Boiberik was different. There were full-fledged resorts, like the Concord and Grossinger's, holiday havens that featured an endless smorgasbord of food and drink and gold jewelry and sun tan lotion. I'm told that work in their dining rooms was exceptionally lucrative, and grown men were known to grab these jobs in order to augment their income as college professors. Such positions were, understandably, hard to come by. Of course, the renumeration was not without its price; you worked like a dog and were treated like one.
While the parents compared wealth at these luxury bungaloo colonies, their children flourished at summer camps. There were specialty camps: some emphasized acting; others, sports; still others promised to burn off unwanted flab. Boiberik featured Yiddish-kite.
What was Yiddishkite? Well, I'm not exactly sure (even though I spent nine summers there). As best as I could determine, the definition of Yiddishkite, in fact, the actual raison d'etre for Boiberik, was intimately related to the passions of its founder, Leibush Lehrer. (The account that follows is a subject of heated debate, and I shall therefore quote sources, where available.)
Apparently, around 1925, a Jewish immigrant named Leibush Lehrer foresaw the dangers of cultural assimilation. Equipped with little more than a cartful of shovels and axes, a few tents, and a robust, pioneering spirit, he and a small band of fellow immigrants trekked ninety miles from their lower East Side neighborhood, north to Rhinebeck, New York, (located in the serene seclusion of the eastern Hudson Valley). Together, they founded "Boiberik," (named for a fictional town in a Sholem Alechem novel) where, they hoped, their families would be able to vacation away from the stultifying influences of Manhattan, and where old-country values, language, and art, would flourish.
This is the "official account" of Boiberik's founding. Members of the Jewish community at-large agree that Boiberik did, indeed, come into being in the mid-1920's. The antecedent events in general, and Leibush's past in particular, are the subject of controversy. (Specifically, the question of finances has attracted a great deal of attention in the resort literature. See, for example: Gottlieb, Bing. Secrets of the Valdhois: Meyer Lansky's Legacy to Boiberik, Catskill Esoterica, July, 1948, pp.64-96).
One is obligated to ask, "How did Leibush Lehrer, an impoverished songwriter from Minsk, gather the resources to support a caravan in transit from New York City to Rhinebeck, and once there, to purchase a sizeable tract of land?"
Jon Sterngass, widely published scholar (and author of Sports Heroes of the Diaspora) contends that the funds ultimately directed towards the establishment of Boiberik were generated by illegal dealings following World War I. In his (soon to be published) latest treatise, Sterngass outlines the following scenario:
In1917, Leibush, enamored of his adopted country, chose to join the army. He soon found himself in France, enlisted as one of the Doughboys.
One dismally overcast afternoon during the Austrian campaign, Leibush's squadron was pinned in the trenches, caught between mortar fire to the north and the deadly chlorine vapors sifting towards them from the south. The disheartened troops feared that this might be thier last stand.
As they crouched together, cold, wet, and desparate, some of the men actually started wailing, calling for their sweethearts and mothers, and generally behaving in a manner that many would later deny. Inexplicably, Leibush felt lighthearted, almost jubuliant; and a hopeful and courageous tune welled up in his bosom. Quite out of nowhere, he began chanting a victorious tune. It went something like this:
Oh, who's gonna vin?
Oh, who's gonna vin?
Oh, who's gonna vin, the people saaaaaay.
Vy ,ve're gonna vin,
Yes, ve're gonna vin,
Yeah, doughboys of the mighty U-S-AAAAAaaaaAAAA!
He sang this, over and over, and his bravado grew with the repetition of each refrain. His sergeant crawled alongside him and tried to stifle this battle call, lest the enemy hear his boastful chant and direct their mortar accordingly. But it was too late. The enthusiasm was contagious, and soon the entire unit was infected with the spirit of victory. They stormed from their trenches with expressions that their German captives later described as demoniacal glee (sububermenchen zeist).
The French-American victory as Pousse-Morraine was, according to Sterngass' sources, attributed to the spirit of Leibush, and word of his uncanny ability to compose fight songs under pressure eventually reached General Pershing.
