Thursday, July 4, 2013

Camp Kinderland Then and Now: Commie Camp

Camp Kinderland kids folk dancing in the early 1950s

As a teenager, I spent three consecutive Julys and Augusts in rural New York State at Kinderland, which billed itself as an “interracial, inter-religious, progressive Jewish summer camp.” For me back then, raised in the red diaper baby tradition, the verbiage most often could be translated into one word: fun. Oh, sure, there were subversive activities in this bastion of leftists: Like the time we girl counselors-in-training tied the shoelaces of our male counterparts end-to-end from the back doorknob of their bunk all the way down to Sylvan Lake. That was in retaliation for short-sheeting our beds the previous day.

For Katie Halper, a stand-up comedian and writer who attended Kinderland, the fun is inseparable from the message. Her new documentary Commie Camp explores the history, politics, philosophy and contemporary realities that define this seasonal gathering of the tribe, which took a brief detour to Connecticut, before relocating to rural Massachusetts in 1976.

“I went to Kinderland from 1992 to 2002,” Halper, 31, explains during a phone interview from her New York City apartment. “My grandma, uncle and mother had been campers, too.” (My own parents met at Lakeland, the vacation getaway for adults that was once adjacent to Kinderland.) Halper returned to the camp in the summer of 2007 to begin shooting her film, which premiered late last month at Visionfest in the Lower Manhattan neighborhood of Tribeca. Both screenings at a 130-seat venue were sold out in advance. “Commies are coming out of the woodwork,” she quips.

Commies were heading for the woods in 1923, when Kinderland was founded by a Jewish fraternal organization, the Workmen’s Circle, to provide like-minded city dwellers with an escape from their steamy tenements. The bucolic tranquility of Hopewell Junction (dubbed Hopeless Junction by us urbanites and suburbanites in my day) did not deter those earlier campers from identifying with the global proletariat.

Some Kinderland campers, seen here in the late 1920s,
sympathized with the Soviet Union

Halper chronicles the Kinderland of olden times with archival footage and still photos, some of which depict kids hoisting a hammer-and-sickle banner. The Soviet Union could do no wrong until it did. But the core humanitarian ideals of socialism were what counted after the Iron Curtain’s demise: education, diversity, unionization, civil rights, no more imperialism. Much of the propaganda was communicated through folksinging. Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger were idols, of course. An end-of-summer event called “Peace Olympics” – which divides everyone into competing but supportive teams – takes place instead of “Color War,” a more ruthless fixture at places with a less ideological framework. 

Commie Camp takes no prisoners in confronting arch-conservative criticism. Quite a few Kinderland alums, from red to vaguely pink, were persecuted during the McCarthy Era. Amid 21st-century right-wing fanaticism, Halper wasn’t sure just how to shape the documentary until The Daily Caller web site issued an all-too-familiar drumbeat a year ago that was echoed on the radio by Rush Limbaugh. President Barack Obama’s nominee to head the Bureau of Labor Statistics had – gasp! – sent her children to “a politically left-wing Jewish summer camp with Communist roots.” The anti-semitism is implicit. (Apparently, these dudes are unaware that Italians with a Catholic heritage such as Suze Rotolo and Marisa Tomei were once fellow travelers there, as was the biracial son of jazz great Charles Mingus.) 

“I was so happy when that happened,” Halper says of the attack. “These issues haven’t gone away.” She incorporated the red-baiting brouhaha into her narrative and chose a new title: Commie Camp, as suggested by the vitriol from those antagonists, is provocative yet playful. This replaced previous ideas like Another Camp in Possible, Got Camp? and Not Another Jesus Camp – the latter referring to Jesus Camp, a 2006 film about an extreme evangelical operation in North Dakota. “I wanted to go over-the- top, tongue-in-cheek,” Halper contends, adding a bit of levity: “It shows just how brainwashed I was by Kinderland. Some people find it jarring, though. Others think I just went for shock value. I got tons of flak. Good thing I didn’t decide on Mein Camp!”

