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Camp, Then and Now

Three decades, two very different trunks

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(Illustration: Leela Corman)

Josie, 8, is going to Jewish overnight camp for the first time this year. I’m fine. I’m ready. Don’t mind me, I’ll just sit here alone in the dark.

Her camp, like mine back in the day, offers t’filah (prayer), omanut (art), sports, chofesh (free time), swimming, weekly sending of Shabbat-o-grams and attendant social anxiety: How many will I get? If I send one to That Cute Boy, will he think I like him That Way? Do I want him to? What is the encoded meaning of this particular Shabbat-o-gram? Could I possibly parse it more if it were the Talmud?

For many of us, sleepaway camp is the first sizeable chunk of time away from parents. It’s a taste of adulthood. Nikayon, daily cleaning time, was the first time I really scrubbed a sink or swept an entire floor. Because camp means building a society in miniature, in which kids have more independence and power than they do back home, friendships there seem more vivid, more intense–a lifetime poured into a concentrated month or two.

But some things have changed. My parents sent in a two-page form and bam, I was a camper. I, on the other hand, filled out some 60 pages of documents about Josie, including a “social media policy” in which our entire family had to pledge not to defame the camp on Facebook or Twitter. Today’s camps ask so many questions about our children’s mental health, it’s as if our tweens are applying for jobs with the CIA. And as I wrote a few weeks ago, the world outside of camp is far more connected today. When kids head for the machaneh, they leave behind a million ways to chat, extensive online universes and multi-player games, gazillions of TV channels. Writing and receiving letters rather than email feels quaint now.

But I chose the camp I did because the kids and the camp’s values seemed like throwbacks in the best way. I want the feeling of a bungalow colony, not a country club. I want Jo to have the experience I did. Of course, every generation is a little different…

walkman Me: Walkman the size of a brick iPod Josie: iPod Nano
Journey Me: On the Walkman, “Don’t Stop Believin’,” by Journey Glee Josie: On the iPod, “Don’t Stop Believin’,” by the cast of Glee
Flowers in the Attic Me: Flowers in the Attic (Goth-y vaguely Victorian trashy lit) A Series of Unfortunate Events Josie: A Series of Unfortunate Events (Goth-y vaguely Victorian decent lit)
asthma inhaler Me: Asthma inhaler asthma inhaler Josie: Asthma inhaler
mosquito Me: Bug repellent with enough chemicals to defoliate a small island asthma inhaler Josie: Hippie herbal insect repellent with organic catnip oil, organic rosemary, and organic lemongrass
Gunne Sax skirt Me: Shabbat outfits consisting of flowered Gunne Sax dresses Hanna Andersson dress Josie: Shabbat outfits consisting of flowered Hanna Andersson dresses
asthma inhaler Me: armfuls of rubber Madonna “Goomie” bracelets Silly Bandz Josie: armfuls of silicone Silly Bandz (modeled by Maxie because Josie is away at camp)

When Josie’s generation enters a sylvan, bunk-dotted landscape, they’re entering a more retro world than we did. But I think they need it even more.

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Oh Marjorie, you always make me smile. My baby is now a counselor at one of these camps after 14 summers of being a camper.

OMG, you got Leela Corman to illustrate this! Whoo! I am a huge, huge fan of hers. (Her story “Fanya Needs to Know,” in Megan Kelso’s Unterzakhn collection Scheherezade, is just amazing — Tablet readers should check out Unterzakhn, her graphic novel about life on the Lower East Side way back when, on the Forward’s web site:

Freda says:

Great column, Marjorie — as usual, insightful, funny, and thought-provoking!

Re: the comment above by Marjorie, about Leela Corman’s illustrations on the Forward website: the link above does not work because of the parenthesis printed at the end of the address, but it IS the correct web address; you can cut and paste the address in your browser minus the parenthesis to get to the site.

Leah says:

I wonder what the 2010 equvalents are to SeaBreeze face cleaner and dippity-do gel?

Leah just BLEW MY MIND. I totally remember Love’s Baby Soft but forgot SeaBreeze entirely until this moment!

And thanks, Freda — my comment was incoherent in my Corman-induced glee. As Freda says, the link should be:

Dallas Arts Salon says:

You should have gone to camp in the 60’s.

Were are the uniforms?

Camp Akiba
Reeders, PA

laurie says:

Camp was the best (Cejwin) best place to experience Jewish life at its finest. How about baby oil? Am I dating myself/ We used it to get the ultimate tan!

I’ll never forget when my mom sent me tampons in the mail, to Girl Scout camp. She didn’t even put them in a plastic sandwich baggie.

Allen R. Schreiber says:

You forgot Camp Then: Everything packed into a small footlocker and a small rucksack for use on the overnight camping trip(me circa 1970 and ’71).

Camp Now: Several pieces of designer roll-along luggage and a $200 internal frame backpack (except my kids, for whom everything is packed into a single Army Surplus duffel bag and one of my old external frame backpacks from my Boy Scouting days [circa 1970’s-’80’s] for each of them, they just started their two week session at Camp Shwayder in Colorado today).

Tziporah says:

I never go to go to camp. So when my youngest, who has muscular dystrophy, got to go to MDA camp for a week when he was 6 I was panic struck. Still that first year he went with a friend of mine as his counselor so it was a lot easier. This year both of my sons went to MDA camp (we just found out my older son also has MD).

