Playing Indian at Jewish Summer Camp: Lessons on Tribalism, Assimilation, and Spirituality

November. 2018

Source:  Journal of Jewish Education, 84:4, 413-440 

Indian play at North American Jewish summer camps offered three sets of overlapping lessons. First, by providing activities created and understood as respite from urban pressures, including donning and removing so-called primitive faux-tribal identities, camps reinforced Jewish urban, modernist values and virtues. Second, as Indian play recapitulated the colonial process that had displaced actual Indigenous people to make room for the White, European settlers—Jews included—it provided Jews a vehicle to perform assimilatory and nationalistic sentiments. Finally, playing Indian offered camp staff members techniques for imparting visceral and emotional engagement with forms of spirituality they thought campers could absorb, particularly ones that overlapped with Jewish notions of Creation.

This article builds upon and expands the analyses of Leslie Paris, Philip Deloria, and a handful of additional scholars who have examined the phenomenon of “playing Indian” at summer camp and beyond by asking, specifically, how North American Jews made this sort of colonial pastime “play” meaningfully Jewish. It argues that Indian play at North American Jewish summer camps, from their emergence in the early 20th century into the late 1950s (and in some cases, decades beyond), offered a set of over-lapping lessons for Jewish youth about a range of issues that dovetailed with Jewish anxieties and responded to their social needs, including character building, tribalism, spirituality, race disappearance, assimilation, colonialism, and so on, particular to North American Jewish life. On account of its affective power, playing Indian at Jewish summer camps accomplished several competing and overlapping—and sometimes not wholly conscious—tasks. As with the Indian play at non-Jewish camps, this recreational and educational practice provided opportunities for young campers to don so-called “primitive” identities and then remove them once the summer was over, and in so doing afforded both a dose of antimodernist respite from urban pressures and the provincialism of Jewish ethnic habitus, and reinforcement of urban, modern, Jewish values. Critical is the fact that Jews partook in Indian pageantry and play over the summer, alongside, but self-segregated from, non-Jewish working-, middle-, and upper-class Whites who also played Indian at their camps. Indeed, Jews participated in an American and Canadian pastime for the acculturative benefits that such play bestowed upon children. And yet in this parallel cultural practice/play, particular motivations and meanings resonated in unique ways for Jews. These meanings can be understood if we attend to the contexts and ambivalences of North American Jewish life in the early to mid 20th century.

As this article describes, playing Indian cut across a wide variety of institutional contexts and persisted with notable continuities wherever it occurred. It was a remarkably flexible practice (Deloria,1998). Indian play crossed the secular–religious divide, and it occurred at for-profit and not-for-profit camps. Jews played Indian at camps supported by Jewish institutional bodies and at those run by psychologists, social workers, or general educators. Furthermore, this sort of play had a meaningfully gendered dimension for both boys and girls. Indian play also spanned the class spectrum, appealing to working-class, middleclass, and much wealthier Jews alike, and it took similar shapes and meanings across various regions and on both sides of the U.S.–Canadian border. Indian play happened in a range of geographic spaces, each with its own unique local histories—in New England, in the Midwest, in the South and West, as well as north of the 49th parallel in Canada, particularly in Ontario. It also, finally, exhibited astounding durability for 30 or 40 years, even as so much changed in the urban lives of Jewish communities and families during the “on” season. In other words, Indian play at Jewish summer camps was entirely elastic, and its elasticity helps account for the ways it served a particularly useful tool for delivering a range of “lessons” for Jewish campers. While this article notes some of the most significant differences in Indian play at the various sorts of Jewish camps that dotted the summer’s landscape of the continent, it finds that the continuities and parallels in Indian play are more important to attend to, since so much of the Indian play could serve so many ends, simultaneously or sequentially, as local historical needs changed.

