The summer when I was ten years old I lived in the bunk behind the bunk, at my sleepaway camp. My bunk was added on behind the popular girls’ bunk for our age group; they had a lot of light and windows and a porch facing the public, and we were hidden in back, invisible. There was a thin wall separating the two bunks, and we had to listen to the soundtrack of Footloose all summer long through that wall.
There was a girl in my bunk who was sort of my friend, but mostly not. She was the one I’d made fun of the summer before, in my aborted attempt to fit in with the popular girls, and our friendship was on a teeter totter. She was pretty, but strange, and from different evidence over the years – promiscuous behavior at a young age, severe memory lapses, a changeable personality – I realized later that she was a sexual abuse victim, like me. That could explain why I was drawn to her, even though she was often mean to me. She could say awful things, or ignore me for large swaths of time, despite the itsy bitsy size of the bunk we lived in together, and I still accepted her friendship when it was offered.
And then came Tisha B’Av. The Ninth day of the month of Av, on the Jewish calendar, commemorates the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem, in 586 BCE and 70 CE. Over time the fast day has come to represent a long list of catastrophes in Jewish history, maybe because we need more relatable grief to hold onto, like method actors, in order to effectively mourn the loss of two temples we’d never seen, and a kind of life that none of us had ever experienced, with high priests, and animal sacrifices, and all Jews living in one place.
Tisha B’Av is regarded as the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, but generally goes unnoticed in the liberal Jewish world, except in Jewish summer camps, like the one I went to for five summers as a kid. For one full day, from sunset to sunset, we were prohibited from eating or drinking, washing or bathing (aka, no swimming). Fasting is a tool used by all kinds of religious and spiritual practitioners, because it works; depriving the body of food starves the brain of needed Serotonin, creating a neurochemically induced state of depression. Kids under thirteen are supposed to be excused from fasting, but most of us did it anyway.
The summer when I was ten years old, we trekked to the other side of camp and to sit on the basketball court in the dark when Tisha B’Av began. We sat on the ground, by bunk, with a single candle in the middle of each circle, and we listened to the older kids chanting the book of Aicha (Lamentations) in Hebrew. It was haunting, and sad, even though no translation of the text was offered. The next morning we went to services again, all together as a camp for the only time all summer, but then the rest of the day stretched out before us with no distractions, no food to eat, and no activities to keep us busy. Our counselors were felled by the fasting and most likely by the lack of caffeine, because no food or drink also means no coffee, and they didn’t have the energy to sit with us and talk with us and offer comfort.
That year we were all hanging out in our tiny bunk, to escape the heat, bored to death. All of our negative feelings were let loose in the bunk with no safe place to lock them away, and we just lived in the undifferentiated soup of our emotions for hours. Maybe that darkness, and the desperate desire to do something to disperse it, explains what happened next.
I don’t know where our counselors were, but the girl in my bunk who was sort of my friend and sort of not, decided that I needed a haircut. That was the summer when one of the girls had brought Judy Blume’s Forever to camp, and let everyone borrow it. It was the first book we’d ever read with a sex scene in it, and people were reading it in hushed voices, after dark, with flashlights. The brink-of-puberty thing left me open to a lot of criticism: for my bland clothes, my plain brown hair, my lack of makeup, etc. For some reason, this girl focused all of her frustration on me that afternoon, and offered to cut my hair, to make me look presentable. I don’t know if it was hunger, fatigue, or humiliation, but I agreed to stand over the sink in the bathroom while she parted my hair into bunches and started chopping inches off from the bottom.
Our senior counselor appeared at the entrance to the bathroom when only one bunch was finished. She screamed at both of us, outraged that we would do such a thing on a holy day. Haircut Girl dropped the scissors and walked out of the bunk with a shrug. I stood still, looking in the mirror, feeling guilty for not knowing all of the rules for Tisha B’Av, and guilty for going along with something I didn’t want to do, and guilty for accepting Haircut Girl’s assessment of me as so far below her. Guilty and ashamed and lonely and depressed; it all seemed to resonate with the character of the fast day, and the shame and guilt of the Jewish people for so upsetting God that he would have to destroy our Temple, twice.
My counselor sat me at the picnic table outside of our bunk and put my uneven hair into a French braid to hide the damage, somewhat, until she could finish the haircut herself after sunset. She had to have known that there was an element of bullying in the haircut, but I think she was also confused that I’d gone along with it. She didn’t understand why I’d say yes to such a thing, and I couldn’t explain it without humiliating myself even further. It matters that the girl cutting my hair was the one I’d made fun of the previous summer, mimicking her in front of the popular girls before I realized I never wanted to do that again. Maybe I felt like I owed her the chance to humiliate me in return, except that she didn’t seem to remember any of it. She barely remembered that we’d lived in the same bunk the previous summer. Or at least that’s what she said.
Towards the end of that summer our age group had a talent show, and Haircut Girl asked me to do a dance routine with her. I’m pretty sure I was a last minute replacement when her preferred dance partner dropped out. She would have looked around our tiny bunk and reluctantly accepted that I was the one most likely to agree to do it, because I loved dancing. I would have gone to dance classes every day in camp, if they’d given any dance classes at my camp. I danced unconsciously most of the time, instead of walking, and it’s possible that that played a role in my less-than-cool reputation.
We did our dance routine to “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” from Footloose, since we’d been listening to the soundtrack all summer. I don’t remember the performance itself, but I do remember the magic of being able to match my steps to her steps as we rehearsed next to our bunk. Did we sing out loud? Or lip sync during the performance? I don’t remember. Were we better friends when it was over? Nope. But for a couple of days we were dancing to the same music, and even smiling at the same time, though probably not at each other.
