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  • "Laboratories of Yiddishkayt":Postwar American Jewish Summer Camps and the Transformation of Yiddishism
  • Sandra F. Fox (bio)

In the late 1960s, a group from Camp Hemshekh, a Yiddishist, Bundist sleepaway camp in upstate New York founded by Holocaust survivors, took a field trip to see a regional theater production of Fiddler on the Roof.1 At Hemshekh, campers spoke Yiddish on a daily basis, immersed themselves in the literature and history of Ashkenazi Jewry, and commemorated the Holocaust through celebrating and emulating the Yiddish-speaking culture that existed before. To one counselor named Jo, Fiddler felt not like a depiction of the past, but rather "an expression of our life," making campers think of themselves "very much like the 'chosen people' … Watching the play, and more importantly, watching the rest of the audience watch the play, we felt almost as though we were in on a very special secret." The campers, who sang Yiddish songs to the play's "audience of bewildered up-starters" afterwards, described their "inescapable feeling of authenticity." Drawing a clear line of distinction between the audience and the campers, "Yiddish-speaking Jews … and Hemshikhistn" who saw themselves as participators in the culture on stage, the counselor contrasted what she saw as the authenticity of camp life with a mainstream American Jewish culture that was detached from Jewish heritage and authentic Jewishness.2

Yiddish-focused summer camps emerged in the United States beginning in the 1920s, providing immigrants' children an escape from city life and recreation among fellow Jewish youth. These camps generally adopted a socialist, communist or cosmopolitan worldview, and encouraged the continuation of Yiddish culture and language. As the use of Yiddish among American Jewry declined year by year, two camps in particular [End Page 279] assisted this trend by doubling down on their ideologies and educational efforts. At Camp Hemshekh and Camp Boiberik, post-World War II educators shaped their programs in hopes of ensuring the future of Yiddish after the Holocaust, infusing the language into official camp life even as it ceased to be used for everyday communication between campers.

Much like the leaders of Zionist, Reform, and Conservative camps of the same period, Yiddish summer camp leaders also addressed more general anxieties over the future of American Jewry as they moved from cities to suburbs and became increasingly affluent. Camp attendees like Jo came to believe that the infusion of Yiddish into camp life contributed to their personal and collective Jewish authenticity in the face of these changes; Jews who attended Boiberik and Hemshekh emerged not only different, they believed, but better than Jews in the mainstream. Camp leaders thus merged their twin concerns—one regarding the future of Yiddish, and the other regarding the future of American Jewry under new, more comfortable conditions—into an ambitious project for their camps. They reconstituted Yiddishism, a late-nineteenth-century nationalist-linguistic ideology concerned with raising the status of Yiddish, as a tool for transforming American Jewish youth according to their adult visions of real or ideal Jewishness.

Some scholars of American Jewish history have chronicled the rise of Reform and Conservative camping movements, highlighting how these movements transformed Jewish camping to match their particular visions of an intelligent and capable lay leadership.3 Others have centered their work on the Zionist camps, showing how these camps became "miniature Israels" where leaders promoted Hebrew culture and aimed to build support for the Jewish state.4 With the important exception of Fradle Freidenreich and Naomi Prawar Kadar's works on secular Yiddish education, historians have largely described early-twentieth-century Yiddish camps as incubators for camps run by more mainstream institutions later on rather than subjects to be assessed in [End Page 280] their own right.5 Practically nothing has been written about these camps after World War II; the lack of attention matches trends in scholarship regarding postwar Yiddish more broadly. As Jeffrey Shandler argued, "more often than not, discussions of Yiddish culture terminate in 1939, 1948, or some other date, with any later phenomena involving the language either characterized as vestigial or not mentioned at all."6 Indeed, Yiddish did decline all over the world during the postwar years for reasons including American...