Of course, Indian play was by no means the central aim or activity of Jewish summer camps. It did, however, have its own birth, history, and demise. Indian play was incorporated into Jewish camp life to varying degrees from the early camps in North America in the 1920s. While this form of identity play, pageantry, or pastime featured heavily in some camps’ programs in the decades that followed, it was incidental—though present—in many others until the 1980s. Camp Che-Na-Wah, which was endorsed by the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue of America in the 1920s, slowly added Jewish religious services to the repertoire of Indian and outdoor play. Camps Swastika, Algonquin, and Chipinaw began serving kosher food only long after opening. By the late 1920s and early 1930s, Jewish camp leaders were spending increasing amounts of attention to the design of their programs with the explicit goal of strengthen the American Jewish community by educating campers in Jewish ways of living (Joselit & Mittelman, 1993; Mykoff, 2002). While Zionist culture and Hebrew language were important components of Zionist movement camps and a few Jewish culture camps in the 1920s and 1930s, in most Jewish sponsored camps, only beginning in the 1940s did the ritual, pageantry, naming, storytelling, song, dance, and lore—all typically masculinist and nature-based, refracted through an Indian filter—become Zionist-based and did Hebrew language become a prominent force. When the Jewish Education Committee of New York devoted its 1941 Library Bulletin to the literature of camping, for example, Jewish names had replaced almost all of the Indian themes. Among the books recommended for storytelling, it included one book of Indian lore (and The Woodcraft Manual), and dozens of Yiddish stories, religious tales, and numerous volumes on pioneering in Palestine. It also included pedagogical material on leading religious services, constructing holiday observance, Jewish historical commemorations, handbooks of Jewish humor, and materials for Jewish theater, music, and poetry (Jewish Educational Committee of New York, 1941).

Indian play reached peak popularity in the 1940s and 1950s, persisting through the great changes afoot among American Jews with the end of World War II and the rise of suburbanism and the “problem” of Jewish affluence. As historian Rachel Kranson has shown, American Jewish ambivalence about suburban life—the effects that upward mobility might be having on Jewish gender norms, their attitudes toward religiosity, their left-of-center political commitments, and even their very souls—impacted Jewish recreational activities as much as their careers, home lives, synagogues, and organizational decisions (Kranson, 2017). Though Kranson did not include summer camps in her history of American Jewish postwar ambivalence, these camps most certainly echoed her broad findings.

By the early 1950s, many Jewish summer camps had begun shedding Indian play as a central element of their educational programs. Educators roundly understood that the small-scale Jewish societies created at camp could serve as model, mock, and simplified Jewish communities for campers, affording them a robust opportunity for intensive experiential programming in the context of the social ideologies they wished to promote. Since camp societies immersed their citizens during key developmental moments in the lifetimes of Jewish children, educators turned camps into sites for rich and careful programming along political and religious lines, where Jewish children could learn to be better communists, better Reform Jews, or better Zionists during all of the moments in camping schedules where they might have become better Americans. As the Indian play became less relevant for these ideological lessons, a camp dining hall became a hader ohel rather than a “longhouse,” Hebrew liturgy or Labor Zionist songs replaced indigenous incantations and melodies, and campers imagined themselves into the bodies and minds of partisans or halutzim, rather than Sioux or Apache. Indian play waned further from many camps’ programs and rosters in the 1960s. Some camps became more religious, others more Zionist, and still other, privately owned camps became more specialized by activity (sports, music, or canoe tripping).

While Indian play persisted at some camps (particularly privately owned ones) into the 2000s and indeed until today, newfound cultural sensitivities to cultural appropriation, race politics, and anxious public discourse around political correctness also helped to thin out Indian play after the 1980s. But these changes did not necessarily mean the eradication of Indian play altogether, only its shrinking place in camps’ offerings. Thus, despite the significant changes that Canadian and American Jewries underwent between the 1920s and 1960s—upward mobility and suburbanization, the diminishment of the left, immigration restriction, the impact of the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel—and despite the changes to families with camping-aged children through these decades, Indian play’s advantages persisted.

Updated: Jan. 30, 2019