During her tenure as the director of the Yiddish language summer program at Columbia University, Adrienne Cooper was surprised to discover her students’ motivations for attending. “Some people were looking for a way of connecting themselves to Jewish history through the language,” she said. “They wanted to connect themselves to Eastern European working-class activism. They wanted something of what they felt to be the purity of their grandparents’ world and a view that saw the Jews as part of a liberation movement.”
Now, as the director of the Center for Cultural Jewish Life at the Workmen’s Circle, Cooper is working to foster those connections through the Circle Lodge, the Workmen’s Circle’s summer playground. This year for the first time, the season will conclude with a three-day program that will explore the links between Yiddish culture and progressive activism.
Nestled in the Catskill Mountains in Sylvan Lake, N.Y., the Circle Lodge hosts a 100-person adult program every year, in addition to its summer camp that serves 600 children. The adult program begins the weekend of July 4 and stretches until Labor Day. Adults can stay for as long or as short a time as they choose, from a two-day weekend to the entire eight weeks.
While guests can engage in traditional summer activities like boating and tennis, the Circle Lodge offers numerous opportunities to engage in Jewish programming. The season kicks off with “A World of Yiddish: Ballads, Bintl Brief and the Alef-Beys,” a session that looks at everything from the legendary advice columns of the Yiddish Forward to the provocative songs of Itsik Manger. Other notable programs include “Adventures in Yiddish Arts: An Experiential Festival” — which offers music instruction from expert klezmer performers Deborah Strauss and Jeff Warschauer — and “American Jewish Life Through its Literature and Media,” led by Jeremy Dauber, director of Columbia’s Yiddish program, and Henry Sapoznik, co-producer of a Peabody Award-winning NPR series about Yiddish radio.
As the election season heats up, attendees can learn how to get involved in political activism: New this year is the Circle Lodge’s concluding, three-day Labor Day program titled “‘Shteyt Oyf! Rise Up!’ — Mobilizing the Progressive Jewish Community.” At present, “Shteyt Oyf!” is in the planning stages, but major Jewish figures and organizations throughout the Northeast have already been invited. The Workmen’s Circle hopes for attendance by representatives of the American Jewish World Service, the Shalom Center, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and numerous secular organizations and schools.
The program will start with a Sabbath program emphasizing Yiddish culture and traditions. The workshops, which begin on Saturday morning, emphasize the tradition of Jewish social justice stretching back to czarist Russia and beyond. A large part of the weekend will be devoted to teaching traditional Yiddish music and poems about involvement in the pursuit for social justice. The central question the session will address is: “What can we do to strengthen the progressive voice in the Jewish community to work for social change?”
Though the “Shteyt Oyf!” program may be new to the camp, the Catskills have been identified with left-wing Jewish politics since the 1920s. Yiddish social groups, Labor Zionists, the Workmen’s Circle and groups even further to the left had retreats in the region where they fostered progressive ideals. It was a place where immigrant children could go to get away from the city and live in an environment that was ethnically rich and culturally rooted in the values of a political environment.
“It unified people who were Jews who came from different places,” said Martin Schwartz, director of the Center for Social and Economic Justice at the Workmen’s Circle. “Jews who were already involved in progressive movements saw it as a way of connecting themselves to progressive issues in a Jewish context.”
This environment provided the basis for the Circle Lodge’s founding in 1927. And “Shteyt Oyf!” will fit neatly into that tradition in this new century.