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Huh, That’s Cool: Leonard Cohen and Sunshine Camp

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Everyone has those moments – you’re doing research in the archives, and come across something super cool that makes you go, “huh,” but it is too small to turn into an article. Maybe copies end up in a file on your computer, or maybe the story just lives on in your head, but no more! Inspired by Nursing Clio’s Adventures in the Archives, this new series, entitled “Huh, that’s cool,”* will finally bring those awesome finds to light.

*I tried to come up with a better name, but my brain failed me.

Some of you may know this already, but my research concentrates on the experiences of Jewish women in Canada (mostly Montreal). For the past couple of years, I’ve been trying to finish (ha!) the research for my book, so I’ve been going back over archival records that I previously discarded. My talented researcher, Jessica Dunkin, had been going through documents from the Baron de Hirsch Institute’s summer camp programs when she came across a staff evaluation for someone named Leonard Cohen. I was thinking that this had to be a coincidence, but it turns out I was wrong…

 

The Baron de Hirsch

First established in 1863 at the Young Men’s Hebrew Benevolent Society, the Baron de Hirsch Institute was and is the largest Jewish philanthropic organization in Montreal, dedicated to assisting and “uplifting” Jewish immigrants in need. The name, constituents, and organization of the Baron de Hirsch Institute changed significantly over the course of the twentieth century, but for the sake of simplicity, I’m just going to refer to it by that name.[1]

 

Jewish Summer Camps

"Sunshine Camp, St. Marguerite, Lac Masson, Quebec." N.D. PC 01-05-046. Canadian Jewish Congress Collection. Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives. Used with permission.

“Sunshine Camp, St. Marguerite, Lac Masson, Quebec.” N.D. PC 01-05-046. Canadian Jewish Congress Collection. Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives. Used with permission.

As part of its initiatives, its Family and Child Welfare division sponsored several different summer camps for underprivileged urban Jewish children who were under the care of the division. One of these was called the Sunshine Camp, which was established in 1936 at Lac Masson, outside of Ste. Marguerite, Quebec.[2] The goal of the camp was to provide a break for children, to allow them to experience the outdoors, and to provide children with a model for their daily life, with the hope that they would “carry over the good habits when the child returns to the city.”[3]

 

Sunshine Camp

The size of the camp varied over the years, but was usually between 80 to 120 children. In 1951, for example, there were eighty beds available, with one head counsellor, two division heads, and sixteen group counsellors, and, over the course of the summer, there were 120 boys and girls. [4] Campers ranged in age, with a few exceptions, from six to thirteen years old.[5] The camp offered the kind of regular camp activities you’d expect: swimming, hiking, arts and crafts, basketball, etc… But it also offered Jewish activities, like the Bar Mitzvah that was put on for one camper, complete with party and gift of English and Hebrew Chumash (printed Torah),[6] the celebration of Shabbat every Friday evening, Shabbat services every Saturday morning, and even a performance of Jewish history on Tisha B’av (which is a basically a holiday about all the different attempts to exterminate the Jews. Cheerful.).[7]

These kinds of camps were really common at the time. My mother attended one in upstate New York called Camp Hiawatha, and many of my peers ended up going to more modern versions of these camps when I was much younger. Some of these camps were specifically Zionist in orientation, but all of them were designed to provide children with what community leaders believe was an appropriate Jewish Canadian cultural environment.[8]

 

So What did Jessica Find?

Among the camp reports for Summer 1950 and 1951, there are references first to a “Leonard Cohen, CIT” (counsellor in training) and then to a “Leonard Cohen, Junior Counsellor.” The first report, from 1950, is quite favourable, and made my husband laugh out loud when he read it:

Despite young in years very mature in many ways. Needs more training and skills. Watch for traces of scepticism. Suggest rehire with training and supervision and winter experience. Had full counsellor responsibility which he took seriously. Conscientious and sincere.[9]

I’m not actually a Leonard Cohen fan (::gasp::), but my husband, knowledgeable musical lover that he is, thought the scepticism sounded right. Still, nothing conclusive.

The report for the “Leonard Cohen, Junior Counsellor,” referred to in the text as “Len” [Len!) is also favourable., though Cohen apparently had a rough start to the summer. The camp director noted that Cohen seemed to be reluctant to return as a counsellor, and initially seemed “completely disinterested in the activities and tended to lead the counsellors along a similar path.” But after a consultation, Cohen’s attitude improved remarkably. Here’s an excerpt from the report:

He proved himself very original in many endeavours which his bunk undertook and made ample use of his imagination. His interests were many and varied. He often led the camp in sing song, and made good use of his guitar as an accompanist. A good knowledge of camp crafts was very useful in pioneering and overnight hikes. He also served as assistant to Peter Starke at the waterfront, and directed the Counsellors show.

This impressive list of achievements did not cause him to become swellheaded. He was on excellent terms with the rest of the staff and did much to undermine the efforts of a few members of the staff who tended to exert influence in the wrong direction.

Though young in years Len has shown himself to be quite mature. His interests and activities are not frivolous, but tend to be associated with the finer aspects of our culture. He is an intelligent boy who can fully understand the responsibilities of a bunk counsellor. He was very often entrusted with tasks above the bunk counsellor level, and carried these out in a satisfactory manner.[10]

Again, this sounds remarkably like “the” Leonard Cohen, though it’s not an entirely uncommon name. And no more information exists on “Len” in this source material. He isn’t listed in the records for Sunshine Camp in 1952 and in 1953, as the decision was made to close Sunshine Camp due to the prohibitive costs of making repairs and a number of other factors. [11]

 

Google Saves the Day

So that was the end of the line there, and I was doubtful that we could verify which summer camp “the” Leonard Cohen attended nearly seventy years ago. But just for fun, I typed “Leonard Cohen” and “Sunshine camp” into Google to see what popped up. And wouldn’t you know it, there were several mentions of “the” Leonard Cohen attending Sunshine camp in 1950!

