"I was trying, in retrospect, to get to the heart of why I was the way I was, and why the Jews around me were the way they were."
Wow wow wow.
I went to a Jewish summer camp for probably about 7 consecutive years of my childhood, and I was absolutely obsessed with camp. It felt like a totally separate universe I entered each summer, for a little over a month, which felt like a lifetime.
It's an experience I reflect on a lot as an adult, as there were so many oddities surrounding the experience, and it was SO impactful on my development.
It's also something I think about for a similar reason as one that the author stated - I've done a lot of reflecting on the urgent zionist propaganda that was infused in so many of my experiences of Judaism as a child, and the extreme political conservatism tied up in a nationalist identity more broadly. Detangling the cultural, religious, and political teachings and experiences of Judaism is complex for a lot of people as they grow up and become more critical of what their families and institutions taught them. Some of those teachings are ideas I now find totally appalling and in complete opposition to my worldview, but they were positioned as being fundamental to Jewish identity. The economic piece was huge in my experience too - I grew up in a Jewish community that was very proud of wealth accumulation, and wore class status on their sleeve both literally and figuratively. I felt a lot of shame around "not being really rich". (so wild)
For me, all this ultimately resulted in my feeling totally and completely alienated from my Jewish identity, even though it defined my schooling as a child (I went to a day school!) and my summers (I went to a Jewish summer camp!). I grew up with SO MUCH Jewish tradition, and it is not AT ALL a part of my life in any way anymore. I feel okay about that, but I do wonder if things would have turned out differently if some of those formative features were different...if there was less unquestioning zionism, less affluence and materialism, less social and political conservatism around gender and sexuality, etc.
Re: the part about romance/sexuality/marriage simulation at camp - We lived in "villages" based on age, separated by gender. Then, eventually, you ended up in a co-ed village in your final year, which I believe was the summer before 9th grade? We had two counselors who were dating in this co-ed village - I will never forget them, even as so many important details of my childhood drain from my brain as I age. Their names were Bryan and Haley (I think.). We did a "mock wedding" for them as a real event. It is SO bizarre to me looking back on it, and I am so struck to learn that "wedding simulations" were a common event at Jewish camps! Ahh! This is something I've always been like, "...well that was weird" remembering back on, but it was actually a typical Jewish camp thing?!
God, I have so many thoughts about Jewish summer camp. Hello to any other Tamarack campers who read the AHP newsletter.
EDIT with additional thought: It occurs to me how interesting it is that for older generations, Jewish camp was perhaps supposed to make me more connected to my Jewish identity and more likely to carry it on, and yet it ultimately did the opposite (though in the immediate sense as a child, it was effective). My experiences at Jewish camp and Jewish day school actually made me feel more alienated from the Jewish community in the long-run. I know it's something I could explore now as an adult in different contexts and environments, but just thinking about "the goal" of camp...it backfired for me completely.
This post is absolutely speaking my language. I went to Ramah Poconos for four years, followed by two at USY summer programs, and every bit of this scholarship rings accurate to my experiences. I liked the Slate excerpt too when I saw it. I definitely noticed the tacit encouragement of teenage heterosexual romance and felt very weird about it as a nerdy queer kid. The politics were also markedly notable, definitely including those camp Tisha b'Av observances! I'll be getting the book - the only debate about it in my household is whether it's an ebook just for me or a print book to share with my spouse.
What a great read! I have always been Jew-ish, but I came to my Jewishness later in life after being raised by a family that had multiple generations of secular atheists. My mom is a Buddhist. My husband and I are both Jewish and I am an active participant in my Temple. But there are pieces that are very difficult for me, like Zionism. I always feel on the fence about Jewish camp for that reason, we haven't tried it for our kids yet. This book sounds like it highlights a very transformative time for American Jews, and this is a period I wonder about a lot as someone who studies statehood (more as it relates to agriculture and labor than nationalism). I grew up so saturated with stories of Jewish diasporic anarchists and communists (stories like Becca references below). As an adult I have often wondered, where are these people at my Temple? We are a Temple of (liberal) thousands, but thousands very in-step with nationalism and militarism. Even besides anti-Zionism, what about just being an anarchist? What about nationalism in general? What happened to all those Jews? I feel like this lens, of summer camp, is an excellent view into the last century.
