Comic and writer Katie Halper says that “she wouldn’t be alive without Camp Kinderland,” the 90-year-old leftist, secular Jewish summer camp in the Berkshires. When Kinderland came under attack by right-wingers following their discovery that an Obama nominee for the Department of Labor had sent her kids, Halper realized that she had set the story straight. The Sisterhood spoke with Halper about how she ended up at Kinderland, her movie “Commie Camp” and why she believes children should be taught about social justice.
THE SISTERHOOD: Commie Camp, huh? Katie, are you a communist?
HALPER: I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of The Communist Party. The title is tongue and cheek, but in all seriousness, I definitely have ideas and values that are socialist. I think lots of people do. They just don’t realize it.
There’s a popular hashtag on Twitter called #FirstWorldProblems. People vent about issues lacking true urgency then toss the words #FirstWorldProblems at the end to acknowledge that their problems are the “problems” of the fortunate.
The most blatant #FirstWorldProblem of the summer arrives in the form of parents worrying about the details of overnight camp. What to pack? How to avoid lice? Will the kids end up in cabins with their friends? How many care packages to send? (As if the camp experience is not gift enough?)
First. World. Problems.
I’ve been as guilty as anyone, not on Twitter, but in my real life. Preparing my almost-nine-year-old son (our oldest child of four) for camp has brought out the two mothers that live inside of me. On any given day I have been both the helicopter type and the Dr. Wendy Mogel “Blessing of a Skinned Knee” type who preaches creating resiliency in our children. You never know which mom will dominate. More than any other decisions I have made for and with my children, the entire camp process has come to symbolize the tug I feel, often, between micro-managing my kids and letting them learn and grow without my constant intervention.
If there is one thing I regret on my journey to Jewish adulthood, it’s that I passed up the opportunity to go to sleep away camp. Why do I lament this more than forgetting to fast on Tisha B’av? More than not spending a year in a yeshiva? Because while I was taking ceramic classes at my local JCC each summer, thousands of my peers were learning how to French kiss at Jewish sleep away camp.
Those of you wise enough to have attended camp know that it isn’t just about the tennis, hiking and campfires. It’s about girls, guys and raging hormones — about a period of discovery and letting loose with other members of the tribe. Still, not everyone is hooking up, let alone enjoying or even embracing this culture. Scattered between the campers making out in mess halls and going to second base in the dugout are girls and boys who feel alienated by the hookup culture of Jewish sleep away camp.
I was lucky enough to peek behind bunk doors and learn about the Jewish sleep away experience through a series of interviews with several camp alumni. While hookups in the woods, bunks and basketball courts abounded, an underbelly of pressure, exclusion and isolation also reared its head.
Several years ago I talked through this dilemma with my therapist: I couldn’t seamlessly switch back and forth between mommying and working. When I was on deadline and working from home, as I mostly do, and in the flow of writing a sentence or article, it would be terribly aggravating to have to stop to tend to one of my children’s immediate needs. And of course children’s needs are often immediate, even when they’re in middle school.
I’d end up snapping at my children, and frustrated with myself, feeling inadequate that I could not manage to gracefully deal with the ping-pong of switching between their needs and my own.
What the therapist said immediately lifted my guilt: opposite sides of the brain are involved with mothering and with work, so a real physiological shift has to take place. Being able to switch seamlessly back and forth is not a matter of capacity or talent. It is simply not possible. It takes time.