(Interestingly, this unique talent was cultivated at Camp Boiberik's Mazel Tov Day competitions, in which the team that sang the loudest and most cohesively was handsomely rewarded. Some critics of the Sterngass hypothesis, notably the Irish historian/body-builder Donald Olenick, accuse Sterngass of contriving the entire Pousse-Morraine drama based on his astute observations of Mazel Tov Day. These accusations have led to a litiginous battle, the results currently pending in the New York State Supreme Court. Nevertheless, a spokesman for Holt-Rhinehart claims that Sterngass' seminal work, Blood on the Saddle, will be published this spring regardless of the court's final decision.)
At any rate, according to the Sterngass account, Pershing was so grateful that, after the war, he awarded Leibush the opportunity to stay on in France to conduct the Armed Forces Glee Club.
At this point, Sterngass admits that verifiable documentation becomes scarce. Based on limited evidence, including a series of letters scrawled to one Motyl Gottesman (another of Boiberik's founding fathers) and signed "LL," Leibush enveigled himself within an illegal textile export ring and managed to smuggle two shiploads of quolette, the coarse French fabric from which camp blankets and CPO jackets are made, back to the United States. It may be no coincidence that the winter following Leibush's last appearance in Europe, (on the eve of the Cannes Festival Sing Along in October of 1921) there was a severe clothing shortage in Southern France.
The proposition that the purchase of Boiberik's land was financed by proceeds gained from the theft and subsequent American sale of coarse European fabric is further buttressed by the French labels that appeared on Felker costumes from 1929 to 1946.
As noted above, the Sterngass thesis is not without its critics. Arnold Kramer, chief executive officer of Huntzfuntz International and renowned etymologist, offers a strikingly different account of Leibush's young adulthood.
According to the Kramer view (similarly based on inference and surmise) the teenage Lehrer's boat from the "old country" was thrown off course by an Atlantic maelstrom and was forced to dock at the Caribbean island of Bimini before reventuring to New York. Leibush, however, peered over the ship's railing and, according to this description, was so enchanted by the carefree attitudes of the naked island natives that he jumped overboard, subsequently hiding in a banana warehouse until his ship left harbor.
The clever and enterprising Leibush mastered Biminini (the native tongue) in no time, and he utilized his natural gift for songwriting and pageantry to produce a number of musicals for the tribal chieftains. So enthralled were these Caribbean Indians, who had never before danced a hora, that they showered Leibush with countless bushels of cigars and bananas (the currency of the Island).
Eventually (this fanciful version would have us believe) Leibush tired of the island's phallic fare and longed to join his family in New York. This was no problem, as he had amassed a small fortune in oblong perishables. In 1922, he simply chartered a cargo ship to carry himself, his two illegitimate sons (Boiberik's first dishwashers) 1,000 bushels of bananas and countless crates of cigars to New York. The produce was sold at the Hunts Point market and Boiberik was founded.
How, the inquisitive reader will wonder, could two such disparate accounts of the same man's life be supported by credible evidence? One biography, and possibly both, are woefully and misleadingly inaccurate. Of course, both writers agree that Leibush was a resourceful and opportunistic individual, a fact supported by the Boiberik's prosperity during his lifetime. Additionally, his musical and linguistic skills are integral to both success stories (and the chronicle of Felker ceremonies through the years verifies that this talent was, indeed, genuine). Still, Bimini and France are thousands of miles apart. Just where was the real Leibush?
Jonathan Weiner, curator of the museum of Semitic Paraphenalia and author of Call Me Peshkie: A Modern Day Saga of the Book of Job (Wormdog Press, 1982) has recently penned a monogram that highlights the discrepancies between the Kramer and Sterngass versions of Leibush Lehrer's life. In it, Weiner contends that it was actually Leonard Lehrer, Leibush's younger brother, that was sowing his wild oats in the Caribbean while Leibush was performing his patriotic duty in Europe. According to the "Weiner Compromise," Leibush founded Boiberik while Lenny went on to become one of the nation's first health food moguls.
Weiner's incisive monogram ends with the retelling of a tragic and ironic anecdote. Lenny, as the story goes, was consumed by sibling rivalry his entire life. It was not surprising, therefore, that, while lying on his death bed, Lenny reportedly swore that, someday, his health food conglomerate would eventually trample on Leibush's prize possession, his "Boiberik." (According to witnesses, he spat out this last word disdainfully at the moment of his demise.) The corporation he owned was named Alpha-Beta Foods. Eventaully, it spawned a self-help, new age institute called, "Omega."
Chapter IV: Janice Smolowitz
Station Two Home Page
Camp Boiberik Home Page