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Going to sleepaway camp

 

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.

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“Harrumph.”

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.

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Friendship is a good thing.

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.

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“I could be the camp dog!”

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?

 

 

About rachelmankowitz

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

79 responses »

  1. My parents sent me to camp ONCE, when I was not-quite-12. It was Not a Success. Indeed, it was more of a disaster. I’m not sure what they thought it would accomplish (aside from having one less child to deal with during a complicated move from Houston to D.C.), but it did not make me into a social butterfly or make me any better at games or outdoor activities. I was demoted to the outcasts’ cabin almost immediately (on a stopover in D.C. on the way to camp my parents had bought me a book on “drawing the human figure,” which included nudes, of course, and that immediately made me persona non grata in my original cabin). We outcasts were so terrible our cabin had a counselor-to-camper ratio of 1:2 most of the time. My eight weeks (this camp similarly had a split season, but my hopeful parents had signed me up for the full time) are memorialized by a series of desperate (required) letters and postcards saying how much I hated the place, which was stealing my laundry, and requesting that my comfort animal (and more underwear) be sent posthaste!

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    • Oh my God! I can’t imagine what your parents must have thought when they got your letters. But the lovely book they brought for you suggests they weren’t exactly on the ball about what kids are like. I hope they at least sent the underwear!

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  2. Excellent, as always. Shavua tov, Rachel! 🙂

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  3. Timothy Price

    Great story. I never experienced summer camp. Growing up in a rural area along the Rio Grande was like being at camp all year. It’s still that way, although there are a lot more people in the area now. I had friends who moved out here from New York City, and their parents sent them to summer camp in New York every summer, I believe just because that’s what they always did with there kids during the summer. I never fit into the cool category. I was always considered weird, and I’m still pretty weird. I got teased a lot when I was a kid. Getting teased never really bothered me, but bullies who teased other kids, especially, smaller, weaker and now what we call special needs kids, really bothered me; therefore, I was often in trouble for getting into fights with the bullies trying to stop them from bullying other kids. BTW. I got Yeshiva Girl on Kindle.

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    • Thank you so much! Being a kid is brutal. I was always torn between wanting to fit and wanting people to leave me alone. Ideally, they would have liked me just as I was, but that was never one of the options.

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  4. I never went to came, because my first generation Italian American parents couldn’t even understand that it was about. But having ready our wonderful book, I can sort of understand those feelings. It makes me think of both “Dirty Dancing” and “Mrs. Maisel”. A world I haven’t known, but one that is familiar.

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  5. I’m glad to hear your camp experience turned out well. I have a friend whose husband, Tom Adler, wrote a book (“Campingly Yours”) about his boyhood camp experiences, from tough start to fantastic finish. He and my friend now own and run a camp for girls.

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  6. My peep got packed off to the Adirondacks and the sisters to Connecticut. The parents needed a break.

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  7. Did you learn any useful outdoor skills from camp? I never got to go, and I don’t know what they are like. Glad you gathered some nice memories (along with some educational ones) from the experience!

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  8. Going to summer camp seems to be an American thing. My husband’s cousin who lives in the States sends his son to camp every year.

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  9. Nice reminiscences Raquel.

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  10. Never had anything like this when I was growing up Rachel. In my school holidays from 1968 onwards I helped out where my Mum worked and earned some pocket money. My co-workers were all pensioners but I got on with all of them.
    I can imagine your regret at your mimicry. I had a few spiteful moments at grammar school, and was also on the receiving end which stopped me in my tracks. Peer pressure is a bitch.

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  11. Really enjoyed your story. I used to go to camp every summer, but only for a week. I remember loving it.

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  12. We don’t have things like that here. I am glad, because I think I would have hated it. I suppose it was a way to get you to learn about living in a wider society, and a nice rest for the parents. But there seems something rather strange about it, from the viewpoint of my own youthful summers in busy central London.
    You are too young to remember this popular comedy song, but it made me smile at the time.
    It was in the UK Top Twenty, when I was 11. 🙂

    Best wishes, Pete.

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  13. My “summer camp” from 8-11 was going to my grandparents’ farm in northern Michigan, which I loved (until the last year when something traumatic happened). Days were spent doing farm chores–gathering eggs, working in the garden with my grandmother, baking bread for the men who were working the fields and would come into the farmhouse for lunch. I loved it!
    One of my nieces was a camp counselor in upstate NY and when she was hired, she was told the camp was not religious but most of the campers would be Jewish–was she ok with that? She called me to ask what that meant. She had never known any Jews (or at least never known if she had). Her camp experience was wonderful in many ways, including the fact that she met her husband there. He was a camp counselor, too. Great post, Rachel.

