Each summer, for five years in a row, starting when I was nine-years-old, I went away to a Jewish sleepaway camp for eight weeks. Me and Mom and my brother spent weeks ahead of time buying everything on the camp list: collapsible drinking cup, soap dish, seven pairs of shorts and shirts and underwear and so on, flashlight, bathing suits, flip flops, beach towel. And a trunk. We only had to buy those once, for the first summer, and then store them in the attic during the school year: a huge treasure chest-like box to fill with all of our stuff. Oh, and labels, everything we owned needed a name tag.
A few days after school ended for the year, in the last week of June, Mom drove me and my brother, and our trunks, to a nearby synagogue to catch the bus to camp. The bus ride itself was an orientation. First there was the sharp pain of watching Mommy stand in the parking lot, waving, as we drove further and further away. Then there were the bus songs – 99 bottles of beer on the wall, If I had a hammer, etc. We had counselors on our bus with us, to keep order and manage any traumas along the way, and I met my first new friend on the bus up to camp. She was blond and pretty and bossy, just like my best friend from home, and she started to talk to me right away and asked me to sit next to her on the bus. My brother proceeded to ignore me, almost entirely, as he would continue to do for the next eight weeks.
When we reached camp, we met up with our own counselors, and walked across campus to our bunks, while the maintenance men loaded our trunks and dropped them off on the porch of each bunk (after unloading each trunk we stowed them under the bunk for the summer). The counselors had to come out and meet each bus, and car, when their campers arrived, so back at the bunk we either had a junior counselor or our peers for company, which was not quite enough. I wasn’t really prepared to be away from my Mom, or to manage so many new relationships at once. The saving grace would be the daily schedule, there was almost always something we were supposed to be doing, just not on day one. We also had no TV and very few books, and this was long before smartphones, so socializing was our entertainment.
The blond girl from the bus turned out to be the most popular girl in our age group, and we were in the same bunk, so I was sort of initiated into the popular group right away. I had no idea what to make of that. They were sort of a girl posse, and one of the other new recruits was a nine-year-old outlaw, planning all kinds of trouble for the posse to get into. I was still me, though, and it became clear that I didn’t quite fit in with my new friends. I didn’t have the right clothes, or the attraction to danger, and I didn’t know how to flirt with boys. At first it was exhilarating to be with them, because finally I wasn’t the outcast, the way I was at school, and I wasn’t picked on (too badly). But then they started expecting me to be mean, to make fun of other girls and not just behind their backs, but to their faces.
I did it once, without realizing how awful it would feel until I was in it up to my knees. I was a good mimic (I still am, just ask Cricket), and they liked to have me play this and that character, like the male counselor with silly dance moves, or one of the boys who wiped his nose with the hem of his shirt, constantly. I loved the attention! I loved getting the laughs! And then they asked me to do an impression of one of the other girls who was sort of on the outs with the group at that moment. And I did it, because she had such obvious body language and her vocabulary was so specific and I could see the whole performance in my imagination without even trying. I felt like a super star, until I realized that she was suddenly there too, and instead of laughing with me, the other girls were sneering at her and using me as a weapon against her.
I stopped, but it was too late. I tried to apologize, but all that accomplished was getting me kicked out of the cool group; the other girl certainly didn’t forgive me.
I was alone for a few days, but then some new kids came for the second month (in the early years of camp we could choose to come for both months, first month, or second month), and I made some new friends. They were nicer and quieter and preferred playing jacks to getting into trouble. I got a few splinters because the floors of the bunks weren’t perfectly sanded, but there was something reassuring and satisfying about playing jacks. If you played fair and didn’t cheat and didn’t show off just because you were a better player, people stuck around.
I went to camp for four more years, but I was never put in the same bunk with the cool girls again, and they barely even looked at me, except for the blond girl from the bus. Every once in a while she’d look over at me with something like regret, but then she’d look back at her friends and shake it off and go back to her popular life.
And yet, I liked being at camp. I liked my less than popular friends. I liked always having something to do and someone to talk to. And if there was also loneliness and conflict and disappointment, well, I had that at home too, and at least at camp I felt normal. I had the same problems as everyone else: sunburn, sand in my shoes, friendship drama, cardboard pizza, too many chores, and homesickness. I think, if we could have had a bunk dog, and if my Mom could have visited every weekend, I’d have wanted to stay all year long.
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. And if you feel called to write a review of the book on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes is true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?