A documentary visit to two century-old secular Jewish summer camps – People’s World
The new short documentary (2021) (32 min.) kinderland tells the story of two secular Jewish summer camps in upstate New York that cultivated social activists for nearly a century and still exist today. Both camps were founded by secular working-class Jews on opposite sides of the left-wing political divide. Kinderland, founded in 1923, was communist; Kinder Ring, established in 1927 and sponsored by The Workmen’s Circle (recently renamed Workers Circle), socialist.
Already by the end of the 1920s, a bitter split in the Jewish labor movement had emerged, coinciding with the split in the global socialist movement. Judging from its public pronouncements, the WC (or Arbeter Ring, to use its Yiddish name), founded in 1900, hailed the overthrow of the Tsar in Russia, where many of its members hailed from. But the modern socialist democracy they envisioned did not take root in the new USSR. As Joseph Stalin consolidated his control over the Soviet Union and the global communist movement, WC joined the anti-communist opposition, while remaining within the socialist orbit.
Thousands of WC members, however, were brought in to support the world’s first socialist state, bleeding WC ranks and funding sources. If WC had its own internal system of fraternal benefits – schools, camps, educational courses for adults and secular Sunday schools for children, choirs, theater companies, insurance, health care, burial grounds, etc. – the new fugitives from the organization established the International Labor Order, allying with groups from other national and ethnic groups, to offer a similar package. Within the IWO, the Jewish section has always been by far the largest. IWO fell victim to McCarthyism in the 1950s.
The two groups shared many commonalities, movements that both drew inspiration from Karl Marx and a widespread awareness of class struggle. Their respective children’s summer camps occupied an area on opposite sides of Lake Sylvan in Dutchess County, NY. Stories of mutual contempt are legendary, with socialist children tossing around the epithet “Stalinist!” and the children of Kinderland answering: “Bourgeois fascists! of their canoes turning in the middle of the lake. Although beyond the quarrels, there are also stories of secret teenage romances.
The film is titled after Kinderland, although historically it’s almost impossible to talk about one without the other in contrast. The documentary balances film footage and interviews fairly evenly between the two ideological camps.
In almost a century, the missions of the two seaside resorts for children have drifted. Kinderland no longer identifies with the Communist movement per se, nor organizationally with the Communist Party, to which many parents belonged in the past. However, it is still oriented towards bold social activism and has become much more internationalist, with a large interracial population, although still formally Jewish in inspiration.
Kinder Ring began as a WC camp for the children of their working-class Jewish members, but over time, and with the specter of anti-communism haunting America, it has increasingly come to reflect the suburban, assimilated, patriotic mindset of their now third-generation American parents, best recalling their radical roots in nostalgia and song.
Both camps still remain largely secular, and although Kinderland emphasizes primarily social activism, Kinder Ring continues with its middle-class, more apolitical approach, the use of Yiddish, or a smattering of it. in any case, replacing the class consciousness of the past. WC, along with many other prominent “socialist” allies in the 1960s, for example, supported American intervention in Vietnam because of their staunch anti-communism.
The role of Yiddish on both sides reflects a much greater place for Yiddish in contemporary American life, perhaps even in the world. On the one hand, affinity for Yiddish does not compel Jews to declare themselves loyalists to the modern state of Israel, which has adopted Hebrew as its language and deprecated Yiddish as its language of exile. And at the same time, with its rich traditions in literature, folk culture, song, humour, history, the love for Yiddish shows that there are other ways of affirming Jewishness than being forced into the opportunistic commemoration of Jewishness. Holocaust and the Cult of the Israeli Golden Calf.
Director Amy Grapell filmed kinderland mostly between 2017 and 2019, although it includes clips of some people, such as centenarian Fanny Jacobson, who died in 2015, and others who have since died. Others interviewed include Dr. Barney Zumoff, Robert Kaplan, Maddy Simon, Michael Meeropol, a number of camp counselors and many children. The film’s time period takes us to a summer when WC visitors traveled to Kinderland to learn from the affectionately nicknamed “Commie Camp” how to engage children in more socially engaged ideas and projects, how to make their experience more fundamental to children. kinds of Kinderland hopes they will become later in life.
Ben Bath, a teacher and singing leader then working for WC, appears in the film noticing the resurgence of fascism and asking what kind of society will we be? A youth from Kinderland is asked about the values taught and assimilated there: “Ending capitalism is a big question,” he says, as the song “Joe Hill” is heard.
Scenes from Kinder Ring depict a more standard apolitical summer camp that’s more about competitive sports and middle-class success, the comfortable lives of what American Jews contemptuously called “alrightniks,” people who had began to “succeed” in America. It’s hard to see how summers spent at KR would lead young people to lives of nonconforming protest.
McCarthyism wreaked havoc, more on Kinderland than on the anti-communist WC Kinder Ring camp. Columnists recalled that during the height of the crackdown, officers from the county sheriff’s department monitored the road leading to the camp and noted the license plate numbers of arriving cars. Camp enrollment dropped for a few years until the terror passed.
There is a kind of “well-being” canvas laid on this short documentary: Ah, the two former warring camps have finally reconciled, and the old ones can leave in peace knowing that their labors have not been in vain. For an unassuming film of modest proportions, that’s fine, but the core issues after decades of estrangement have by no means been resolved. The contradiction is always between two cultures, one of acceptance of the established order, the other of resistance; reformism versus revolution. At least they talk to each other. By entitling his film after only one of the two camps, Grapell seems to be giving him the hand.
kinderland is currently on the documentary film circuit.
(The author was director of the Southern California District of Workers Circle/Arbeter Ring from 1995 to 2011, and personally knew many of the people interviewed in the film.)