Campers heading to summer shtetl in West Marin

It's hot. It's hip and it's happening in our own backyard.

It's KlezKamp, the ultimate Yiddish experience.

The brainchild of Henry Sapoznik, head of the nonprofit Living Traditions in New York City, KlezKamp is a five-night, five-day total immersion in all things Yiddish.

It's like returning to the shtetl, only with indoor plumbing and California coffee.

Sapoznik says you don't have to speak Yiddish, play an instrument or even be Jewish to come. All you need is that spark of Yiddishkeit somewhere in your soul.

This summer, there will be a KlezKamp West at Walker Creek Ranch, a rustic facility nestled in the Marin hills just west of Petaluma, where 100 years ago a Yiddish-speaking, socialist, chicken-farming community thrived.

Since 1985, KlezKamp has been an annual East Coast event, held in the Catskills (where else?) during the week between Christmas and New Year's. Ten years ago Sapoznik tried a KlezKamp West in Santa Cruz but, at that time, managing two camps proved to be too complicated.

But now the time is right for a second try.

Sapoznik got the idea for KlezKamp in the early 1980s while working as the sound archivist at New York's YIVO Institute. The klezmer revival was just getting started. There were only four klezmer bands in the United States playing a small repertoire of music.

"I found most people who were involved in klezmer and Yiddish music were into it completely out of context," said Sapoznik, who grew up in a home steeped in Yiddish politics, culture and language. "[The bands] were choosing elements of the culture to celebrate and making up others. The real culture is vibrant enough that you don't have to make stuff up."

So Sapoznik made it his mission to bring the breadth of Yiddish culture to anyone who wanted to learn. He did it by recruiting "folks that have been in the trenches for years." Such veterans of Yiddishkeit as Eli Katz, Harvey Varga, Lauren Brody, Margot Leverett and Zalmen Mlotek have all come to KlezKamp over the years to pass their knowledge and experience on to others.

"There was no continuity [for people] to learn this level of cultural literacy from people who actually lived it," said Sapoznik, the son of a cantor, who himself is a cantor trained in the old meshoyrer tradition of apprenticeship. "People should learn from the primary sources."

When the YIVO Institute pulled the plug on KlezKamp three years ago, Sapoznik left to form Living Traditions with Lorin Sklamberg, a vocalist with the Klezmatics, and Dan Peck, to continue KlezKamp and his research of Yiddish culture.

From 90 campers and 30 staff members, the camp has grown in numbers every year. Last year 450 people gathered for KlezKamp; some 15 percent of the participants were non-Jews.

This summer, KlezKamp will offer scores of classes about all things Yiddish — from crafts, dance and music, to language, literature, poetry and theater. With four periods a day and six to 12 classes offered for each time slot, campers can focus on one particular area or get an overview of the Yiddish-Eastern European Jewish culture.

At night everyone boogies and shows off what they've learned during the day in cabaret-style impromptu performances.

"It's like a continuous Jewish wedding for five nights in a row," says Piedmont resident Debbie Bernick, a KlezKamp regular who makes the 3,000 mile journey to join the party. Last year she took her 80-year-old mother and 7-year-old daughter. "The camp is a wonderful multigenerational experience," she says.

Say Sapoznik, "It's got an intergenerational cast. The demographics are frighteningly balanced."

Some campers even chose KlezKamp to celebrate their real-life simchas like weddings, bar mitzvahs, hair-cutting and baby-naming ceremonies.

Last year, Rabbi Melanie Aron of Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos went to camp with her husband, 14-year-old daughter and two sons, ages 9 and 3.

"It was wonderful. It was great. It was like family camp. Everyone did their own thing," said Aron, who even got to have some adult time with her husband. "There was baby-sitting and hall patrol. Your kids can be bedded down for the night so you can go out."

Aron's daughter studied Yiddish and the Jewish labor union history with other teens. Her older son, a clarinetist, played in a band. Her little one joined Kindernest, a toddler program. Even her husband the physicist found lots to do.

"I was with Jews who were Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Yiddishist, anti-religionists and secularists," Aron said. "There are not all that many opportunities where Jews across the spectrum get together."

San Franciscan Devra Noily, a committed trumpet player and frequent KlezKamp attendee, goes for the music.

"Over a period of five days you learn music and you perform," says Noily, who serves as West Coast coordinator for KlezKamp. She started a band at Congregation Sha'ar Zahav and imports the music she learns at KlezKamp. "You're working with the people who are at the top of the field. The groups are small." She credits Sapoznik as being "one of the people responsible for the klezmer revival."

One of the aspects Noily likes best about the music program at KlezKamp is its democratic quality and the informal contact between amateurs and professionals.

Even the kids get into the music scene with their own band.

It's called The Omm-chiks. What else?