Vot is Kemp Life?

Friday, July 30, 2021
Beginning in the late 1800’s, New York Jews began escaping the city’s crowded and diseased tenements for summer stays at farms and boarding houses in the Catskill Mountains. Summer camps were also established in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, the Adirondacks of upper New York, and other lake sites in the Northeast. Due to antisemitic exclusion by existing hoteliers, Jews founded their own lodgings. By the 1920’s, accommodations ranged from modest kukh-aleyns (cook-on-your-owns) to fashionable hotels with extravagant entertainment.

Published in 1927, Vot is kemp life?: And a couple odder tings by Mac (Max) Liebman satirizes the camp experience in a method characteristic of the period’s genres of vaudeville and ethnic humor.

Main character Sadie Cohen is a dramatized, stylized caricature of an Ashkenazi Jewish woman from New York City. The author uses nonstandard spelling to emphasize Sadie’s Yiddish accent, a common technique used in dialect humor. In Chapter One, Sadie arrives home from camp and brags to friends: “Aint you hoid? I was to a kemp!…Aint you hoid from life in de great hotdoors? It’s de latest style in wacations.” She describes the train journey to camp, as well as the modest accommodations—“a floor, a roof and a sink!”. Sadie is illustrated wearing a dress, earrings and decorative scarf, knee high socks and heeled pumps, carrying a fashionable suitcase; her femininity is a large part of the book’s comedy. Summer vacations were associated with frivolity, and because many men could only travel out of the city after the work week, the camp environment during the week was predominantly female.

Sadie participates in popular activities readers would have recognized from their own summer Mountain trips, including horseback riding, playing tennis, swimming in the lake, and searching for a love match. In Chapter 6, Sadie highlights the role romance played at camp while speaking with her female friends, as she states:

“Vot would be de kemp life widot ruhmans?

You can play tannis in Central Park.

You can go swimming in Coney Hiland.

You can heat in a kafe.

But if you want rumens you must go to a kemp!”

In fact, many New York singles viewed summer resorts as the ideal venue for securing a romantic partner. Women specifically felt pressure to increase their social status by marrying up.

The escapades of Sadie Cohen in Vot is kemp life? ring comically true for anyone familiar with the entertaining and escapist world of Jewish summer camps and resorts. Author Mac (Max) Liebman (1902-1981), Jewish writer, producer and director, was certainly familiar with the summer circuit. He began his career in 1920 as a comedy sketch-writer and by 1925, was working as a social director for Log Tavern, a camp in Pennsylvania. In 1932 he was appointed producer and director for Camp Tamiment’s Theatrical Workshop, a summer stock playhouse in the Poconos. One of his Tamiment productions made its way to Broadway as The Straw Hat Revue in 1939. Throughout his successful career in stage and television production, Liebman introduced to the public many talents, including performers Danny Kaye and Sid Caesar.

Contributed by Taylor Dwyer, Assistant Librarian in Los Angeles

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