On Wednesdays at my Jewish sleepaway camp, when most of the kitchen staff took the day off, we made our own sandwiches, right after breakfast (egg salad, tuna, peanut butter and jelly), and tossed them, and some pieces of fruit, into a black garbage bag to be kept in the fridge for later. The scary part was that we had to tell our counselor what kind and how many sandwiches we wanted, so that two delegates could stay late with her and make the sandwiches. And then during lunch I had to sit there with everyone in my bunk knowing that I’d asked for two peanut butter and jelly, plus an egg salad sandwich. I wanted more sandwiches than a pre-teen girl was supposed to want. I was always hungrier than I was supposed to be. I could eat three bowls of cereal at breakfast, but at least no one was announcing it to the whole room. It’s possible that the other girls ate as much as I did, but they hid it better.
Wednesdays were called Yom Daled, or day four, because everything had to have a Hebrew name in camp. I’m not sure why it was Yom Daled, which is the fourth letter of the Hebrew Alphabet, instead of Yom Revi’i, which literally means “the fourth day” in Hebrew. This is a mystery I may never unravel. The other days of the week weren’t named after Hebrew letters, though. In fact, I think we just called them Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, like everyone else.
Anyway, Yom Daled was meant to be a break from our regular schedule of sports and arts & crafts and swimming and Hebrew classes. We went on day trips, off campus, a couple of times each summer, but otherwise it was up to our counselors to create an “experience.” Like the time they set up a trip to Russia, in the auditorium, and taught us about the Refuseniks (Russian Jews who weren’t allowed to leave Russia). I remember waiting on a long line to get my imaginary passport, and then having it ripped out of my hands (paper cut!) on another line. And I remember feeling like I was wearing a tattered woolen coat, and still shivering, even though in real life I was in a t-shirt and shorts, and sweating to death.
We learned a song that day called “Leaving Mother Russia,” written by a group called Safam, and inspired by Natan Sharansky. I don’t remember singing the song at any other time, but the chorus has stuck with me for thirty years: we are leaving mother Russia, we have waited far too long, we are leaving Mother Russia, when they come for us, we’ll be gone.
Another time, they set up the whole camp as if it were the State of Israel, and we visited a shuk (a marketplace), and had to haggle over prices, in Hebrew, and then we made pitas on a hot stone, and, of course, we had hummus and falafel and Israeli salad for lunch.
On another day, in a different summer, we learned about terrorism. Our counselors lined us up in chairs and had us pretend to be on a plane hijacked by Palestinian terrorists. It was an interesting thing to see our counselors interpret their roles as terrorists; some tried to make us understand the sorrow and pain of losing their land, and the hopelessness of being refugees under the control of strangers; others played their roles with anger and violence and scared the crap out of us.
We also spent a day learning about cults, because it was a hot topic on college campuses that year, and our counselors wanted to prepare us for being tempted to give up our individuality and free will, or something. They didn’t do a very god job of explaining how cults were different from religion or camp, though. I was used to being brainwashed in each new environment I went into, having to buy in to a new set of beliefs, and having to give up things that mattered to me just to fit in. I wasn’t sure how different a cult would be, maybe just in intensity rather than in spirit.
We went on hikes at least once per summer, and it was always exhausting and too hot, but we couldn’t opt out. By the end of each hike dozens of kids were claiming health issues and trying to cadge lifts back to camp with the counselors who had driven to the lunch spot, bringing the food and supplies. I never bothered to beg for a ride, for some reason, even though I hated every second of the steaming walk back to camp.
I don’t remember a lot of our day trips off campus, though there was one memorable trip to New York City. We went to an art museum (I have no idea which one) and to something called The New York Experience, where we sat in seats that shifted around as if we were on the subway, and then fog blew in our faces. Once we were back outside on the street, I realized that I was closer to home than I was to camp, and all I’d have to do was get to Penn Station, and then catch a train home. Except, I had no cash, and I wasn’t really sure I wanted to go home, though I did wish I’d known ahead of time that we’d be in the city, so I could have called my mother and asked her to meet me.
Another day trip was to Mystic Seaport, where we went on a ferry ride and saw a shipping museum, where they showed us a lot of boats-inside-glass-bottles. But then it started to rain and we couldn’t do the rest of the outdoor stuff, so they took us to see a movie. The choice was between Bull Durham and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and since Bull Durham was R-rated, they chose to make us watch a movie about an animated rabbit, and his animated, non-rabbit, cheating wife, and murder, lots of murder.
For dinner on Yom Daled, the few kitchen staff who stayed on campus would do a barbecue, setting out piles of hamburgers and hotdogs, and watermelon and chips, for us to eat outside. I don’t remember any vegetables, but there may have been pickles. The barbecues were for whoever was on campus in time, and we could start and finish whenever we wanted and sit wherever we wanted, instead of at our assigned tables. We held our paper plates on our laps, and ate with plastic utensils, surrounded by bugs, but I couldn’t always find someone to sit with, and it reminded me of eating lunch at school, just hoping someone would be willing to sit next to me.
You know, there’s something to be said for returning to routine, and schedules, and assigned seating, where you know what’s expected of you, and you’re not tempted to hop a train home, and know you won’t have to eat by yourself.
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?
Those Wednesday “experiences” were enough to give a kid nightmares. I wonder who came up with those dreadful ideas. I can’t imagine having to go through any of those scenarios as a kid. I would have had to really shut down to get through them. The field trips sounded fun though.
Some of them actually were.
