical days to Philip Roth, your favorite author, and Saul Bellow, and forget about the fact that in Kinderland, the kids still read and act out plays by, and stories by, Sholem Aleichem and Peretz, who I think are the roots of secular Jewish-left thinking, you know? Jewish actors, Jewish writers––who gives a shit unless they have something to say to us that is worthwhile hearing and listening to.

MS: I do disagree. I think that to really create Jewish identity, it can’t be cherry picking. There are these heroes, right? There are these good models. I think we should learn more about the fact that part of Jewish tradition is a genocidal struggle that’s fucking playing itself out now on the West Bank.

AA: This is my second-to-last question. Maybe you’ll let me get to it, because a lot of the assumptions I’m drawing about Kinderland come from Jewish Currents, and what I’ve encountered taking over Jewish Currents in the last five years, and getting to know a history that––as you both know, I’m not from that history. I went to a day school, a conservadox day school in probably the most rabidly fascist, Zionist place in the country, which is Miami, Florida, what I call the epicenter of Jewish fascism in the United States.

JR: And look at you now.

AA: And look at me now. But Jewish Currents had a really mixed history on Israel, right? Dorothy Zellner, who we know and love, wrote about this in Jewish Currents in a piece called “What We Did” that we’ll link in the show notes, just about how the Communist Party followed the Soviet Union line and embraced Israel, basically for geopolitical reasons. And that also provided a cover for Jewish communists to basically express their nationalism for the first time, because the Soviet Union hadn’t allowed them, or the Party hadn’t allowed that––suddenly, it was allowed, and it sort of provided an outlet. This is Dorothy’s reading. And you know, we inherited a Jewish Currents that was very much, I would say, liberal Zionist.

MS: There were a lot of anti-Zionists in Camp for many decades.

AA: Well, I’m just curious about that. I mean, you wrote, Mitchell, in your history of Camp, which I read, that they were always quote, unquote, “shy”––that was the word that you used––about bringing Israel/Palestine stuff into camp. And so I wanted to hear about the way that this issue may have been kind of carved out of the broader social justice bent of the camp and how it sounds like recently, it’s been infused back in.

JR: Camp was never pro-Zion (I mean, except in the 50s). Camp’s position was kind of more, “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, Let’s just not talk about it.” Because during the days of the Soviet Union, Stalinism and all of that, even when you knew something bad was happening, you didn’t talk about it to the enemy because you didn’t want to give the enemy ammunition. So with Israel, it was like, “We can talk about it among ourselves, but we don’t want to give ammunition to the antisemites.” And it was also confusion: “What are we saying? What do we mean two-state solution? Yeah, no, that’s it. That’s a good idea. And the Palestinians, it’s terrible, what’s happening to them. But you need a Jewish state because the Holocaust and antisemitism.” It didn’t become what it is now till about 2014. The war on Gaza, the attacks on Gaza, and the kids who were then like, first-year staff and second-year staff and in UNCOR said, “This is going on. Kids don’t know anything––they don’t even know what is a Gaza. They don’t know from Hamas. They don’t know from the Palestinians. They don’t know anything.” And I still admire them so much, because they were first, second-year staff members. They didn’t know shit themselves. They knew so little. So we just got information, and information, and infection. And within a week, they had studied up. I mean, it was superficial, there’s no question. But still, we did movies, we did workshops with the whole camp, and they left up space at the end of each session for the kids to write the questions down that they had. And then they went back a second time to try to answer the questions. You know, to me, that was when people who had been critical all along and had been conscious of what was happening with the Palestinians––that was when they were given the encouragement, and the support, and the strength to stand up and speak out fully. In other words: This is new.

