Digging for Roots at Secular Summer Camp

By Katie Halper 


My name is Katie Halper, and I am a secular Jew. I've been secular for a little over 26 years now.

I recently went on a young adult retreat, whose aim was to explore the definition of Judaism. When several people assumed I was Reform I explained I was secular. When they responded, "Oh cool. What synagogue do you go to?" or "Nice. Where do you celebrate Shabbat?" I started to think that not everyone was as familiar with secular Judaism as I had thought.

One of the speakers, a female rabbi who wore a yarmulke, spoke about the Jewish tradition of social justice and the importance of the Exodus story. She asked us, rhetorically, “How can we, whose ancestors came out of slavery in Egypt, not care about current-day oppression and injustice, whether that be genocide in Darfur, or pharmaceutical companies denying access to life-saving AIDS medication and killing millions?"

After, one young man was visibly uncomfortable with the rabbi's message. Social justice was not an inherent part of Jewish identity, he said. He was a recovering secular Jew, he confessed, whose parents had desecrated their home with a Christmas tree every winter, and whose grandparents had been… Communists. Ultimately, this born-again Jew concluded, it was impossible to be Jewish without believing in God. A woman agreed: “It’s Shabbat” not justice that defined Judaism. Hearing them, I realized that not only was secular Judaism an unknown for many, it was a rejected unknown. And I, a secular Jew who values activism but does not celebrate Shabbat, was not a real Jew.

This wasn't the first time I felt like the odd Jew out. I have never felt comfortable with exclusively Jewish communities. Until I was seven, I went to a Jewish day school. (I still don't know why my secular parents sent me there. They claim that it was for its warmth and minimal snobbishness, but I suspect it was because it was a walkable distance from our apartment.) The roll call gives you a good sense of the type of school it was: Malka, Brahm, Yehuda, Yael H., Yael R., Yael S. (Yes, there were three Yaels in my class of 12), Hannah, Rachel, Sarah, Samuel, Jacob, and... Katie. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but even then, as early as kindergarten, I was aware that in some way or another, I wasn't part of this community.

I really put my un-kosher foot in my mouth when we had to go around the room and state our Hebrew names. This was a no-brainer for my classmates, (especially easy for the Yael trio), who translated effortlessly:
"My name is Hannah and my Hebrew name is Chana, my name is Rebecca and my Hebrew name is Rivka." I, on the other hand, had no idea if I had a Hebrew name, much less what it was. I racked my brain and found nothing. Finally it was my turn. All Yahweh-fearing eyes were on me as I thought to myself, “Come on, Katie: Think, think! Rebecca is to Rivka as Katie is to...” And then, like lightning, it struck me. I suddenly remembered a name my uncle sometimes called me, which sounded foreign and, I deduced, had to be Hebrew: “My name is Katie,” I bellowed triumphantly, “and my Hebrew name is Katchkalah!" I exhaled a breath of relief and smiled in victory. But the room grew silent, the students looked confused, and the teachers exchanged worried glances. Little did I know that katchkalah was not Hebrew at all but actually the Polish-derived Yiddish word for duckling.

My parents, both products of public school and committed in principle to public education, removed me from this religious school on the Upper West Side and sent me to a
private and materialistic school on the Upper East Side (both equally inappropriate for me), transplanting me from a world filled with challah, grape juice, and Purim pageants into a world of penthouse apartments, drivers, and maids in uniform. While the school curriculum was not at all religious, 70 percent of my classmates were Jewish and I may have been the only Jew who wasn't Bar or Bat Mitzvah-ed.

I felt no connection to these lavish displays. It was not because I wasn’t religious; in fact, much about these Bar and Bat Mitzvahs seemed sacrilegious. They were held at holy establishments like the Plaza and the Essex house; lobster was served; smoke and fog would rise from the dance floor; professional dancers would coax kids into the electric slide; and, if you were lucky, the Cheerleaders from the New York Knicks would skip out scantily clad, grab the hands of a few lucky 12-year-old boys seething with hormones, and proceed to freak them. Was this a Jewish tradition I never learned about because I didn’t go to Hebrew School? You have danced with the breasts of a New York City Knicks dancer in your eyes. Mazel Tov. You are now a man.

