A Place to Be Visible
Going to a Jewish summer camp meant participating in all the activities I wanted without being tormented.
by Lois Greene Stone
Class party. Elementary school. The party organizer approached me. “Your art work and posters and words are really so good, we want you to make the signs; but, of course, you can’t come to the 8th grade party because you’re Jewish.”
I didn’t look conventionally Jewish with my blonde hair and grey-blue-green eyes. However, I was always considered lesser because of my religion. I had hoped education would be an equalizer; it wasn’t. I was constantly expected to be a resource for my abilities (like making art for the school posters), yet I was shunned socially. I pretended the words didn’t cause pain, that the actions didn’t affect me. I pretended I didn’t hear muffled derogatory utterances about my religion during classes and loud calling out of similar slurs on the walks to and from school.
Another end-of-elementary-school memory: the class president whispered to me that none of the girls would be wearing socks for the 8th grade yearbook picture. I was excited about being included and being told something so important at the time. Happily, I walked to school without socks under my shoes; my feet chafed against the linings. We assembled behind the school, where the other girls, who were all, as it turned out, wearing the customary ankle socks, laughed at me. Once again, I was the outsider who didn’t know how to dress. The large sign signifying our class number was propped against my legs to hide my bare ankles.
Yet another unpleasant memory from grade school: ice balls ripping into the skin of my bare legs as I walked home from school. Skirts were mandatory, and tights hadn’t yet been designed. Blood trickled into my red rubber overshoes. My mother bandaged the wounds during lunch, comforted me, told me not to say anything to the schoolmates who yelled anti-Semitic remarks as they launched the ice balls, and I then headed the seven blocks back to school. There were no busses and no lunches in school. During spring season, some boys on bicycles screamed out as they whizzed by on their balloon-tire vehicles: “How come Hitler missed you?”
Flash forward to Jewish summer camp in my teen years. My parents found a co-ed camp in the Berkshire Mountains, where I would find so much joy that, when I eventually became too old to be a camper, I was heart-broken. Throughout my summers there, I put together the weekly newspaper, even creating drawings to accompany the content. I typed all the copy and spent hours turning the crank on the cumbersome mimeograph to get the weekly paper out. I also compiled, typed, illustrated, mimeographed, and stapled the end-of-summer yearbook. Neither needing nor wanting recognition, I was able to create freely; I excelled in sports and was welcomed on teams, appreciated for my singing and acting. I was the best of ‘me’: smiling, happy, and comfortable.
What also remains in my memory of firsts at summer camp was the fact that I was encouraged to be visible. In fact, I was chosen to play the lead—Snow White!—in the camp play. Sure, one brunette camper who tried out for the same role complained because I was blond, and Snow White was supposed to be raven-haired like her, but there were no anti-Semitic insults (or rocks) hurled, no jokes about a Jewish fairytale princess. I was not tucked away behind the scenes making stage props; I was front and center.
In retrospect, it amazes me that the things I thought I loved so much about summer camp—the mountains, sports, friends, and arts and crafts—were not, in fact, the reason for my contentment. Somehow, I didn’t recognize that a big reason I was so happy during those eight weeks was that all of us campers shared the same religion. In fact, as I sit here typing, looking back in time, I am remembering wearing my mandatory Shabbos clothing—white shorts, white top, white socks, white sneakers—and slipping on the moist grass while running to the flagpole. My shorts became streaked with green, and the camp laundry was never able to remove the stain. If this had happened at school, the mockery would have been relentless; but, at Jewish summer camp, no one laughed. I was insulated from the arena of prejudice and ridicule that existed the other ten months of the year. I belonged.
About the Author
Lois Greene Stone
Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Her poetry and personal essays have been included in hardcover and paperback book anthologies. Collections of her personal items, photos, and memorabilia can be found in major museums, including 12 different divisions of the Smithsonian.
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