The Path Less Travelled
I learned the hard way that Jewish camp isn’t the only path to a strong Jewish identity.
by Melissa Wolfish
When I was six years old, a family friend gave me a collection of her daughter’s old T-shirts, the majority of which were paper-thin with designs peeling off. However, hidden in the collection was a white crewneck sweatshirt with black Hebrew letters. My parents explained that it was the name of a nearby Jewish sleepaway camp. I had attended a traditional secular day camp, but I fantasized that this place was a factory of sorts where young, brilliant students were molded into rabbis and cantors. A few years later, my parents thought I had reached an appropriate age to have a sleepaway camp experience. My family identified the particular camp advertised on my sweatshirt as an appropriate fit, given its affiliation with the Conservative movement and relative proximity to our home (approximately two hours away). As my mother and I packed for my week away from home, I told her that I wanted to bring my vintage camp sweatshirt with me. I couldn’t help but feel a little smug on the first night of camp as I wore my vintage threads during icebreakers.
I was so caught up in the organized chaos of the week that I made little use of the three foil-wrapped, disposable cameras my mom had packed for me. However, after camp ended, I vividly remember the car ride home during which I rattled off for my parents the names of colors and body parts that I had learned in Hebrew, as well as how many cannonballs I had done off the high dive at the swimming pool (just to freak them out a little). My parents looked at each other and beamed. I recognized that they weren’t just thrilled because I had a wonderful experience, but particularly because I had a Jewish experience.
The following summer, I returned, this time for three weeks. Due to my veteran status, my mom offered to buy me a new version of the camp’s sweatshirt; I settled on a heather gray, hooded sweatshirt with the name of the camp in English. When it arrived in the mail, I was disappointed. The fabric was heavy, and the high collar felt suffocating. I feigned enthusiasm and told my parents that it would be perfect for evening activities.
The sweatshirt was an apt metaphor for that summer. The triple-digit temperatures, which I had found to be novel the prior summer, now felt oppressive. Worse, the short length of the session I had attended the year before gave campers little time to form factions. Now, while my peers weren’t openly hostile to one another, it was evident by the different ways the counselors addressed us that some campers were cooler than others. Attending a Jewish day school and/or bringing a hair-straightening iron seemed to help. I felt paranoid and perpetually at risk of being regarded as an outcast if I made one wrong move.
I was also grappling with the displacement I felt during some “Jewish” activities. During our daily limmud (learning) sections, in which we were divided by our Hebrew language abilities, I began to feel hopeless about ever becoming proficient; I spent the entire session learning the Hebrew words for circus animals.
I also felt conflicted about the amount of time we spent praying each day. I felt somewhat foolish reciting the Hebrew prayers I had learned so diligently in my Hebrew school without having any idea what I was saying. I had raised this issue a few times with my mom during my childhood. “That’s why there’s an English translation,” she said somewhat unsympathetically. However, I didn’t find this answer sufficient, and my camp experiences further frustrated me. Although I couldn’t articulate it at the time, the gap between the siddur’s translation and my own interpretation of the original text was maddening.
Nevertheless, I knew that attending this camp was expensive; I tried to show gratitude to my parents, which unfortunately resulted in my return to camp the following summer for an entire month. The same problems were further magnified. The counselors were more hostile to those campers not deemed “adorable.” I was increasingly jealous of the campers who had fluency in Hebrew, and there was the added pressure of needing validation by the opposite sex. I quietly rebelled during those four weeks by making plastic lanyards in the shape of fish, which uncannily resembled those representing Jesus that I had seen on the backs of cars.
My rate of response to my family’s letters tapered off; I found that lying about having fun was exhausting. When camp finally ended and my mother picked me up, she was visibly disappointed but remained tight-lipped until we arrived home. She then confessed that she was upset I hadn’t written home every day, unlike Leah Halperin, the daughter of a family friend, who had attended the same camp session and had apparently done just that. I started crying, which escalated into sobs. I finally acknowledged how unhappy I had felt at camp the past two summers. My mom immediately softened as I shared my experiences between tearful hiccups, and she gave me a hug. I knew I wouldn’t be returning.
Many of my friends describe their Jewish camp days as an entry point for developing a strong Jewish identity, and I’m envious of their experiences. Jewish camp is frequently depicted as the place where one comes to value being part of a Jewish community. So, while I didn’t get kicked out of camp for unruly behavior or smuggling unkosher candy in my luggage, I felt like I had flunked Jewish sleepaway camp and, in turn, Judaism as a whole. Over the past few years, I’ve realized that for some people, certainly for me, embracing Jewish traditions was difficult while in the throes of puberty. Amidst dealing with a constantly changing physical body and social circle, I had trouble accepting my camp’s “one size fits all” approach to Judaism. Fortunately, I’ve had other opportunities to explore my identity, such as taking Jewish history courses in college and working for Jewish organizations. I can now appreciate that I wasn’t a Jewish failure. Rather, it was a matter of timing.
About the Author
Melissa Wolfish is a Los Angeles-based arts education advocate. She received her master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she studied arts education theory and policy. She is also an alumna of Oberlin College. In her free time, she can be found learning how to throw pottery on the wheel and admiring the squirrels in her neighborhood.