Jewish camp is everywhere, Terry Gross confirmed on NPR the other day. While interviewing filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, she noted that she’d recently discovered that the Coen Brothers had attended the same Jewish camp – Herzl Camp, in Wisconsin – as folk icon Bob Dylan, albeit not at the same time. An excerpt from the interview follows:
GROSS: So I have to know, is this the kind of summer camp where you sing songs with lyrics about how great the camp is, and then there’s team songs with how great the team is?
GROSS: Aw, shucks. I wanted to think of [Dylan] as singing those songs.
COEN: No, you sang – it was Zionist summer camp, and you sang Zionist songs in Hebrew.
Those of us who attended similar camps recall similar activities. Personally, I can’t even read these lines of the interview without involuntarily breaking into ‘Mi anachnu? Anachnu tziirim! Sharim doo wa diddy diddy dum diddy doo!’ Sad, but true.
That overnight camp comes with a form of indoctrination shouldn’t surprise anyone – but in my experience, both as a Jewish camp camper and a Jewish camp parent, I’ve found that it’s less “indoctrination” and more “immersion.”
Camp is a time for children to be separated from their parents – let’s call them the Indoctrinators-in-Chief – and to be submerged in a world unto themselves for the first time. This is an inherently heady experience. For many children, it’s their first substantial time away from ‘home’ in a place that is not a family member’s home. Campers find themselves in a new place, where things are done differently. And without their parents at hand, they look to other sources – counselors, fellow campers, and the camp itself – as guideposts of authority, and as compasses to provide direction.
The world of each camp is carefully curated in order to convey a particular message and meaning. Some sports camps are known as fostering a spirit of camaraderie and teamwork; others are notorious for being intensely competitive. Performing arts camps fairly vibrate with the sense that there is nowhere more worthwhile than the stage. More general arts camps convey the worthiness of aggressive individuality with their free-to-be-you-and-me, anything-goes wild sense of creativity.
And yes, Jewish camps focus on being Jewish. And whether that is being Jewish as manifested by davening (praying) three times a day, by performing “Ata Ish Tov, Charlie Brown” in Hebrew or by learning about Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, a Jewish camp has as its baseline assumption the validity and continuation of the Jewish people.
So yes, Jewish camps are Zionistic and pro-Israel. Jewish camp teaches different ways of seeing the world – but those ways are through Jewish lenses and perspectives. I attended camps which made me reevaluate who I was in relation to the Jewish people. Questions, whether about kashrut or Israel, were not only tolerated, but welcomed.
Yes, I learned from camp that I was fundamentally, unalterably pro-Israel. But I also learned that ‘Israel’ means ‘to struggle.’ Immersion in a Jewish environment fundamentally differs from indoctrination: Jewish camp, whether through teaching text or history, teaches kids that being Jewish is a struggle, and one to which they should devote their entire lives.
This year, the proverbial “holiday season” comes earlier than usual, with the much-ballyhooed convergence of Hannukah and Thanksgiving. This means that I am online virtually every free second I have: as I am two weeks or so away from giving birth to my fifth child, this means, someone has to handle getting 32 gifts for the other four kids. I’m hoping the newborn won’t notice she’s not getting anything.
The “holiday season,” after all, has become a euphemism for the Season of Stuff. The newspapers delivered to the house bleed out ads and coupons for Stuff. Suddenly, every catalog company in the world has found my address, and is intent on selling me everything from a reindeer sweater for my nonexistent dog to a $1500 foot-massager/tooth-brusher.
The implicit message of all this ‘holiday’ consumerism is that if you love someone, you need to show them that you love them by Buying Them Stuff. The stretch for ‘stuff’ for Those Who Already Have Everything extends beyond the reasonable into the bizarre: a $1k diaper bag?
I’m not a fan of status symbols or logos generally, and am more inclined to be moved by an honest and thoughtful card than fancypants jewelry I will rarely wear. So maybe that’s why all this getting and spending doesn’t thrill me to the bone…and why I was so surprised to find that it was such an integral part of the Going-To-Camp-Experience as well.
This idea that Buying Stuff equals Love is threaded almost seamlessly into the camp experience. Sending kids to camp for the first time, as most people become aware very quickly, involves purchasing tons of stuff you might not otherwise have occasion to buy, from moisture-wicking cargo pants to sleeping bags to ponchos. You do all this because it is necessary, because it is on the shopping list provided by the camp, and because you want to make sure your kid is as equipped as possible for a summer without you.
