I recently saw the documentary “Commie Camp,” about Camp Kinderland in Massachusetts. Written and directed by comedienne and writer Katie Halper, Commie Camp intertwines her family’s camp experiences with its history and the programs for current campers. Halper, her mother and her grandmother all attended Kinderland, which was founded in the 1923 by Yiddish-speaking Jewish activists. Halper found a rousing news peg for the film in 2012 when Rush Limbaugh noted that Erica Groshen, President Obama’s nominee to head the Bureau of Labor Statistics, sent her kids to Kinderland, a camp with “Communist roots.”
The film shows campers hearing about global warming, police repression and Hiroshima, and learning some Yiddish songs, gathering by the campfire, acting in skits, and engaging in hopelessly hopeful first-love relationships. At the showing at the Museum of the City of New York, members of the enthusiastic audience and Halper discussed whether the name “Commie Camp” was pejorative or ironic, or both, and whether it reflected the camp’s real roots.
I didn’t find the film or the topics of the camp disturbing or alarming. Let 100 summer-camp flowers bloom, to paraphrase a misquote from Chairman Mao. For every Kinderland-type camp, there must be 100 Chabad summer camps where the kids leave chanting “We want Moshiach now!”
Anyway, the teachings of the Commie Campesinos, to the extent I even disagreed with them, just bounced off me. You see, I had been inoculated against those subversive concepts as a high school student when I spent six days at what I call “Anti-Commie Camp.” In June 1975, I attended the “Citizenship Seminar” organized by Civitan International, a service organization. The seminar took place at what was then LeTourneau College (now University) in Longview, Texas, 560 miles from my boyhood home in Mission, Texas, on the Mexican border. A classmate also attended, representing the girls of Mission, and she played a role in one startling encounter.
Civitan’s camp was as relentlessly doctrinaire as Kinderland. Re-reading journal entries written by my 16-year old self, just after my junior year at Mission High School, what jumped out at me was how Jewish my Civitan experience was. I struggled in the middle of a religious crisis at the time, drifting toward my Jewish heritage after growing up a Southern Baptist, and that newish Jewish identity came into play several times during the week. Civitan forced me to take a stand – literally.
Some context sets the tone for Civitan. I saved the program for the seminar. Its back page included the Civitan Creed, which included this declaration: “My Creed was proclaimed by the Man of Galilee when He declared, ‘Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even to them.’” So that points to a Christian perspective. LeTourneau, meanwhile, describes itself on its website as “an interdenominational Christ-centered university.” Given these perspectives, I can see, from a distance of 38 years, that the Citizenship Seminar would provide a distinctively conservative worldview—make that a distinctively East Texas conservative worldview, which is the distilled, 100-proof pure version of Texas conservative thinking.
The program kicked off with a presentation on “Individual Responsibility” by Longview Police Department detectives Mike Maxey and Dick Query; later in the week Det. Maxey hit the front page of the Longview Daily News holding 15 pounds of marijuana captured in a drug raid. Their talk warmed us up for one of the main events of Anti-Commie Camp, a “stormy meeting” with Mrs. Mel (Norma) Gabler, part of a husband-and-wife team that relentlessly and successfully pressured publishers of schoolbooks sold in Texas on matters of their subversive, anti-American content. I wrote,
The first (meeting) with Mrs. G evolved into a sometimes shouting match on whether George Washington had VD. Had to do with the accuracy of history books. After a 30-minute break, Mr. G took over for a discussion of evolution and creation in science texts.
After dinner, we had more discussion of topics like foreign aid, capital punishment, prostitution. I spoke about capital punishment twice. Bunny from Weslaco [a town about 20 miles east of Mission] quoted, “Thou shalt not kill.” I later said that was a mistranslation [of Jewish texts]. Bunny countered with, “Well, I know you’re a Jew,” and I felt startled. I asked her afterward how she knew that and she said my classmate had to told her.
Mel Gabler makes a point about evolution and creationism using very large numbers.
For real fire-breathing conservative sentiment, you couldn’t top the presentation by black conservative Clay Smothers, who later represented Dallas in the Texas House of Representatives. I reported, “He was very candid on race relations and the fact that blacks can now get anything they want by just asking the government.” He made Texas Monthly’s list of the Ten Worst Texas Legislators in 1977, an honor illustrated by his quote, “I am against blacks, Mexicans, women, Indians, and queers talking to me about their rights.” I wonder how that comment would have played at Kinderland.
Clay Smothers passed out postcards showing his position on busing.
Smothers’ comments about busing sparked a dissent from a new camp friend of mine from Dallas, Martin, “who is definitely liberal.” Later, Martin, who had heard my exchange with Bunny, asked me if I was Jewish, and I said yes. I wrote:
“After what the girl said in the meeting last night, I figured you were.”
He had an obviously Jewish last name. It turned out that he does not attend any organized Jewish body either. We skipped the Sabine Olympics that afternoon to talk in the boys’ lounge, to talk about Jews, Israel, school and watch a pitifully old Macdonald Carey cowboy movie on TV. It had all the clichés – bars, guns, Indian maidens.
Another speaker was Kurt Swanda, a Fort Worth businessman who spoke on “Of All the Countries, Why America.” I wrote that Swanda was “alternately a prisoner and soldier of and in several European armies. He told some good raunchy jokes and grossed us all out with some war, torture and death stories. After the break he discussed the Polish ghettos when he was growing up.”
“Any Hebrews, any Jewish People in here,” he asked. Hmmm. The Moment of Truth. I timidly raised my hand, knowing with Martin gone I’d be the only Jew present. [Seminar director Sonny] Utzman noticed and said, “Hey, there’s one back here.” I raised my hand all the way up. Nothing else to do. He asked me if I knew anything about the ghettos. Yes, I said. A little.”
My ears must have been burning at this point. I don’t have any more notes, but I recall that Swanda was forced to serve in both the Wehrmacht and the Red Army, and strongly felt the Russians were more bestial than the Germans.
Kurt Swanda, who asked if there were any Hebrews in the audience.
A year later I graduated from high school and left for college in the east, rarely returning to Texas. I read The Communist Manifesto and studied European intellectual history, and developed a deep interest in the Soviet Union, so much so that I studied the Russian language and visited the USSR in 1987, adventures that moved me closer to the Kinderland experience than Civitan. I started to become acquainted with those minority-group concerns that troubled Clay Smothers. I never had more contact with the personalities who loomed over Civitan. Mel and Norma Gabler, Clay Smothers and Kurt Swanda have all passed away. Texans still argue about evolution and creationism and communist infiltration into the public school system. Bunny from Weslaco, so quick to point out I was Jewish – who knows?
I suspect Martin still lives in Dallas. I wonder if he remembers our conversations about being Jewish on those hot June nights in Longview, when two Jews sought each other out in an ocean of others. I had never been able to talk so openly with another Jewish teen about the issues roiling my life; indeed, I had never even known Jews outside my family until I met Martin at Civitan. The strangeness and intensity of our brief connection remains with me almost 40 years later.
My education in how to be Jewish was beginning, thanks to Anti-Commie Camp.