And yet, I prefer to remember the fast day, despite all of the pain involved. For that one day, each summer, everyone was more real, with all of their light and all of their darkness visible. It wasn’t comfortable, or fun, but it was cathartic. If a fast day hadn’t already existed in the middle of the summer, we’d have had to create something like it ourselves, just to relieve the pressure of keeping up appearances, if only for a moment.
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?
Growing up through that stage of life is always hell for kids who are paying attention. It’s amplified when you’ve gone through something especially egregious.
So you’re saying the answer is to stop paying attention…interesting.
No, not at all. You can no more stop paying attention than you can stop breathing.
A brave story, thanks for sharing it.
The clarity of your memory, for better or worse, is remarkable.
It’s hard to know if that’s a good thing or not.
I’m learning, through each of your posts, about the wise old soul who lives in such a young person. And again, your vulnerableness and genuineness are inspiring.
The complexity of the religious observation is what strikes me so often in reading your posts.
I hope that’s a good thing. Religion, and obviously Judaism in particular, fascinates me.
Oh yes, I have a deep respect.
Powerful! Your observation that fasting removes our masks reminds me of a tradition about Yom Kippur, a Rabbinic puzzle. They point out that Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) could be read as Yom Ki- Pur (day like Purim). Then they ask, how is YK a day like Purim? The answer is that on Purim we put on masks but on YK our masks are all removed.
You have Faye Kellerman books! I adore Jonathan Kellerman. Okay, back to the subject at hand – your writing amazes me, I felt like I was in that camp with you – and I never went to camp.
Thank you so much! I’m a mystery addict!
I agree, you have a remarkable memory for your young years.
It’s funny, I spent years working to remember as much as possible, doing endless timelines, and yet when I sit down to write these essays I remember even more.
I remember so little from my childhood.
My Mom is the same way, but when I start to ask specific questions she can remember a little bit more each time.
Gosh, what a post. Dark and menacing. I really admire the way you lay everything on the line. You write with such honesty which shows your vulnerability.
Thank you so much!
Guilt seems to be such a huge part of being Jewish. All the Jewish friends I ever had in London were ridden with guilt about one thing or another. Such a burden to place on children from an early age.
Best wishes, Pete.
I had a Methodist friend who thought his mother invented guilt just for him.
I have some Catholic friends who would argue that guilt belongs to them! I’m Methodist, and I’m sure somewhere along the way guilt was discussed, but I never took it personally. I’m not sure if that is good or bad!
Guilt is such an effective tool, I’m not sure any parent/teacher/religious leader can resist using it at some point.
I can imagine the scenario from your writing Rachel. I was never sent away to a Summer Camp as I don’t think they had them as such here in the UK then. In the holidays, I was sent to stay with my grandfather and his wife (1970) and an Uncle (1966), but cousins came to stay with us often in the ’60s. Funny now I think of it, it was only me who was sent away, not my sister. Hmm….. I could wonder about that, but I won’t!
I am addicted to wondering!
Just the way it was I suppose. She’s 5 years older than me and probably didn’t want to have to babysit me while Mum was at work. I’m not bothered. We have our own lives which don’t interact.
That’s kind of sad. I’m sorry.
No need Rachel. It happens and I’ve accepted that. 🙂
We never truly know what another has experienced in life.
This is my first year working at B’nai Zion Congregation, and your description and perceptive take on Tish’a Ba’av is quite helpful.
Thank You for sharing this. I’ve never heard of this day. May God Bless You.
Thank you for sharing your experience. Whether we are abuse victims or not, we do not always understand our own actions — especially not as children. What is clear from your blog is that you have gained (or retained) both insight and compassion. ❤
I am intrigued that you are able in retrospect to understand that the girl was also an abuse victim. I have reconnected with a couple of friends from elementary school to ask them if they had any idea what I was going through. Interestingly, one did have a sense but no words for what she sensed.
When I found out the prevalence of sexual abuse I started looking through my memories for kids behaving in ways I didn’t understand back then, and kids who seemed really familiar for reasons I couldn’t figure out at the time. Evidence of Abuse is there when you know what to look for.
You have nudged me to do the same. I can think of a boy who was undoubtedly being physically abused.
It’s amazing how much we notice as children, before we understand what we’re seeing. I hope that teachers are better educated today to look for those signs and call for help.
Mine certainly overlooked obvious signs of distress. I hope so too.
Here all along I thought one of the main reasons for summer camp was to have fun. Great narrative about what to me is a very foreign (and unpleasant sounding) experience.
You’re so silly. What’s the point of fun?
Agreed. Vastly overrated. 🙂
Kaci and Kali ask “what’s the big deal?” They go to the groomer a lot.
Another briliantly perceptive account of your summer camp days Rachel. I just got around to reviewing Yeshiva Girl ( because of vistors and family stuff, not because of the novel! )
Much to my relief Amazon accepted my review as they have turned most of my reviews down lately. I added another sentence to the Goodreads version.
Thank you so much!!!!!!!!
You’re very welcome.
Your dogs are THE true philosophers.
Great post Rachel, thanks for sharing!!!
Your writing is fluent and very moving. Everyone has had bad experiences of some kind, but I wouldn’t be able to write about mine- I can only write mystical fantasy. Keep up the good work!
Thank you! I don’t think I could manage mystical fantasy; there’s room for all of us, as we are.
You always give us much to realize and learn.
You are gifted. Thank you for writing and sharing.