Summer camp's complex legacy
Last week, this article about summer camp in Tablet caught my eye. I’m sure it was intended as humour, but when the article showed up in my RSS feed, promising advice on surviving the return from camp, I half-expected a full-length article for young 20-somethings who have non-camp jobs for the first time. Instead, the article provided tongue-in-cheek strategies for parents to handle eerily realistic problems that their kids have brought home from camp: a persistent desire to play a dodge-ball variation called Gaga, the insistence that the entire family pray Birkat Hamazon after every meal, and moaning and groaning about missing camp friends.
This is my second camp-free summer. I didn’t quit cold turkey: after three summers on staff at one Jewish summer camp, preceded by four summers as a camper at another, I spent two final weeks in 2008 introducing 8-year-olds to their first taste of camp. After that, I succumbed to the pull of a biweekly paycheque and spent Summer 2009 working a desk job. This past summer I participated in the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute internship in Waltham, MA. I still miss swimming in the agam (lake), and speaking in the hybrid Hebrew-English slang that turns Hebrew words into poorly Anglicized short forms. I know my friends miss it, too – last week, one sent out a link to an archived This American Life episode all about camp. We talk about it often, with both nostalgia and criticism. We wonder whether camp will ever provide an atmosphere where campers will feel safe challenging the norm, and in the next breath we bemoan the smallest of changes to camp’s structure as threatening its very integrity (how dare they change the setup of the tables in the dining hall?!). Even our casual references to “camp” – it never needs any other descriptor or a proper noun name – signify our simultaneous familiarity and unease with the place, since our tones of reference change depending on context.
I credit camp with my development of leadership skills, and for teaching me patience. As a counsellor at camp, I met my best friends. I read Torah on a regular basis for the first time, a practice that still fills me with a sense of honour and pride. On the other hand, when I was fourteen, I realized that I would never be popular at camp because I didn’t have the right socks. Mine were plain white cotton; the girls who fit in all wore wool socks with a red stripe at the cuff. Who knew lessons about consumer culture could come from such a simple garment? I also saw camp as a place that betrayed me when, without a successful summer romance, I knew I had failed to achieve what was an essential element of every girl’s summer. We may say that we teach our young folk to be independent, strong Jews at camp, but in the very next breath, we comment on how many of these independent Jews grew up to marry other independent Jews who they met at camp. Amir Blumenfeld touches on this phenomenon in this YouTube video. It guest-stars one of my former camp colleagues!
This article in the Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia details the history of Jewish summer camping in America. It documents some of the major benefits of summer camp, as well as some of its more questionable traditions, including confirmation of class stratification and appropriation of American Indian symbols. It’s given me a different perspective on my experiences by historicizing them, showing me how they fit into a long historical trajectory influenced by social, political and economic factors.
But at the end of the day, when I’m climbing into my clean double bed, I still yearn for the evening rituals in the cabin, although I can certainly live without the permanently sandy sheets. I grieve – though only a little – I haven’t jumped in the lake at least twice that day, and that Shabbat no longer means brownies for dessert and doughnuts for breakfast. Despite all my ambivalence, I still miss camp.