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  14. I was sent to summer camp every year from the ages of 7-17. I was also on staff until 19, after I graduated from “camper.” Many of my best friends now, I met at that camp. It was in the Deep South, so it was rather like an extended sauna visit, as we melted in out platform tents. It was where I kissed my first boy, drank my first beer, and cried over my first heart break. It was definitely an impactful part of my youth. Loved your story – thanks for sharing.

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  15. When my daughter was in around 7th grade she somehow made her way into the cool girls click at school. Before that, although very pretty and funny, she was a bit of a nerd with glasses and content to read all day and other non-cool regular kid games. She hung out with mostly these same “cool” girls through high school school and the drama and meanness seemed to get worse each year. I always wished she had stayed a nerd more content reading on her bed than hanging out and making fun of the non cool girls or engaging in the social politics of the click itself. She seemed so much more happy when she was a nerd. She is now 28. Although she’s never said so I believe she regrets having been involved with this particular click. Since observing my daughter and the pain she endured in high school – it seemed harder to be In the click than not. I would never wish that experience on any teen girl. There was so much pressure to be popular and wear the right cloths, and use make up way before a young girl should, date, sex, etc. I’d like to think that things have changed but my guess is that they are probably worse. You were lucky to be cast out of the cool girl click at camp, although gah at the time I, sure it was hard.

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  16. the senior weaver

    I remember some of the kids in my neighborhood going off to camp, while the rest of us stayed home and spent our days in the backyard pool. But I did have one big adventure to the Bronx Zoo, when I was about ten, and had my one and only camel ride. So, that’s how the Catholic kids spent their summers in suburbia!

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  17. We don’t have summer camp in the UK, but I was sent to something similar for 2 weeks when I was 14. I’m afraid I gravitated to the naughty group. We didn’t bully people but we were very rowdy. It was also where I first learned to smoke. Fortunately I’ve given up now.

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  18. I thought kids going away to camp for the ENTIRE summer was just a TV/movie thing. I didn’t realize people did that. I went to camp for a week. I with it had been longer. Sounds like you enjoyed those summers.

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  19. I went to a Methodist winter camp as a young teenager. I played tackle football in the snow with the boys. Then the girls ostracized me. It is the only memory I have of that camp, and it was so worth it! I’m glad you found good girls to hang out with.

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  20. I never went to summer camp, so it’s interesting to hear your stories! Mean girls are the worst. Good on you for learning from the experience.

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  21. Camp was the worst thing ever. Are your dogs Jewish, too, like everything else?

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  22. Such a rich and evocative memory.

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  23. You’ve learned some important lessons, and I was glad to read that you made the right choices once you realized how much pain you’d inflicted while trying to be one of the cool girls. Doesn’t matter that you were no longer in their group. It was not a group worth belonging to.

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  24. I only got to go for one week each summer. Fortunately I always went with a friend. Maybe because we were just there for a short time none of those dynamics that you experienced went on. In high school one elementary school feeder had all the popular girls. Coming from a different school I never even tried to fit in. I joined in with the intellectual nerdy group and did ok.

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  25. Hello Rachel, just popping in to see how you are doing…Hope all is well …
    Blessings, Renee

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  26. I can’t imagine going away for two months as a kid! You are one tough kid!

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  27. I used to fit in with the less than popular girls and also with the weirdo and misfit girls. They seemed to be more interesting to me. And I didn’t want to have to be worrying all the time about how my hair looked and were my clothes the fashionable ones. The “out” groups did not worry about that stuff. Thanks for this post it rang a few memory bells with me.

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  28. Just had to add my story to yours! At 12, I went for 2 weeks to Girl Scout camp. There were 5 to a tent and between being autistic (mistress of the inappropriate remark and a need to have alone time) I wasn’t very popular. But one day I convinced a tent mate to sneak out during “nap time” (WTH? Who needs to nap) and walk along the creek. Thrilled to have a friend I mentioned how alike we were,etc., and she suddenly slid down the bank into the water and screamed and carried on and said the most cutting thing: “No! We are not alike! You are crazy to come here!” She left and when back at my tent my belongings were outside and my counselor escorted me to the tent that held the only two African Americans and a lesbian. They were the greatest tent-mates! So sympathetic and non-judgmental. True, I learned how to play strip poker and how to smoke the next week but hey, we all need to learn stuff like that when on the edge of puberty. When I was “allowed” to go back to my original tent I considered refusing but one of the girls was my friend from home and I thought it would be best to accept. My three friends from the nobody-wants-us tent and I stayed in communication for a few years via letters but I was becoming a hippie and they were on their own paths. I will always remember them, though: LaVerne, Jackie and Diana. Hey, Rachel, maybe you’ll write a book about growing up in camp…?

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  29. i wish i could go once.

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  30. I enjoyed reading of your summer camp experiences, Rachel. I could totally feel your descriptions.

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  31. I really enjoy your stories!!💕

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  32. Glad you’re not one of the cool girls, Rachel. Warm is where it’s at.

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