For another take on Jews and camp, you might be interested in my brother's book about communist summer camps, Raising Reds: The Young Pioneers, Radical Summer Camps, and Communist Political Culture in the United States. Do links work in comments? http://cup.columbia.edu/book/raising-reds/9780231110457
Sandra Fox asks how many readers have heard of Tisha B’Av. Well, I haven't. I grew up in the S.F. Bay Area, and had some Jewish friends, but most of them lived pretty secular lives. This type of summer camp just wasn't a thing on the West Coast. Practically everything I know about Jewish culture and holidays I learned from the <i>All of a Kind Family</i> series. I don't recall Tisha B’Av being mentioned in those books.
I didn't go to a Jewish sleep-away camp, but I worked for as kitchen staff for one summer in a pluralistic zionist camp, and what the camp director referred to euphemistically as "continuation" (rumor was a couple was found in a compromising position on the playground) was everywhere amongst staff even, in 2011 - and lord help you if you identified as LGBTQ+. None of the staff in my year got married to each other, although I do believe quite a few long term relationships occurred.
I will say that what struck me most that judging by the social media of the staff I do keep in touch with, what lasts are the friendships formed at camp, and I do wish that was discussed a bit more.
Funny enough that camp solidified my conviction that halachically Jewish men don't find me attractive... But I did marry a fellow paternal jew a few years later.
Thank you all for these interesting comments! I'm the author of the book and would be happy to field any questions you might have. And if you happen to live in Brooklyn, you can buy the book in person at Community Bookstore in Park Slope, Greenlight Books in Fort Greene/Prospect Lefferts, and Books Are Magic on Montague. -- Sandy
Thank you so much for this interview! I just requested that my library purchase a copy of the book - I’m very excited to read it!
This was a great interview. Thanks for posting it!
As a gentile with Jewish neighbors, I was fuzzily aware of Jewish summer camps. My crowd went to Girl Scout camp, horse camp and music camp. I asked one of my neighbors if they went to camp and they said, “We have our own camps.” I thought maybe it had something to do with preparation for bar and bat mitzvahs. As for Tisha B’av, I never knew about it until it was part of the Catskills episode of Mrs. Maisel. It was played as kind of a joke and obviously it is very serious to observant people.
If you are Jewish and born after World War II, you lived in the shadow of the Holocaust. There were always a few people of the older generation that one encountered with a concentration camp tatoo on their wrists, and when you were little they were just something vaguely horrifying, but more horrifying as you learned the details years later. When I was a child, I always found it reassuring that my synagogue had an American flag and and Israeli flag. It made me feel safer. Of course, if you were Jewish and born after, let's say the revolution of 1848 or 1870, you had your own stories, and there were stories before that, likely just as horrifying. Jews were cursed with literacy thousands of years ago, so a lot of things got written down and remembered. Other cultures, I am sure, had their Tisha B'Av, now long forgotten, and others never did, having no one to remember.
P.S. There were Jewish summer camps before the war. Oppenheimer attended one, a dude ranch camp outside of Santa Fe. When he was put in charge of the Manhattan Project, he sited it there in what is now Los Alamos.
I was a Montessori kid and many Jewish kids went to Montessori in my hometown. They were all my friends. So of course, though I am not Jewish, I went to day camp with them. Camp Hilbert! Because it’s just how I grew up, I had no idea that Jewish summer camp was a thing until I saw this piece.
Camp Kinderland definitely loomed large in the 90s Greenwich Village / Soho!
I'm not Jewish at all, I did not go to camp. Working-class gentile Midwesterners MAYBE did a week at Scout camp, or a sports camp, or a 4-H camp, or church camp, but that was usually when you were a teenager and wasn't the norm. For younger kids, anything other than day camp was pretty much unheard of.
That said, this book was an absolutely fascinating read.
As a Jew of Summer (Camp Towanda, 72-82) I was and am still, in my fifties, obsessed by camp. I have attended the bar and bar mitzvahs of my camp friends. I have attended their weddings and the brises of their sons, the bar and bats of their kids, their weddings, funerals of parents, Olympic break-outs. In my second book I wrote about a 1977 Friday night at camp while my parents were home in NY attending a key party. Always a Jew of Summer. 🙏🏻