Recently in a poem i included references to the Zionist socialist organization, dror, that became my childhood life and savior, i was a child who was often depressed and suicidal, who got harassed for my lack of “social skills” and how i dressed and looked; i didn’t have many friends. i know this was not just who i was, but also had to do with anti-semitism, classism, my family’s leftist “leanings,” and the family abuse i experienced. but i didn’t realize all this at the time, so when lisa helman, a Jewish girl, decided she could be friends with me, i didn’t analyze it. lisa introduced me to dror, where among other somewhat politicized Jewish children, i found some sense of comfort and belonging.
I was about 11 when i started to go with lisa to meetings at the brooklyn mo’adon(meetmg house). friday night shabbat, singing, programs, discussions, dancing, and then hanging out on ave. j, getting pizza and ice cream, being rowdy kids hassled by the cops for loitering. i loved it. i really wanted to go to the camp, but despite its being unbelievably cheaper than any camp around, it was still too expensive for my family. one year, though, i convinced my mother it was cheaper to send me to camp for seven weeks than to feed me at home for seven weeks (which was true), i don’t know what convinced my mother, or if my family’s fluctuating financial situation was better that year, but i got to go.
aside from convincing my family of the cost efficiency of camp, i didn’t tell them much else about it. they weren’t Zionists and were not impressed with my new-found zeal, though somewhere inside i think they were glad for my jewishness that got me off the n.y. streets. i didn’t tell my family that the camp was run by two or three shlichim—young Israeli soldiers in their twenties who often treated the camp as if it were an army training center. i didn’t tell them we did “field sports,” which meant learning to scale walls, jump off three-story buildings into nets, make and climb rope bridges, learn selfdefense.
i didn’t tell them once a summer we had yom yishuv to commemorate jews settling in Israel in accordance with then british “homesteading” laws. the counselors woke us up, by surprise, at about 3 in the morning, had us cross rivers to sneak into campsites and then build by daybreak whole villages with ten-foot-tall defense fences, bathrooms, kitchens, and who knows what else, then we played war games of spy and capture all day long. i didn’t tell my family we went on survival hikes. about midnight, they put us in groups of three or four and blindfolded us. then they’d take us about 40 miles out of camp, give us a dime for a phone call, drop us off, and tell us to find our way back by sunrise. i didn’t tell them that, though the truth is i didn’t tell my family much in general about my life since i never knew how they’d react. but something told me telling them this wouldn’t make a good case for letting me go back to ein harod.
despite some of my family’s history of being communists and anarchists, i didn’t tell them about the socialist parts either. i didn’t tell them how we had kuppah, collective money. at the beginning of the summer everyone in each group gave any money they had to their counselors, all during the summer, we made group decisions about what to do with our money. no one was supposed to feel bad about how much money they had, and we were all supposed to learn about collectivity. there wasn’t a canteen to buy candy, like i knew they had in fancy camps, so having individual money didn’t make too much difference, still, we all would keep out some percentage of our money so we could escape to the general store down the road to buy candy when the opportunity arose. we often got caught at the store, as more than half of our group foolishly disappeared during hebrew lessons or avodah (work time).
sometimes, however, we were more clever about our escapades. every year, for instance, we had nations day. each group picked out a nation or ethnic group to be, and we’d get an area of camp, make costumes, do a play or some program about the group, and get food of that group, one year, we decided to be middle-class americans. as middle-class americans, we demanded to be by the pool area, since that’s where they hung out in the summer, and we wanted barbecued steak, french fries, and ice cream sundaes, all major treats in camp. we asked for beer too, but they wouldn’t let us have it, though they fell for everything else, as we were being good little socialists.
as a good socialist camp, we also had capitalist day. capitalist day was always strategically done immediately before parents’ visiting day. as well as having “educational value,” it was a good way to clean up the camp, since you had to work to get money. the counselors loved this day too, ’cause the kids were always trying to do stuff like fix up their shelves, make their beds, etc., to get a little extra cash, on capitalist day you woke up with (play) money under your pillow and were born rich or poor. then you worked different jobs during the day, cleaning and such, to get money, there was a stock market and a bank, at night there was the rich people’s dinner and the poor people’s dinner and the poor people had to serve the rich before they could eat. after dinner, there was an auction for those who could afford it. the day after capitalist day there were long sichot-discussions— about what it all meant and how it felt.
one capitalist day my group decided to be “bums.” we didn’t work and said we didn’t care if we ate with the poor people, ’cause we didn’t want to clean up other people’s shit, we understood a little too well, perhaps, about capitalism and capitalist day. we influenced other kids and the whole day was almost a bust, and our group got “special” sichot the next day.
