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Sleepaway Camp

 

It’s probably the heat that made me think of sleep away camp. I spent five summers in upstate New York, supposedly in the Berkshires, pretending it was cooler out of town. The memory that started the ball rolling was of Friday nights in the dining hall. The whole camp would eat together for that one meal, eating half-burned, half-raw, Kineret pre-frozen challahs, and singing Shabbat songs.

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“I could eat.”

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“Food? Where?”

Friday night to Saturday in camp was a big production. First, on Friday afternoons, we had to clean up the field in front of our bunks, then we had to clean our bunks, and then shower, and then dress up, in something other than shorts and t-shirts. All of the kids on A-side (ages 8-12) would go to one Shabbat service, and all of the kids on B-side (ages 12-16) would go to another, and then we came together for dinner in the dining hall, with all of the counselors, and visiting parents, and staff, and various random adults. And we would sing. The acoustics were glorious! And everyone joined in, even the coolest of the cool kids.

Friday night services at camp were a little awkward, because we were all dressed up and self-conscious and mixing with the other age groups with kids we didn’t know as well. And it was formal and serious, something else we weren’t used to. But once we got into the dining hall something changed. Everyone knows food. We sat by bunk, with our counselors, and listened to the noise level grow as everyone else entered the building. Then we went up to the front tables to pick up extra challah and extra chicken and potatoes. And once we finished eating, and cleaned our tables, we started singing Friday night songs, and even if you didn’t know what the words meant, the huge sound of clapping hands and stomping feet pulled everyone along. There were call and response songs, and bouncy songs, and slow, sweet songs.

It was perfect. I could forget for a moment about the cool kids at the next table who wouldn’t even deign to make eye contact with me, and just sing and feel connected.

After dinner we went off by age groups, and the night dwindled down, and we returned to our bunks in the dark, with only the bathroom lights to guide us (because we weren’t supposed to touch the light switches until the Sabbath ended).

Saturday was taken up with prayer, and some sort of “meaningful” activity, or napping. We ate cold cuts for lunch, and macaroni salad, and egg salad, and Butterscotch pudding for dinner (because the kitchen staff wasn’t allowed to cook, or even heat up any food, on the Sabbath).

On Sunday morning, we went back to the normal pace of life. We went to prayer services every morning, back in our shorts and t-shirts, and thinking about other things. We had to clean our bunks, and go to swim lessons, and play some god awful sport in the hot sun, and paste pompoms on Styrofoam cups or some such thing.

There were no dogs at camp, and I missed Delilah and her restful presence. Even her barking would have been okay with me, compared to some of the shrieking that went on at camp. Had no one ever seen a spider before getting to camp? I mean, really.

delilah close up

My Delilah, looking much more serious than she really was.

I’ve always felt like there was a novel in those five years of camp, or a memoir, or something. But then, I tend to think everything belongs in a book, if it happened to me.

Camp was a constant balancing act between enjoying the freedom of a whole world of mostly children, and the strangeness of being away from home, and feeling the deep down fear that I would never see my Mommy again.

The memories come back in sharp bursts: like the campout on the hill; and the girl who ran through a glass door; and the girl who was stung by 39 wasps; Color War, when my bunk was split down the middle, and my counselor was on the opposite team; the Violent Femmes singing A Blister in the Sun; sitting on the stone steps by the lake, and singing Little Boy Blue and The Man in the Moon; or lining up in the community building to play Human Foosball.

In a way I felt outside of my body even when it was all happening the first time around, and not just now as I look back and try to narrate.

A lot of time at camp was spent keeping us busy, and keeping us Jewish, rather than doing things that actually interested me. There was no writing class, or voice, or dance, or acting class. I had no TV, or access to a phone. We had one musical show per year, per age group, and we had to audition, so sometimes I got a role, and sometimes I didn’t. We went swimming twice a day, and chose between aerobics, or softball, or basketball, or soccer for sports. In the afternoons there was woodworking, or radio, or arts and crafts, or photography, or nature, and I wasn’t much good at any of it.

But Friday night was my night. I didn’t feel left out, or weird, on Friday night. Everyone sang. Everyone was there, and I fit in.

puppy in October 034

Just like baby Cricket,

Ellie between two beds

and not-so-baby Ellie.

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

74 responses »

  1. Lovely Rachel, baby cricket and new ellie melt my heart!

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  2. Sounds like so much fun! I often think everything that happens to me belongs in a book too. 😊

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  3. Oh my goodness–baby Cricket is too cute! Ellie, with those beautiful eyes, you can have whatever you want, sweet girl! **just don’t tell Rachel I said that**

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  4. I lived near Loch Sheldrake, NY for awhile and remember all the camps in that area. All the kids appearing for the summer to have fun. Thanks for the reminder of slower summer days.

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  5. A beautiful post, Rachel.

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  6. One of my nieces was a camp counselor at an upstate NY camp. She met her husband there, so I know she has lots of pleasant memories. But it is difficult to imagine a young child being away from everything familiar for so long. i am glad you had Friday nights to feel like you belonged.

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  7. My favorite part of camp was the singing after meals too. Someone would tap their water glass and start a song and the whole dining hall would join in. Pure bliss. For me camp every year was one blessed time away from the toxic home I lived in. While I am sorry you didn’t fit in for most of the week, I am delighted that you had Friday nights.