MS: For a long time, Camp’s position on Israel was pretty much whatever the Soviet Union’s position on Israel, so it would wax and wane with that. But sometimes, the Soviet Union’s position on Israel was awkward for Jews, who had very little consciousness of Palestinians. Frankly, I’m not sure outside of the Arab world there was much consciousness of Palestinians before the mid-60s. And so if you look at all these progressives, non-Jewish progressives, like Paul O’Dwyer and stuff like that, being for Israel WAS the progressive position. These were the persecuted people, especially after the Holocaust. It was easy to sell the idea of a national liberation movement. I think, easy, frankly, from my perspective, in part because––well, that was part of what was going on. It’s just the other part was ignored, that it was also involved in displacement of another potential national movement of another people.

When I first got to camp in ‘76, I was already, by that time, deeply troubled by the occupation. I never considered myself a Zionist, ever, but I didn’t think of myself as an anti-Zionist. But by then already (by ‘76), it was clear to me that the occupation was bad for the Jews, bad for Israelis, and unjust for Palestinians. And I went into the office with a Two States for Two People poster and said, “Let me put this in the office.” I wasn’t the Cultural Director then, I was just a mid-level supervisor (we call them group leaders), and the director at the time, Elsie Suller, she was not unsympathetic to the Palestinian people or cause. But that in the office would be too controversial––and it’d be too controversial (people don’t realize this) because the two-states thing was not a rightist position, as it’s now viewed in Camp, but it was not left, exactly. But too directly anti-Jewish, it was perceived. It deeply questioned the whole Zionist project. Now, Elsie was never a Zionist. She was a communist. Now, she was careful. She didn’t like controversy. What was interesting happened, as I think Judee actually said, it was like, “so you know what, let’s just not talk about Israel.” Remember, it’s a children’s summer camp. There’s no political committee in the camp that creates positions, we have to figure out what our program is going to do. And so implicitly, some positions are discussed, but we don’t have to have a line: We’re on the left, and clearly no one’s going to support things that are out-and-out, uncontroversially, racist, homophobic, sexist, etc. Nonetheless, we do need to bring programming, and there’s been widespread agreement, gradually, starting in the 80s, when we could have teams, there was the Israeli Palestinian peace team, when the Palestinian name gets in there. So that’s the thing. And that was radical at the time, and what counts as radical changes, in various ways, but now, part of the progressive program is an awareness of Palestinians. And we don’t have to have a nuanced position, officially, but we still have to sometimes have controversies about that.

AA: You mentioned radical changes, and I want to hear from you if there are things that kids are bringing to camp that feel either new to you or threatening for you. Things that are like, in the Left today that may be new to Kinderland.

JR: As a blanket statement, they’re not only challenging for me, they’re challenging for this group of young people who are the group leaders in camp and who carry the big C and the small c culture. The overarching issue is that we are a little bit concerned, especially the Cultural Director and I, are a little bit concerned that people are replacing broad issues that threaten the fabric of human society with smaller issues that threaten the well-being of a small group of people. So they’re important, but if kids go into different interest groups, and half the camp is on degendering the bunks and three people in Camp are on the environment? That is a cause of concern to us. Not because degendering the bunks is not worth talking about, but because you can degender the bunks from today till tomorrow, but none of us will be there to be at any of the bunks if we don’t do something about climate. So particularly gender issues––that’s what high school, middle school, and some college students are very focused on. It’s not a problem, it’s just like, our job is to help people keep the broader picture in mind. To me, that’s the challenging thing. And the concept of restorative justice, as it applies to interactions among the people at camp, because there is a tendency for young people (and older people too, I know, but we don’t have to have anything to do with them) to be punitive when they perceive an infraction of what are considered desirable social norms. So that’s something we struggle with.

AA: In other words, Camp is a reflection of the contemporary landscape.

JR: Yes it is! But we have something that contemporary life doesn’t really have, which is we have a group of young people in leadership positions who are greatly admired by the kids in camp, who are pretty clear about how people should be treated.