Then we start getting into the “extras.” The battery-powered fans. The squirt bottles. A $30 nightlight shaped like a gummy bear. A $48 personalized yoga mat (for those moments of clarity, perhaps?). Pre-printed address labels so the poor kid won’t have to take the time to write out your home address on those letters. One mother told me that her local camp store recommended she purchase a portable chair for her son, telling her they were “popular because the kids don’t like to always sit in the grass.” Huh?? And, the same mother told me, “the de rigeur present to open when he gets to camp…because a kid who goes to a $10k summer camp really needs MORE GIFTS” And please don’t get me started on the second iPhone for when the camp confiscates the first one.
Not only does all this stuff get expensive, but its endless production also goes against the grain of what camp is allegedly about. These items foster a mentality of coddling rather than self-reliance. They nurture a sense of “Mom and Dad will take care of it for me” rather than “I may actually be hot and sweaty once in a while – it’s summer camp, and it’s okay!”
I’m not sure how a camp would go about outlawing “stuff.” But maybe opening a candid discussion about it would be a good thing.
Looking back on the past few months, I wouldn’t call it a “cruel summer.” Nor would I call it “the summer of my discontent.” But sending my boys to overnight camp for the first time was a far rockier road than I’d hoped I’d be traveling. The summer ended with me struggling with an odd issue that I’d never anticipated: What do you do when your kid does something wrong…and gets exactly what he wants as a result?
See, there is apparently an unspoken rule of omerta when it comes to unhappiness at camp, which I’m about to break. You are not supposed to admit that your child did not have an “amazing” time at camp. You are not supposed to talk about the fact that the camp called you or emailed you every day. You are supposed to only post the shiny, happy pictures.
Perhaps it was Facebook that misled me. I assumed my experience would follow the progression apparently conformed to by all my friends and their children. After all, all of my friends displayed in photos on their respective Timelines – and every single kid, according to these pictures, has “the time of their life” at camp:
Photo One: “Dropping X off at camp bus; we are going to miss him but he is going to have the time of his life!!!” Photo of child boarding bus with timid, yet anticipatory, smile on his face.
Photo Two: “X is having the time of his life at camp!” Photo of X smiling, arms around new friends-for-life whom he will eventually request as college suitemates his freshman year.
Photo Three: “Reunited, and it feels so good!” Photo of whole family hugging dirty, yet happy-looking X at camp visiting day.
Photo Four: “Cannot believe X actually tried Y!” Photo of X doing something completely brave and out of character for X, like going down a 5,000 foot zipline, cooking a feast by himself for 400 people or para-sailing.
Photo Five: “So glad to have X home – he had the time of his life!” Photo of parents hugging dirtier, yet happy-looking, kid X as he gets off the bus.
I assumed this trajectory would hold true for me and my boys, even though it was at odds with my own experience as a child. I was extremely homesick at camp. I was also told in no uncertain terms by my parents that I would have to suck it up (they may not have used those words) and deal. Which, dear reader, I did.
Despite my own time at camp, though, I was a veritable Pollyanna of Positivity and Propaganda while packing my own boys for camp. I told them over and over how much fun they would have and what a great experience it would be. I convinced even myself.
When the other one of my sons told me as I dropped him off, “PLEASE take me home with you – I won’t use the iPad or the Kinect or the television for three weeks!,” I was upset but didn’t show it. I told him that of course he was nervous, but that everyone was initially, and that he would be fine.
And yet, somehow, he wasn’t.
I got calls home from the camp. Some days he took positive steps forward, other days he took two steps backward. As I told my husband at one point, “This is like all the bad parts of parenting – the stress, the worry, the frustration – and none of the good parts, like the smiles, the satisfaction or the happiness that comes from seeing your kid succeed.”
Finally, when the 10:45 pm Saturday night call came from the camp arranging a phone call with my son the next day, I knew we were nearing a breaking point. I just didn’t know who was going to be the one to break.
We had a talk and I made it clear that I did not want to come and get him, and that he would make it the final week of camp and do well – and be proud of himself for having “made it.” But within hours, he deliberately broke a camp rule in order to get out… and there I was on the highway, driving the two hours to go pick him up and bring him home.
I’m still trying to parse out what lessons were learned. I am having a lot of difficulty stomaching the idea that my son did something wrong deliberately…and as a result, got EXACTLY WHAT HE WANTED, i.e. to come home. The joyful reunion with him was tarred by my having to discipline him (no TV, no Kinect, no iPad, lots of chores).