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  8. Thank you for sharing your memories of what camp was like for you. I have a lot of memories from the one year I got to go to summer camp. They are snippets in my mind like what you were describing of your memories. Little moments strung together. Love your fur babies – so glad Ellie is doing so well.

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  9. I loved reading your memories of camp…and the picture of Delilah is so sweet, we never forget our dog loves! Your other dogs are adorable as well!

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  10. Sounds wonderful! Ellie is very cute!

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  11. It was really a pleasure reading about your experiences in camp. And from your description, I realize that it was in the Jewish tradition, including the shabbes rules. I didn’t have an experience like that, but it seems like it managed to leave a very real connection in the hearts of the campers to tradition, and I do hope that this was a good thing. Thanks for sharing your memories.

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    • Thank you! I’ve heard so many stories of kids from largely secular homes going to a Jewish sleepaway camp and finding a connection, both to the traditions and a sense of peoplehood.

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  12. We never had that Summer Camp tradition over here. I remember listening to Alan Sherman’s 1963 song ‘Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah’, and wondering what Camp Grenada was.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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  13. The Girl Who was Stung by 39 Wasps – if that is not a great title for a novel, I don’t know what is!

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  14. Delightful post 🙂 I’d never before seen a baby photo of Cricket. Sweet! And Ellie is gorgeous!

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  15. I never went to camp and always felt I missed out on the experience. Some LOVE camp, while others who are not “sporty” dread it but are still made to go. There is a camp now that is all for theatre- acting, singing, drama, no sports, that my friend’s daughter attends- she loves it. For her that is the meaning of camp. Love that photo of baby Cricket

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  16. The only camping out I ever did was either with Mum and Dad, or in later years, Hubby.
    I never belonged to the brownies or girl guides, so didn’t do any of those things. I did however attend a poetry course in 1974 and shared a room with three sets of bunk beds with 5 other women. It was an interesting week!

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  17. This brought a smile. 🙂 Thank you for sharing.

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  18. Memories! I always think everything about me and my life belongs in a book too. Who knows maybe one day it will!

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  19. That’s the first picture I’ve seen of baby Cricket. What an adorable puppy! It’s amazing how clearly you remember these times from your childhood. I didn’t much like camp, probably because I was a tomboy so would play football in the snow with the boys and then all the girls would shun me, LOL!

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  20. Your post brought back memories of my Fridays at Girl Scout camp in Orange County NY. Friday evenings the Jewish girls went to a worship service, Sunday mornings, us Catholic girl went to Mass, and Sunday evenings, those who were Protestant went to theirs. Since the camp was overwhelmingly Jewish, Friday evenings it seemed like a ghost town until the Jewish girls came back.

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  21. “There were no dogs at camp, and I missed Delilah and her restful presence. Even her barking would have been okay with me, compared to some of the shrieking that went on at camp. Had no one ever seen a spider before getting to camp? I mean, really.” ^_^

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  22. How’s your new pooch acclimating? She looks pretty comfortable and happy!

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  23. Your camp experiences sound so interesting. I think they would make a beautiful backdrop for a novel, perhaps YA. Keep that in mind. I’ll read it when it’s published.

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  24. I bet there is a novel in those five years of camp experiences. You should write it!

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  25. Camping is still my idea of Hell on earth. Give me a soft bed, a hot shower, running water – I don’t ask for much, but sleeping with bugs is definitely off the table for me. I never got to go to camp, I lived in the country, so we would sometimes pitch a tent in the yard – and I always went inside before too long – bugs, ewww. I was one of those screechers!

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  26. Wonderful post, Rachel! I spent the entire summer (8 weeks) for five or so years at camp and I loved it. It was an escape from my mother. My best camp memories however, are when my kids went and I was able to escape from them, lol. Hmmm…I see a pattern here.

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  27. 1. What is challah? Is it good? I love all things food!

    2. Ellie looks so proud and self assured now!

    going back to read the rest!

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  28. “(because the kitchen staff wasn’t allowed to cook, or even heat up any food, on the Sabbath).”

    I must figure out how to incorporate this into my cooking week lol! I wonder if the kids would buy it?

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  29. And I have to ask what Color War is?????
    Delialah is BEAUTIFUL. That must have been the same kodak camera I had in the 70s/80s, the color is always that kind.

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  30. This is a beautiful piece. There’s got to be stories in this. Do you ever do Juvenile Lit? I think a lot of it would make great Juvenile fiction. Especially since you have such clear memories of the feelings – the things that are universal. But also to educate non jewish kids about a different life path. If I find it fascinating, I’m sure kids would too.

    This just struck me so hard:

    “Camp was a constant balancing act between enjoying the freedom of a whole world of mostly children, and the strangeness of being away from home, and feeling the deep down fear that I would never see my Mommy again.”

    What a bittersweet, poignant statement. Very powerful.

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  31. I constantly ‘write stories’ of things that happen to me – in my head they always seem perfect and interesting, but if I ever get around to writing them down they never seem quite right. I guess I need to practice – like you obviously have done, because your stories are always so captivating.

    I’ve been away for so long and know I have a lot of catching up to do. Your stories are the ones I’ve missed the most. I’m glad to be back.

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  32. Cooooool!!!!!!!!!!😄

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  33. What a delightful story. I never attended camp as a chold but always wanted to. Thanks for sharing the experience with me.

    Reply

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