MS: I think my concern, a thing that always ran through Camp, was that it was a genuinely radical perspective on American life, American politics, American norms of various sorts, and I’m worried about it getting swallowed up. Let me give you particular examples. When we named the bunk Harriet Tubman, no one in the wider culture really knew who she was––I mean, people knew, historians knew, I’m sure in some African American communities. But when it was named in 1975 or 1976, it wasn’t commonplace. And to a large extent, one thing that concerns me––now, maybe it shouldn’t concern me, maybe it’s a good thing––but this is not that different than what they’re teaching in the liberal suburbs around Boston, where I lived for a long time. But in Newton North High School, you know, all the, essentially liberals, who are not really interested in challenging fundamental structures of inequality in our country––you know, part of my critique is, certain aspects of identity politics, you could change a lot of that stuff and still leave the basic inegalitarian structures. You just changed some of the cosmetics of it, so to speak. And Camp was going for trying to create people that would be activists, that were interested in deep changes, for equality. It’s hard for an institution not to get swallowed up by the larger culture. And so three-quarters of the things that Camp did when I first got there, if not seven-eighths of it, American society would have been aghast at in 1976. Now, Hillary Clinton would go through Camp Kinderland and almost approve of everything we’re doing.

JR: No, absolutely wrong. Crazy.

MS: I don’t think it’s great. I don’t think it’s that crazy.

JR: That’s a crazy statement.

MS: Okay. A lot of it (maybe I got the fractions wrong) is essentially now mainstream liberalism, right? You know, you could spin it as good. Yeah, that means that society is catching up with where Camp’s been. But even if that’s the case, since society is clearly not an egalitarian society, Camp needs to go deeper and further. And so I worry about that. Now, we may have different-––you know, really different––perspectives. But I think all the issues that are going on the left are going on in Camp. Absolutely all of them. And so it’d be interesting to see what kind of coherence comes to the left and how that gets reflected in our children’s summer camp. But I do think that, from what I’ve seen of Camp, that it is not as oppositional an institution to large chunks of America that it was in just the 40 or so years that I’ve been involved in it.

JR: I don’t think so. I don’t think liberal enclaves of America talk about the landless peasants movement in Brazil.

MS: Not all of it. I’m just saying that a lot of the implicit analysis, I think, is pretty similar.

AA: So let’s talk about the question of: Why has Kinderland survived 100 years? So much of the institutional realm that Kinderland came from is gone, so Kinderland is almost like the sole survivor.

JR: Whenever Camp was in crisis, people rallied round because they believed in the cause. They believed the camp had to exist, I think other summer camps fold because people say, “Oh, we loved it. We loved it so much. But you know, I hear Forest Lake is a really nice camp, we can send our kids there.” But Kinderland was unique, and if it folded, everything was lost. There was not another camp that you could send your kids to. And that feeling persisted from generation to generation. There are kids in Camp who are fourth-generation Kinderlanders.

MS: I agree with what Judee said. I think there are three elements of why Camp survived. One element is simple contingency and luck. That probably goes without saying, but it’s important to say it. I think that it’s not like it was destined, inevitably, to survive, and it might not be here in 20 years. But I think there are still reasons why it did survive. Why it made it more probable. One is that it was a children’s summer camp. I think people, if they like camp, LOVE camp. All sorts of camp: Betarim camp, right-wing camps that are teaching fascism, evangelical stuff that are teaching you about hell and heaven––if you had a good time swimming there, if you made friends, there are all sorts of reasons people, if they liked camp at all, love it and feel nostalgic for it. So Camp had that. But Camp had something that many of those camps don’t have: It’s devoted to social justice. I have to think social justice is something that’s very satisfying to devote your life to. If you’re having fun and excited and you’re learning to sing and so on and so forth, but they contain––this is not just a song, this is a song about workers not being exploited. This is a song about Black people being treated as equal. That makes this fun more important, and that means that when you get out of Camp, it becomes a continuation of the rest of your life, so you become active in it. I mean, this may sound biased and corny, but we’re devoted to things that are true and good. People like that. I think goodness and truth has some staying power.

JR: I agree. I agree.

AA: Thank you so much, Judee and Mitch. This has been another episode of On the Nose if you liked it. Share it. and as always, subscribe to Jewish Currents. Thanks a lot.

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