Recollections of Yiddish summer camps, from our Wexler Oral History Project
As the midsummer days grow hotter and muggier, we're reflecting on oral histories we’ve recorded about Yiddish summer camps. We learn that these camps were places for political discussions and philosophical debates, providing answers to complex questions about Yiddish culture and its transmission.
Campers experienced Yiddish language as a staple of their everyday activities. They swam in the shvimbaseyn (swimming pool), sang songs marching into the estsimmer (dining hall), drank "bug juice," participated in the annual Color War, and encountered radical political ideas through lectures and lessons from Yiddish writers and theorists. Different camps had different political alignments and philosophies, but what they all had in common was the mission to instill a love of Yiddish in their attendees.
This month the Yiddish Book Center's Wexler Oral History Project is featuring three of these Yiddish summer camps - Boiberik, Kinderland, and Hemshekh - through short films using stories from our narrators.
Camp Boiberik, which was founded by Leibush Lehrer and affiliated with the Sholem Aleichem Folk Institute, ran from 1923 to 1979 in Rhinebeck, New York. The camp’s mission was to transmit a love of Yiddish culture to its campers through song, theater, and lectures. One of the most unique and memorable aspects of Boiberik was that, instead of ending the season with a typical game of Color War, campers participated in “Felker Yontef,” a celebration of international, multi-cultural peace in which campers used songs, dances, and costumes to represent different nations.
Camp Kinderland was founded in 1923 by members of the Workmen’s Circle (Arbeter Ring). After a political split, it was run by the Jewish section of the leftist International Worker's Order (IWO), which later became the Jewish People's Fraternal Order. It had, and continues to have, a strong emphasis on leftist politics, peace, and social justice. While the camp focused on political and social activism, it also offered Yiddish classes and fostered a connection to Yiddish language and culture. To this day, Kinderland continues to integrate Yiddish, including Yiddish folksongs, into the camp experience.
Literally meaning “Continuation,” Camp Hemshekh was founded in 1959 by Holocaust survivors who had been members of the Bund (Jewish Socialist Party) in Eastern Europe. This Yiddishist camp sought to instill in the next generation a love of Yiddish along with a socialist-rooted view of social justice. In addition to transmitting these values, the camp commemorated Jewish partisans and Holocaust victims through events such as Ghetto Day. Staying true to its non-religious Yiddishist values, the camp did not keep a kosher kitchen, did not observe any religious traditions (including Shabbos), and incorporated Yiddish language and ideals into every event. Camp Hemshekh closed in 1978.
Want to see more stories about Yiddish summer camps? Check out our YouTube playlist.
All video interviews are part of the Yiddish Book Center's Wexler Oral History Project, a growing collection of in-depth interviews with people of all ages and backgrounds, whose stories about the legacy and changing nature of Yiddish language and culture offer a rich and complex chronicle of Jewish identity. Explore the collection to find stories about many aspects of Jewish culture and history.
Special thanks to Leo Summegrad, Paula Teitelbaum, Miriam Gross, Gerry Tenney, Pauline Katz, Michael Katz, Linda Gritz, Susan Bloch Leach, Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath, Mitchel Resnick, Lisa Geduldig, George Rothe, Sabina Brukner, and Huey Falk.
Image of musicians on Kinderlider Culture Night at Camp Hemshekh courtesy of Lisa Geduldig, George Rothe, and Sabina Brukner.