The retreat on the meaning of Judaism was the first time I was asked to examine my Jewish identity and my place in the Jewish community. Was I indeed less Jewish than the religious Jews on the retreat, than religious Jews in general? Was I even Jewish?

While I've found certain Jewish communities and practices alienating, I do feel Jewish.  Yet the Jews I identify with are Jews who identify with Jews as well as non-Jews. And this, itself, draws from both a rich tradition of Jewish social justice and, at the same time, a universal sense of solidarity that defies religious, ethnic, and national boundaries. Just as religious Jews connect with the rituals they inherit from their families, I feel a connection to the secular traditions in which I was raised.

My grandmother was raised in The Coops, a workers’ housing cooperative in the Bronx, inspired—in spirit and architecture—by a communal housing complex in Vienna, aptly named the Karl Marx apartments. My father's uncle died in Spain during the Spanish Civil War fighting against Franco with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. My maternal grandfather lied about his age in an attempt to join the Brigade, but a brigadista examining papers saw he was only 16 and sent him home. Stuck in the United States, my grandfather went to jail for climbing the flagpole outside the Austrian embassy and tearing down a swastika. And then, a few years later, as fascism marched along, my grandfather got his chance to fight fascists in Italy and North Africa during World War II.

My parents are almost a parody of Upper West Side secular Jews. Their apartment is filled with saints, shivas, Buddhas, and the occasional dream catcher. The only Jewish holiday we celebrate—Passover—is based in a historical story of oppression, resistance, and liberation. Until recently, I didn't even know Passover was a Jewish holiday. I thought it was a Black holiday, like Kwanzaa, but much, much older because while my family honors the Jews' Exodus out of Egypt, most of our Seder is spent discussing slavery in the United States, the Civil Rights Movement, and now, the occupation of Iraq. The story of the suffering of Jews in Egypt is a mere starting point for exploring more recent realms of oppression, wherever—and to whomever—they occur.

Ultimately, where I felt most connected to my Jewish identity was at summer camp. I went to a camp founded by progressive Jewish immigrants in the 1920s, welcoming Jews and non-Jews alike. Following in the footsteps of my mother and her mother before her, I made that great summertime migration north from NYC to Camp Kinderland. While other camps name their bunks after letters, numbers, or (often fictitious) Native American tribes, Kinderland names its bunks after social-justice activists, Jews like Shalom Aleichem, Emma Goldman, and Anne Frank, and non-Jews such as Joe Hill, Harriet Tubman, and Roberto Clemente. For the World Peace Olympics, Kinderland’s version of the “color wars,” teams are named after social movements (AIDS Education, Suffragism, Civil Rights) or activists (A. Philip Randolph, Sojourner Truth, Cesar Chavez). My first summer I was on the Martin Luther King team, and I’ll never forget that MLK vs. Ghandi soccer match of ’92, when Martin Luther King cleaned the floor with Ghandi. July brings Holocaust Commemoration Day, and August brings Hiroshima Commemoration Day. Every night the entire camp gathers for “Share,” where the cultural director delivers the Yiddish word of the day, and, on Fridays, the Bushism of the week. We end “Share” in song, singing "Zog Nit Keyn Mol" (the anthem of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising), "If I Had a Hammer," or "The Strangest Dream," about the dream of peace. Movie night might be a choice between Roger and Me, an exposé of corporate greed, and Land and Freedom, a chronicle of the Spanish Civil War. The values of camp imbue not only activities and bunk names, but the bunks themselves. If a camper receives a care package from home, it is immediately placed in a bunk trunk, to be distributed equally among all.

After years as a camper, I became a counselor. To this day, I try to visit every summer, and my friends from camp remain my best friends. And it was and is here, surrounded by Jews and non-Jews committed to social justice (for everyone), drawing from traditions as rich, as authentic, and as Jewish as the religious traditions that offer so much meaning to others, that I felt and feel most Jewish.

Katie Halper is a comic, writer, and filmmaker based in New York. Katie is an Artistic Director of The Tank, and her award-winning documentary, "La memoria es vaga," about historical memory in Spain, has been screened throughout Spain and the U.S. She is currently working on a documentary film about Camp Kinderland's World Peace Olympics. For more information, check out katiehalper.com

The original version of this article was printed in PresenTense Magazine. It is reprinted here with permission from PresenTense and the author.