The trajectory was off. But no one ever talks about the kids who don’t have a great time at camp.
See, no one posts a picture of the happy-yet-sad face a kid makes when he’s thrilled to see you but knows you are deeply disappointed in him. No one tells you what the “takeaway” of such an experience is supposed to be. You have to figure it all out yourself: what went wrong? Was it the choice of camp? Was it the kid’s maturity or lack thereof? Was it some weird alchemy of the kids in the bunk and counselors? Was it something you don’t even know?
Maybe it really is “the time of your life” – in the sense that in life, things do, on occasion, go way off track from how you’d expected them to go. Everyone assumes it will all go right – but who helps you out when things go wrong? Any answers or help, please send them my way.
Like this post? Read more of Jordana’s writing on Kveller.com.
I sent my two boys to overnight camp for the first time this past summer and am now an Experienced Camp Parent. Okay, I’m just slightly more experienced than I was when I sent in the initial deposit.
I’ve changed as a person due to my kids’ camp experience. I’ve learned that you should always have a dozen Sharpies at hand, and that said Sharpies should be carefully stored out of reach-range of your two year old daughter. On a more substantive level, I’ve learned that I actually don’t want to be a helicopter parent, and want my kids to have fun and meaningful experiences independently of me.
But as Oscar Wilde said, “Experience is the name that we give to our mistakes.” So let me run through a few things I would have done differently as a first-time camp parent, in the hope of sparing you some agony:
1. EXPLAIN EVERYTHING TO YOUR CHILD. Before your child goes to camp, it is absolutely essential to explain everything that you have packed for your child to your child. Take it slowly, step by step: bug repellent is to be sprayed on the skin, not ingested. You may think this little tour is unnecessary. You are wrong.
For a not-hypothetical example, you may think that when you send a bottle in your son’s camp bag that clearly (in the child’s native language), reads, “body wash/shampoo/conditioner,” that you do not need to explain that he is to use that bottle’s contents as soap, shampoo and conditioner. On his body, while water is running in the shower. My unfortunate experience says that you would be wrong.
2. DO NOT IMPUTE MEANING TO YOUR CHILD’S PHOTOS FROM CAMP. We’ve addressed this.
3. BEFORE THEY LEAVE, MAKE YOUR CHILDREN ADDRESS AND STAMP ALL ENVELOPES THEMSELVES.
I know many parents address and stamp envelopes and/or postcards home for their children. In my entirely anecdotal, non-statistical experience, the kids for whom that is done feel that they have invested nothing in the writing experience and were therefore less likely to actually use said stationery.
Jewish tradition has it that it is required for parents to teach their children how to swim. Why is swimming so important? Because in the event that they find themselves in a difficult situation in the water, they will be able to save themselves and perhaps someone else. Similarly, if you teach your child how to do their own work – not do it for them – they will learn from the experience and be able to ‘swim’ themselves.
At the suggestion of a friend, I had my boys address and stamp all their own envelopes. I made my expectations for how often I expected to hear from them quite clear. And they complied, much to my delight. No one was writing voluminously or rapturously like Jane Austen, to be sure, but I still got the amusing communiqués that I sought (“Today was Wilderness Day -we learned how to light a fire with a lighter!”).
4. DO NOT SEND ANYTHING NEW TO CAMP. Well, okay, you’re going to have to buy the sleeping bag and all the camp-required gear. That being said, there is no need to invest in new sneakers prior to camp. I say this as the woman who looked at my son’s feet at the end of camp and said, “What happened to the sneakers we bought the day before you left?” before realizing that holy crap, those awful rags on his feet WERE the sneakers we bought the day before he left.
5. WHEN YOUR KID COMES HOME, HAVE THE FOLLOWING SUPPLIES AT THE READY: Athlete’s foot medicine. Nail clipper. Q-tips. AfterBite/Benadryl.
6. DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, ALLOW YOUR CHILD TO REMOVE HIS/HER SHOES ON THE CAR RIDE HOME FROM CAMP.
“Honey, is there any chance that there might be a dead animal in your duffel bag?” “What? No.” “Are you sure? Because it smells like a rotting corpse in the backseat…OMG PUT YOUR SHOES BACK ON!”
Like this post? Read more of Jordana’s writing on Kveller.com.
When I was a camper a billion years ago, my parents had no idea what was going on at camp while I was there, beyond what I told them in my letters. There were no phone calls home. There was no camp social media director sending out parent bulletins via Facebook and Twitter. And most of all, there were no pictures — except for the ones I chose to take with my crappy little real-film camera, and even those, I had to develop weeks after my return home.
