Posted by Nat Bernstein
For many American Jews, summer camp was a crucial experience of childhood, coming of age, and early employment. Regardless of which particular camp you called home for those first weeks away from your parents, you'll laugh and relate to the characters and customs in the following flicks:
Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
Yes, obviously. The myriad oblique references to Camp Firewood’s religious affiliation are largely to credit for the movie’s cult appeal. (That and an all-star comedic cast including Amy Poehler, Michael Ian Black, Bradley Cooper, Michael Showalter, Paul Rudd, Molly Shannon, Ken Marino, Joe Lo Truglio, Christopher Meloni, and David Hyde Pierce.) Set in 1981, Wet Hot American Summer follows the Firewood staff’s Hail Mary attempts to find love, carnal pleasures, or amusement on the last day of camp.
You’ve probably been hearing a lot about this movie this summer. There’s a reason for that. Bring on The First Day of Camp!
A Walk on the Moon (1999)
Another Jewish summer camp flick set before its time, A Walk on the Moon also features a stellar cast you would never know collaborated on a Jewish movie: Diane Lane, Liev Schreiber, Anna Paquin, Viggo Mortenseten. So basically you have Martha Kent (Superman), Sabretooth and Rogue (X-Men), and Aragorn (The Lord of the Rings) all running around a Jewish family retreat camp just outside of Woodstock in the summer of 1969.
What sets A Walk on the Moon apart—other than the absence of comedic hijinks or spectacular dance numbers—is the breadth it covers of both personal narrative—a young Jewish mother whose children have outgrown her life’s purpose; a father driving overnight each way for to spend his one day off of work for the week with his family; a girl with a lakeshore summer’s outlet for the rebellions and temptations of adolescence; a heretofore untethered drifter; a grandmother left with her daughter-in-law, watching her son’s family fall apart in his absence—and Jewish American history, culture, and experience: a euphoric mazel tov from a father to his daughter on the arrival of her first period, delivered over the camp P.A. system in the middle of morning announcements; encounters and even friendships with the Orthodox vacationers on the same beach; huddles of Jackie O bobs and cateye glasses cackling around picnic tables covered in mah jongg tiles.
Dirty Dancing (1987)
You can’t really bring up Jewish family vacation camps without at least mentioning Dirty Dancing. A Jewish American Princess falls for Kellerman’s Mountain House’s dance instructor and his limber community—both of which her father strictly disapproves.
I know a high school teacher who screens the movie in class every time she teaches a course on modern Jewish history. But that might just be her excuse to watch the film.
Ah, what to say about Gorp. Dated, slapstick, and extremely problematic—half of our heroes’ antics are variations of sleep rape—but still essential to the canon. It’s basically Animal House set in an upstate Jewish summer camp, where two fast-talking mess hall waiters lead their shack of colleagues through a repeat summer of pranks, pursuit, and flouting the rules. Featuring an almost unrecognizably young Dennis Quaid as “Mad” Grossman and Fran Drescher at the start of her career, Gorp slips a few insider jokes in between the raunchy humor, largely at the expense of the camp rabbi’s poorly attended sermons.
The movie is unquestionably distasteful and offensive to modern sensibilities, but it is also perhaps the first—and possibly still the most blatant—to claim Jewish summer camp as its home.
Commie Camp (2013)
Commie Camp explores the establishment, legacy, and current culture of a Jewish socialist children’s summer camp in the Berkshires. Founded in 1923 by immigrant Jewish laborers as a means to get their offspring out New York City’s tenements for the season, Camp Kinderland continues to collect and inculcate an annual crop of creative and quirky kids each summer. You really can’t understand the world of Jewish summer camp in its entirety until you’ve at least glimpsed its socialist outposts.
Four Seasons Lodge (2006)
A New York Times series of articles on aging Holocaust survivors retreating to the Catskills inspired the reporter writing them to commission a filmed record of this dwindling summer community with the co-creator of Grey Gardens behind the camera. The documentary enters the Four Seasons Lodge as its octo- and nonagenarian summer denizens enjoy their 26th season at the colony, enjoying the entertainment, food, and opportunities to socialize and dance as they have together over the past quarter-century, without hint or mention of the dark past left in Nazi-occupied Poland—until the cameras start rolling.
A beautiful, unusually subtle piece of testimony, Four Seasons Lodge is a reminder of the restorative value of a summer retreat at any age, with any story.
- Summer Camp Reading List
- Jonathan Krasner: The Magic of Summer Camp
- The Path of Names by Ari B. Goelman