Your memories of camp are so detailed. Thanks for telling us about those times.
Thanks for reading!
I always learn so much from you and appreciate your unique perspective on the experiences you have had!
I love your book and am inspired to finish my own! I have even began self-publishing my own cookbook in addition to my novel about reincarnation of dogs! Stay tuned..,
That sounds wonderful!
Your dogs are too adorable. Thank goodness you do adore them.
Charly comes up to me at least once a day, puts her front paws on my chair, and then leans on me as if to say okay, now it’s time for you to adore me. And I hold her close and give her lots of love and kisses – thorough adoration.
Can’t be beat.
Cricket believes she has bestowed upon me the great honor of giving her scratchies. Clearly she is correct.
Oh my gosh how many years did you go to this camp? I’d have come away scarred for life. You are a much stronger person.
Five years. I’m not over it yet, clearly.
Having read “Yeshiva Girl”, this post resonated with me. Having worked as an interpreter for Russian Jews resettling in Boston, it truly touches my heart. Thank you!
Thank you! You are amazing!!!!
Thanks for the vicarious trip to camp. I never had that experience and maybe that’s OK. 😀
You have your own lovely experiences to share.
No one to sit with is so anxiety provoking. I have been there and it’s the worst.
It totally sucks.
That sounds like some hideous punishment not a holiday camp.
You made of strong stuff doll! I would have crumbled on Day 1
PS: please slap the gardner who chopped down your paw-paw, that’s really annoying.
Ha! I think my surviving pawpaw tree has been slapping the gardeners for me. Good boy!!!
I worked a day science camp this past week, and I could totally hear the students complaining every time our writing class went on a little hike. Fortunately the complaints lessened as the week went on and they toughened up and became more used to the routine of it. ^_^ Sounds like fun, I never did camp before!
effective whining skills are one of the important benefits of the summer camp experience!
Camp is clearly a four-letter word and to be avoided at all costs. My husband’s cousin’s only son goes to (Jewish) camp, I’ll have to ask him about it. Hopefully, it’s changed for the better.
I think things must have improved at camps, if only because people have become more aware of the problems. That said, people are still people. Oh well.
Thank you for this. I love the way you invite it’s to look inside your head with your writing! In South Africa we didn’t do summer camps much, although I did get to go on a few horse riding camps, where we stayed in the home of someone who had a riding school – can you imagine a thong of horse mad teens taking over your home??? But SA doesn’t have the summer camp tradition the way it is here. Every few years there would be a school field trip, however, and I remember one ghastly place called Happy Acres where we had to catch and kill bugs and mount them by sticking pins in them, and where we were apparently hammered with apartheid brainwashing – although I want really conscious of that part. It didn’t take, thank God.
Pinning bugs?! Eek! But I would have loved the horses. I was desperate to make friends with horses as a kid, and, okay, still.
Horses are wonderful! I have an old gentleman – that is, he’s a gentleman as long as no one tries to ride him … He lives in our pasture and takes life easy.
Not being Jewish, and of course being English, I had no similar experiences in my youth. I find your recollections really fascinating, but they do make me glad I never had to do anything remotely like that.
Best wishes, Pete.
Probably a good thing!
Rachel, your descriptions are so vivid! I used to wish I could go to sleep-away camp. My parents said that we lived on a farm – why did we need to go to camp? I was sure that something magical was at camp, and that if I went I would fit in better at school. I think you have cured me of that particular fantasy!
The dogs are so sweet. You always bring in a picture at exactly the point one is needed!
Thank you! Cricket and Ellie make sure to interrupt me on a regular basis in real life, so their blog comments come naturally!
Yes, Gabi likes to supervise my work, too!
I love that the “New York Experience” is summed up in subway motions and fog. 🙂
Your writing is simple, direct, and great! Unlike other sites I visit where the post is too long to bother with, I read every word of this post. Your writing did not lose me or bore me. I have always had a positive and intense interest in learning about Jewish culture and hoped my DNA results would reveal a Jewish connection. Alas, i was disappointed when an “iffy” result of 1% might exist within me. Thank you for your camp story which allowed me to experience those events alongside you. Without you knowing it then, these years later you had someone sitting beside you as you ate your meal at camp…me. I look forward to reading your book. Please visit my humble site. I hope we can keep in touch. 🙂
Thank you so much!
Sound like an interesting day. Fun filled and full of eating and fellowship.
Interesting and informative.
so cute they are
Just finished Yeshiva Girl last night. SO GOOD!!! I put a little review on Goodreads and Amazon. One of my favorite parts was when Izzy had to say what she wanted in 10 years.
Thank you so much!!!!!!
Wow, they were pretty full on experiences for young girls, no wonder you remember them so vividly
There was certainly a lot going on! Thank you!
What an interesting blog. The long USA school holidays are fascinating to us as English or Australian parents or children. Sounds like your camp went on forever! As a teenager in Australia I did go on some evangelical Christian camps where fun and tramploenes were interspersed with bible study! But they only lasted a week.
Thank you! American summers are so long that we went to camp for eight weeks and still had time off before school started again!
I enjoyed this post. I, too, went to a Jewish camp, Camp Boiberik, in Rhinebeck, NY, and had wonderful cultural experiences there, tho not the same as yours. Now, my 2 granddaughters go to a similar Jewish camp in the Berkshires. Will look to read Yeshiva Girl.
Thank you so much!
I always enjoy reading about your experiences Rachel and can relate to them so well. The babies are always adorable too.