- Passionate Pioneers: The Story of Yiddish Secular Education in North America, 1910–1960
Far from the frontlines of the boutique Yiddish revival, alumni from Camp Boiberik descended on their old Rhinebeck, New York, campground for a reunion in May 2009. While the event attracted about 150 participants, the ranks of the old timers, those who attended the camp during its heyday in the 1930s and 1940s, had thinned considerably since the previous reunion ten years earlier. Representatives from that era felt an acute need to document the camp’s history and the larger story of Yiddish secular education.
Fradle Pomerantz Freidenreich, herself a product of the Yiddish culture that pervaded Boiberik and scores of other educational institutions, is animated by this sense of urgency. The daughter of Yiddish educator and activist I. Chaim Pomerantz, she also came into possession of an extensive archive of letters and memorabilia. This trove became the basis for Passionate Pioneers, a comprehensive compendium of Yiddish secular education in North America during the first half of the twentieth century. Freidenreich supplemented her father’s archive with correspondence, interviews, and materials from hundreds of former students and campers representing many of the over 1,000 Yiddish secular schools and approximately forty summer camps that dotted the North American landscape between 1910 and 1960.
The Yiddish educational system in the United States and Canada developed more or less simultaneously with the system of modern Talmud Torahs, Hebrew schools, and culture camps and was stimulated by similar concerns about assimilation. Yet unlike the communal and synagogue-based Hebrew schools and camps, which were essentially religious in orientation, their Yiddish counterparts were avowedly secular and often socialist in orientation. The idealistic educators who conceived and directed these institutions viewed them as tools in class struggle. They infused their pupils, primarily the children of working-class Jews, with the knowledge, values, and world outlook that would encourage them to realize a new egalitarian social order. [End Page 225]
Freidenreich guides the reader through the ideological thicket of socialist, Bundist, communist, and Zionist organizations that sponsored the schools and camps and sets them in historical context. She also painstakingly documents basic information about schools and camps in scores of communities large and small. Class photographs, diplomas, letterhead, publicity flyers and other images help to evoke this bygone era, as does an accompanying CD of fifteen Yiddish school and camp songs. (Yiddish lyrics and English translations appear in an appendix.)
Freidenreich’s undertaking was mammoth and accomplished with great deftness and attention to detail. Clearly, this was a labor of love. The service she has provided to historians and nostalgia-seekers alike cannot be overestimated. The book is especially interesting in those places where she digresses from her recitation of facts and figures and discusses larger trends. For example, her chapter on Boiberik, which was sponsored by the Sholem Aleichem Folk Institute, allows her to explore longtime director Leibush Lehrer’s philosophy and contribution to Jewish education. Freidenreich seems almost apologetic about devoting so much space to Boiberik. She needn’t be. While she is correct that Boiberik’s significance and success were rivaled by other camps, like Kinderland and Kinderwelt, the in-depth portrait provides the reader with an appreciation for the rhythms and texture of Yiddish secular camping and allows for an evaluation of its successes and failures. It is unfortunate that a similarly detailed case study is not offered in her section on Yiddish schools.
Indeed, the greatest weakness in Freidenreich’s book is its lack of analytical framework and absence of any central argument save for the observation that these institutions once flourished and have largely been forgotten. Freidenreich was so engrossed in the work of documentation that she neglected to ask the types of questions that would shed light on the larger meaning and significance of the Yiddish secular education movement in North America. Nor does she give her readers more than an inkling of why fraternal groups like the Labor Zionist Farband and the...