I did some more digging around, and confirmed that, according to several biographies, “the” Leonard Cohen did in fact attend Sunshine Camp, which is listed by name and described in at least one case as a camp for “disturbed” children. [12]  According to Cohen (as described in one of the biographies), the director of the camp in 1950 was apparently an American socialist who had sided with North Korea. This director circulated a copy of The People’s Songbook, and it was using this book that he taught himself to play guitar while at summer camp. There is also reportedly a photograph of Cohen at camp, described as follows: “Leonard, though still short, slightly plump and wearing clothes no man should ever wear in public – white shorts, white polo shirt, black shoes, white socks, – with the blondest, coolest-looking girl sitting next to him, her knee touching his.[13]

So it looks like Jessica accidentally found Leonard Cohen’s camp counsellor evaluations! How cool is that?

 

Extra Credit:

  • You can see pictures from another Jewish Summer Camp, Camp Wooden Acres, which essentially replaced Sunshine Camp after it closed, by clicking here.
  • The Jewish Public Library of Montreal has a blog post, called “Ladies and Gentlemen: Leonard Cohen!” on Sam Gesser, who was a major figure in the Montreal entertainment industry. It’s worth taking a look.
  • Check out the history of one of Montreal’s most well known Jewish Summer camps, Camp B’nai Brith.
  • There is also a great article from the Jewish Women’s Archive all about Jewish Summer camps in the US.

 


Do you have any cool stories from your research in the archives? Would you like to be featured in a future episode of “Huh, that’s cool”? Let me know in the comments below, tweet me, or send me an email at the address listed at the top right of the page!

On a final note, I too worked at a Jewish summer camp as a counsellor, and there are some staff evaluations floating around in the Cote Saint-Luc archives… God help me.

 


[1] Just to give you an idea…. it 1916 it was renamed the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies; it became Jewish Family Social Services in 1974, before becoming Ometz in 2008. Mostly people I know just call it Baron de Hirsch.

[2] Preliminary Report Joint Agency Self-Study BdeH JCWB 9 page 11, July 1953, 1945, Volume 34 File 4, MG 28 V86 Jewish Family Services – Baron de Hirsch Institute, Library and Archives Canada. In 1945, there was a statement that the camp catered to children with “special behaviour problems,” this is the only reference in the files I’ve seen. Report of Special Committee on Camps Executives, page 3, 1945 , Volume 12 File 7, MG 28 V86 Jewish Family Services – Baron de Hirsch Institute, Library and Archives Canada.

[3] 1945 Report of Camp Director Sunshine Camp Planning for Camp 3

[4] Study of Job Load and Qualifications of Resident Camp Directors, November 11 1950, Volume 13 File 7, MG 28 V86 Jewish Family Services – Baron de Hirsch Institute, Library and Archives Canada and Annual Report Baron de Hirsch Institute and Jewish Child Welfare Bureau, page 3, 1951, Volume 345 File 12, MG28 I10 Canadian Council of Social Development, Library and Archives Canada.

[5] 1950.08.29 Sunshine Camp Report to Camp Director, page 4, May 29 1950, Volume 13 File 7, MG 28 V86 Jewish Family Services – Baron de Hirsch Institute, Library and Archives Canada.

[6] Sunshine Camp Report to Camp Director, page 8, May 29 1950, Volume 13 File 7, MG 28 V86 Jewish Family Services – Baron de Hirsch Institute, Library and Archives Canada.

[7] Sunshine Camp Report to Camp Director, page 7, May 29 1950, Volume 13 File 7, MG 28 V86 Jewish Family Services – Baron de Hirsch Institute, Library and Archives Canada. For more on Tisha B’av, please see http://www.jewfaq.org/holidayd.htm

[8] There isn’t a lot of information available on Jewish summer camps in Canada (one more thing to add to the list). The best sources I’ve found are Ester Reiter, “Secular Yiddishkait: Left Politics, Culture, and Community,” Labour/Le Travail 49 (Spring 2002): 121-46, Retier, “Camp Naivelt and the Daughters of the Jewish Left,” in Sisters or Strangers? Immigrant, Ethnic, and Racialized Women in Canadian History, eds. Marlene Epp, Franca Iacovetta, and Frances Swyripa, 365-380 (Toronto: UTP, 2004), and Sharon Wall, Wall,The Nurture Of Nature: Childhood, Antimodernism, And Ontario Summer Camps, 1920-55. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2009), 85-86, 90-91. However, it’s important to note that these works all deal with camps in Ontario, and Reiter’s work is more centred on the interwar period.

[9] Sunshine Camp Staff Evaluation, page 4, August 1950, Volume 13 File 7, MG 28 V86 Jewish Family Services – Baron de Hirsch Institute, Library and Archives Canada.

[10] Sunshine Camp Report to Camp Committee, pages 33-34, August 1 1951, Volume 13 File 8, MG 28 V86 Jewish Family Services – Baron de Hirsch Institute, Library and Archives Canada.

[11] Letter to J. Gilletz from Joseph Lefcoe, March 12, 1954, Volume 12 File 19, MG 28 V86 Jewish Family Services – Baron de Hirsch Institute, Library and Archives Canada.

[12] Loranne S. Dorman and Clive L. Rawlins, Leonard Cohen: Prophet of the Heart (London: Omnibus Press, 1990), 34.

[13] Sylvie Simmons. I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2012), no (E-book) page numbers

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2 Comments

  1. Leonard Cohen writes about his character attending a summer camp that sounds very much like this in his first novel The Favorite Game.

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