Today’s campers, in contrast, are generally subject to a continuous paparazzi photo shoot. Camp directors send professional photographers out into the camp to take pictures of kids having fun. These pictures are then uploaded to a camp’s website, or Facebook, or some combination thereof. And then, parents of campers can sit at their computers or iPhones, staring slack-jawed at the web browser, hitting ‘refresh’ over and over again so that they can catch a glimpse of their son or daughter.
I am sorry to say that photos indicate nothing whatsoever about the nature of a child’s camp experience, and that I know this from personal experience.
When I sent the boys to camp, I didn’t expect to miss them as much as I did. The idea of photos of their camp experience struck me as appealing as a window, however small, into what they were doing, I thought, and a letter conversation-starter. “Hey – I saw a picture of you holding someone by the legs – was that a color war event or random fun?” I didn’t expect to glean much information from the photos beyond whether it was hot or cold at camp on a given day (though my boys’ wardrobe does not necessarily line up with the weather).
One of my sons – whether because of his red hair or some other reason – turned up in almost 50% of the camp’s photos. Without exaggeration, over the photos taken through the entire summer, there was only one photo in which he was smiling. In the others, he looked exhausted, or spaced out, or preoccupied with whatever preoccupies 8-year-old boys (Minecraft? Lego?). This kid, however, wrote daily letters home that read like advertisements for camp. Laden with exclamation points, the kid’s letters were a five-star, rave review of camp. Even the food got accolades.
My other son appeared in few photos, but in each one was featured prominently sporting a wide smile, flashing peace signs and every sign that he was the proverbial happy camper. I can assure you, sadly, that he was not. Every letter I received from him dwelled unremittingly on his homesickness and how lonely he felt. In his letters, he pleaded for me to pick him up early from camp (which, due to a variety of circumstances I don’t feel comfortable writing about, did end up happening).
In short, pictures may say a thousand words – but those words are not necessarily the truth. Pictures can soothe you with the knowledge that your child is still physically at camp — but they do not tell you the whole story of what is transpiring in your child’s head or heart.
Judaism has long been a religion skeptical of things as they appear on the surface. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once pointed out that the Hebrew word for garment comes from the same root as the Hebrew word for betrayal. Appearances, in one flash of light or a flashbulb, can deceive. Sometimes, they show you what you want to see. After all, what camp sends its photographers into bunks with night vision cameras to capture campers sniffling with homesickness into their pillows?
Perhaps we’d do best to shut the cameras off – or at least send the pictures out after the fact as opposed to during. Then we might be able to better focus not on how things appear, but on how they really are.
Like this post? Read more of Jordana’s writing on Kveller.com.
I’m a mom of four, soon to be five, kids, after all. I know how to diaper a squirming baby, how to pack a lunch that will get eaten, and how to peel melted cheese off a formerly-lost permission slip. I know how to pack for a week away for a family of six, I know how to order for said children at restaurants so that they will eat the food, and I know how many bathroom stops to make per a given amount of highway mileage.
I did not expect to be so taken aback by my boys’ first experience at overnight camp.
Why, you ask? What have they said that was so shocking?
Granted, they haven’t even been at camp a week. Even if they wrote me letters (which who knows whether or not they have, despite all the envelopes they addressed and stamped before camp), I have yet to receive them. You’d think I’d have considered this before they left, that for a few days at least, I wouldn’t hear from them.
And maybe I did. But there’s a big difference between the abstract and the reality.
My boys are eight and nine. Even though I’m divorced from their dad, I’ve never gone more than a day without speaking to them.
At first, the silence pissed me off – yes, irrationally of course, because we don’t communicate telepathically. But now, as it starts to settle in, I’m thinking that this tiny bit of distance is good for both of us.
Let them be independent for a little bit – or as independent as you can be, when your mom packed your toothbrush and Marvel Avengers’ body wash. There are so many things I, as their mother, want to teach them, but surely one of them should be that it is okay to stand on your own two feet.
I don’t know exactly what they’re up to, or what they’re wearing, or what they’re thinking, but surely that’s a small hint of what the future holds as they set down the long road of growing up. And letting them grow up by letting go (a little!) is, perhaps, the best thing I can do.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m still checking the mailbox. But in my heart, I know they are okay.
Like this post? Read more of Jordana’s writing on Kveller.com.