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