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Yom Daled

 

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.

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“Did you say sandwiches?”

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.

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“I’m sure I like falafel, Mommy.”

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.

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“That sounds exhausting, Mommy.”

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.

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“I’d sit next to you for a burger.”

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.

yeshiva girl with dogs

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?

Musicals at Camp

 

My brother was recently in a community theater production of HMS Pinafore (by Gilbert and Sullivan), singing his heart out, playing for laughs, and even doing choreography! It was awesome! But watching him have so much fun on stage reminded me of how bad my stage fright turned out to be – worse and worse as I got older, instead of better and better.

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“Food always helps me when I’m anxious.”

At my Jewish sleepaway camp we did a musical every summer. My first year in camp we did Cats, in Hebrew (someone had the job of translating all of these musicals into Hebrew for us, which sounded like hard work at the time, but now sounds like a lot of fun). I think our bunk did a small dance number, in cat costumes. The next year we did You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and I had a duet with a boy. I was Lucy, standing in my psychologist-is-in stand (foreshadowing my future), but my duet partner couldn’t remember his lyrics, so I did most of the duet myself, either whispering his lines to him, or singing them out loud myself when he whispered back, “huh?” I don’t remember being scared, even with the whole camp watching and listening to me in my blue booth. It was something of an out-of-body experience, though, because I don’t remember the rest of the show, or the rehearsals, just that moment in my booth, singing out to the crowd.

The next year we did The Sound of Music, but just as separate songs, not the whole show. I had solos in two songs that year. We learned our second song the morning of the show – So Long, Farewell – but from this one I only remember the rehearsals and nothing from the show itself.

I don’t think we had auditions for any of those early shows. Maybe my facility with Hebrew got me those roles, now that I think about it, though I’d like to believe it was because of my voice, or at least my memory for lyrics.

It was when I was twelve years old, my fourth summer at camp, that I balked. I went up onstage for the audition and I couldn’t make any words come out of my mouth. It was horrifying. I’d been taking voice lessons at home, and I’d been in an after school acting club, and those three musicals at camp already, but on that day I almost threw up on stage from nerves instead of singing, and then I ran out of the auditorium. They cast me in the chorus with a bunch of other kids who didn’t really want to be in the show, and we sang a couple of songs from the fifties, behind the soloists, as part of a musical revue.

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“Run!!!!!!”

I didn’t even bother to audition the following summer, when our age group did Grease, though I do remember being very jealous of the new girl who came in and snagged the lead role her first summer. She had a smoky alto, and a lot of confidence, and actually had chemistry with our male lead (who was the lead every year, if I’m remembering correctly, because he had a pure tenor and everyone liked him).

It was much more fun to go to the shows the other age groups put on, than to be in one myself, which should have been a clue that I didn’t really want to be an actress, but I didn’t take the hint. I even went to an Artsy day camp the next summer, dancing and singing and acting all day, every day, for two months. I kept expecting my fear to go away, but it refused to budge. And then I went to summer acting classes, when I was sixteen, and even signed up for The Actor’s Studio in the city, after dropping out of college that fall, but I had a severe panic attack on the first day and ended up in the bathroom, hyperventilating and crying, before the end of the first class. That was the final death knell for my career on stage.

It’s a big deal that I joined the choir at my synagogue this year, and have performed in public twice already. It’s a small step forward, but a good one. I don’t see myself doing community theatre any time soon, given the flashbacks of terror I felt while my brother was on stage, even though he himself was having a great time. But at least I’m not throwing up anymore. That’s progress.

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“I want to be on stage, Mommy! I’d be great!!!!”

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?

yeshiva girl with dogs

 

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?

 

 

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.

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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.

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Just like baby Cricket,

Ellie between two beds

and not-so-baby Ellie.