Kinderland in 2007, when Halper was shooting Commie Camp
The main focus of her documentary, however, is devoted to tracking a group of kids aged eight through 12, before, during and after their Kinderland summer. They live in bunks named after icons: slavery emancipation pioneer Harriet Tubman; Holocaust diarist Anne Frank; labor organizer Joe Hill; Emma Lazarus, whose poem adorns the Statue of Liberty. The community’s Paul Robeson Playhouse is dedicated to the actor and singer, who visited the Hopewell junction location in previous decades. It’s where the camp’s musicals are staged. (Although lacking any discernible talent in this realm, my friend Suze and I were given the two female lead roles in The Pajama Game, a pro-union show that had been a Broadway hit.)

The youngsters that Halper follows come across as perfectly normal, albeit quite articulate and aware of today’s pressing issues. Zane, who plays the accordion, is a fan of ping-pong, turtles, and the Marx Brothers – Groucho and his siblings, not Karl. Emma and Luke, nine-year-old twins, are fourth-generation Kinderlanders; he brings a favorite stuffed animal along. Jacob’s mother thinks that sending him to sleep-away camp for the first time will help the boy continue to heal after the death of his father. 

Some of the counselors have been at Kinderland forever; others appear to be college students. The children participate with varying degrees of success in sports, swimming, arts and crafts, theater productions, even Yiddish lessons, all the while learning about the hidden history of activism not taught at most schools. Despite periodically grappling with the woes of the world, their spirits seem high. Ebullience abounds. The original self-described “interracial, inter-religious, progressive Jewish” designation has been boiled down to “camp with a conscience” but it still equals fun.

Halper serves as a witty, observant narrator. “Initially, the film was supposed to be verité,” she recalls. “I wasn’t in it at all.” Her skill as a performer enlivens the proceedings. A 2003 graduate of Wesleyan University, she founded the comedy showcase Laughing Liberally. She has written or blogged for Salon.com, The Huffington Post and The Nation.

Filmmaker Katie Halper
Filmmaking is not just a recent interest. Halper’s oral history project while still at Wesleyan was La Memoria es Vaga (Memory is Vague), a documentary that took her to Spain on a quest to investigate “a 500-foot cross on a 500-foot mountain built by political prisoners.” The dictator Francisco Franco claimed this monument was a symbol of reconciliation after the bloody Spanish Civil War but, according to Halper, “it’s really a mausoleum for himself that’s ugly, fascist, bellicose imagery.” Her experiences in that region of the country were sometimes shocking. “There’d be people giving the Nazi salute,” she notes.

Her co-producing credits include the antiwar satire Embedded, the 2005 video of a play by Tim Robbins, and Free to Fly by Estela Bravo, about U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba. Halper was outreach director for The Take, a Naomi Klein/Avi Lewis documentary about an Argentine workers’ movement. She co-directed New Yorkers Remember the Spanish Civil War, a video for a Museum of the City of New York exhibit, and has written and directed viral satirical videos including Jews/ Women/ Gays for McCain.

Halper contends that Commie Camp could appeal to a wide range of people. “Anyone who likes kids, or is interested in progressive causes or Jewish subject matter or labor history or New York history or quirky stories,” she surmises. “It’s not just for nostalgia.”

Ah, but I can’t help feeling nostalgic about our victorious adolescent shoelace rebellion. The young C-I-T ladies of my day tended to do almost everything together. Apparently sisterhood was powerful, even pre-feminism. I remember us marching into the boys’ bunk belting out this anthem in unison as a way of announcing our fabulous selves: “Passing through, passing through/ Sometimes happy, sometimes blue/ Glad that I ran into you/ Tell the people that you saw me passing through...”

I find it quite ironic to post this Commie Camp piece on the Fourth of July, the most patriotic holiday in my mixed-up nation. That’s because there’s nothing more patriotic or subversive than democracy, as suggested in this snippet of a song made famous by leftie hero Paul Robeson:

“The place I work in
The workers at my side
The little town, a city
Where my people live and die
The howdy and the handshake
The air of feeling free
And the right to speak my mind out
That's America to me.”

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.




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