another year we decided to rob the bank, we went in, grabbed all the money we could and stuffed it down our pants, we weren’t too suave about this robbery, as we ran across camp to our bunks attracting everyone’s attention, money started falling out of our clothes and we left quite the trail, the younger kids, seeing all this “free money,” started chasing us, or rather the money. the rest of capitalist day was cancelled and the whole camp had discussion groups for the remainder of the day, to talk about what we had done, our influence and responsibility on the younger kids (we were 13 and 14 at the time), what we had learned from our experience, etc., ad infinitum, way past our ability to sit still.
despite all our escapades, we all had a lot of responsibility towards running the camp, at 13 i became a sichah leader, and led discussion groups for the younger kids, and when we got together with other camps. we also built a lot of the camp ourselves, a few times a week we had avodah—work. we were either building or repairing bunks, the laundry rooms, a gym, cleaning the pool, or doing maintenance work. of course, sexism abounded and we always complained when the girls didn’t get to do enough building, and we loved it when they let us. aside from avodah, we all had to do either serving or washing for a few meals a week. washing meant five of us had to wash all the dishes, and serving meant you came early to the meal, set up the dining room, served food, and then cleaned and swept everything up afterwards. no one liked it and everyone tried to get in good with whomever was handing out kitchen duty.
we did have some “regular” camp activities like swimming and arts and crafts, but there was so much more and there was so much magic. every friday night, we’d have a special shabbat. we’d get dressed up in white shirts or our best leotards. we’d go to the dining room and sing with a spirit i never knew i could have, with a passion i never knew was possible, we’d have a special dinner, with chicken soup, candles, challah and cake.
each week a different group would be in charge of doing an oneg shabbat, a program that somehow honored shabbat. i loved watching and doing oneg. my group mostly did political programs, plays about anti-semitism and Jewish history and culture, plays about racism and socialism. once we did a play about the oppression of native americans throughout white U.S. history, ten of us were on stage, we started out with some buffy st. marie songs. we all dressed in black and held flashlights to our faces. then one of us would tell a story of the oppression of native americans in some period of history. when that person was done with the story, she would turn off her flashlight and fall down, after each oneg, they’d play Israeli folk dancing music over the loudspeaker and we would dance under the summer stars and mountains of the catskills. i danced until my body couldn’t dance any more and then i danced some more.
in light of all this precious memory, even if somewhat romanticized, it’s difficult to explain why i left the movement. people got older, began to sever ties and have other interests, as well as the movement having more and more financial problems and the situation in the middle east becoming more complex. some people made aliyah (immigrated to Israel), others left the movement but continued being Jewish activists or got involved with other Jewish activities, and some left their Jewish identity behind completely. i began to leave the movement at 16 when i moved out of town to start college, later met up with some movement people when i temporarily moved to Israel at 18, and then severed my ties completely when i came out at 19. i embraced the feminist and lesbian community with the fervor i had learned in dror. but i thought being a lesbian meant i was to leave that world of Jewish identity so completely that i even threw away my Jewish song sheets, but a few years later, i began to discover how these worlds could meet, and i became more and more active in the circles that intersected my Jewish, lesbian feminist, and working-class values, identities, and communities.
as an adult, i still have serious bouts of depression, in a way, though, some of the things that helped me when i was in dror are the same things that can help me today, surely, my politics today are not the same as when i was in dror, and i know now that my education there was often sorely lacking in terms of discussing or analyzing the occupation, which had already started, or some of the realities of the situation in Israel with arabs and Palestinians, sephardim, working-class jews, and women, i can think of many ways it could’ve been “better,” but i can’t deny the value of what was there, in its own way, the education i got helps me to face some of the hard issues of the middle east today, and the roots of learning not only the importance of my jewishness, but of my pohtics and compassion for all oppressed people came to life in dror, as well as invaluable lessons about passion, spirituality, commitment, creativity, process, and community.
i can still feel at my best when I’m teaching Israeli folk dancing at a Jewish lesbian chanukah party for Jewish lesbians and their families and friends, i can still get excited and feel pride when having a discussion about collective process and i tell the stories of capitalist day, and I’m responded to with wonder and laughter, when i do these things, i can bring the best of my personal and political past and present together, and find hope for a future, i can remember that despite my depressions, despite what the world really looks like these days, i and others i know can stand strong like a tree and branch out, because we can be proud and loving towards our roots.
Tova is a working class Jewish lesbian who writes poetry, fiction and essays, she is on the editorial collective of bridges, a journal for Jewish feminists and their friends