Camp memories: Catskills camp and a life of comedy

When I was 14, I got shipped off to a summer camp I had absolutely no interest in attending: a seemingly uncool Jewish camp in the Catskills called Camp Hemshekh, whose focus was keeping Yiddish culture and language alive.

Whoop-de-do. Sign me up. No, don’t. I dreaded the summer: being stuck with kids who were probably really active in their Jewish youth groups and who probably didn’t smoke pot, which was the most important thing at the time to this 14-year-old. I dreaded my arrival. Just the name of the camp exuded boredom: Hemshekh.

But what ensued were two of the richest summers of my life and lifelong friendships that continue to this day. Hemshekh was a broken-down camp but was rich in other things. While friends from home were attending expensive, rich-kid camps with horseback riding and other amenities, we had cracks in our pool and basketball court, and the bunks looked like they should be condemned. We had breakfast singing with Phil Ochs songs and camp field trips to see Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

Hemshekh (“continuation” in Yiddish) was founded by Holocaust survivors who were active in the Jewish Labor Bund in Eastern Europe. Camp managed to keep Yiddish language and culture alive through plays, songs and language classes, as well as provided a community that lives on in 2012.

I didn’t realize at the time that several of the kids’ parents were survivors; that’s something I have since learned through our Facebook page and our reunions. I co-organized one two years ago, and we’re in the beginning stages of planning another one for the summer. (The camp closed in 1978.)

If it weren’t for camp, Kung Pao Kosher Comedy would never have been born: The idea came out of a phone conversation with one of my camp friends. Next year the event turns 20, and my camp friends and I turn 50.

Lisa Geduldig is a comedian and comedy producer (Kung Pao Kosher Comedy) in San Francisco.