I still, even after 3 years, have a hard time packing for them. It is like they have this secret unknown life I only get to see peaks of through pictures and their reactions of friends when I pick them up. I wonder how they will be at the dance and if they miss me. But they come home so happy. This year they came home on the 12th and the little son still gets teary thinking about the awesome time he had.

Camp is an awesome experience.

Leah Weiss Caruso says:

Spot-on! I wasn’t allowed to bring my walkman to camp but I remember vividly the OFF insect repellant that made me break out in so many hives my legs and arms swelled up. Worse than the bugs! We did not have Shabbat-O-Grams, we had “Shabbat Walk” where each village was picked up by some songleaders and we all walked to the wooded chapel. It was a big deal to hold hands with someone on the walk :-)

Thanks so much for the plug! Unterzakhn will be out sometime next year from Schocken Books.

I went to commie pinko art camp run by a couple of Upper West Side lefties in the 80’s. Essential items: Sun-In and a Joan Jett tape. Once my friend and I tried to make our own hair lightener using lemon juice, which we applied before a hike. Bees were literally divebombing my hairline.

I still use Sea Breeze! I actually went and bought up a supply of the discontinued original formula online recently. It’s essential in hot sticky weather like this! I took it with me to Cairo last summer, where it was essential for midday grooming, and it’s in my dance bag all summer for post-class cleanup. Love that stuff!

mindy says:

My son is 19 and now a counselor at the Jewish camp he first attended at 10! and your story rings so true for me. First he went with the “blanket” as part of his luggage. Two years latter, the “blanket” was hidden at the bottom of the sleeping bag. Two more years and the “blanket” was replaced with the cell phone hidden in the bottom of the sleeping bag. Now that he is a counselor, the Ipod is “kosher” for him to have as long as its not in plan view. This year he also took his computer to camp. Hew is he gonna get Wifi in the tents! oh well.

Lucy says:

My son will be old enough to go to camp next
summer. I hope he will love
it since it is an experience I
never had. It sounds truly
amazing. I want him to go and
spend the next 10+ years as a camper/

naomi barell says:

i just finished packing for camp with my 13 year old daughter. no baby oil AND iodine for her! and no candy trunk either but i just spent the last hour ironing name tapes into her clothes. i just know those tags in her underwear are going to annoy her! oh well, maybe she’ll think of me then. no walkmans in my day but i did bring my panasonic casette player with every elton john tape i could get my hands on. she’s got her ipod with her selections from glee, the fray, train and yes, a lot of beatles too. there will be tears tomorrow. mostly mine.

Ellie says:

Wow, great column… Seabreeze, that’s hysterical. My “tzrif” was more into blue kohl eyeliner, though. (The “Wet & Wild” drugstore brand usually won in popularity.) Oh, and disc cameras were all the rage.

Your daughter’s hippie bug deterrent is more like a marinade. Send along some “Skin so soft” (Avon … unofficially works great on bugs, but sold as a moisturizing lotion). Ah the smell of bug / sun lotions together at last!

Rachel says:

As someone in between the glory days of camp (camper and counselor) and having kids of her own (I’m only 22), I miss pretty much everything about my summers spent at Capital Camps in Pennsylvania. To this day, I think going to summer camp was the single largest impact on my Jewish identity and can’t fathom not sending my kids to one.

I hope Josie has the best ten consecutive summers of her life and wish Maxine the same when her day comes.

Betty J Armstrong says:

Just a clear up of the “Avon Skin So Soft” to be used as a bug repellent. The marketing people at Avon are to be congratulated – they did a great job making people believe that this product actually works as a repellent. Trust me and keep your kids safe with the usual over the counter repellents or (believe it or not) “Bounce” dryer sheets tucked in a blouse or shirt – no mosquito/bee will approach!

Adam L. Schwartz says:

Yes, I have been reading you for a while, but now I finally have to speak up. Thanks for this piece! My daughter started camp this summer, and I think my wife could have written every word. Funny that things like sleep away camp ground us in the common denominator of our Jewish experience. And in the best way I can imagine.
Hope you make it to reunion number 25!!
Adam (’89)

Celia says:

Ah, Camp Cejwin! I loved everything about it. Four great summers. The Israeli dancing, the pizza bagels, the singing, the boating, even the super-long Shabbat services where we all wore white. So many great memories. NPR’s This American Life has a great segment on camp that makes me laugh and tear up at the same time. Camp is just one of those things you have to experience, it’s hard to explain why it’s so great.

Hi Adam!

For the other late-70s/early 80s campers: how about Shabbat outfits of matching terrycloth shirts and shorts (the latter with white piping)? Naf Naf sweatshirts? Boys in Paco Rabanne cologne (the height of sophistication at Camp Ramah in New England in 1983)?

Next column will be something about the song A-Ba-Ni-Bi and Israeli dance — if any of you fab commenters have anything to say, email me!

Dear Marjorie aka Soul Sister – my 12 year-old daughter at Jewish camp, just sent me this note, written on Day 2: “I agree to stay for the full four weeks. I will NOT be coming back next year. And the food is terrible.” What did I do wrong…? How come we were prepared for uncomfortable lodging and horrible food – part of the proud camp experience – and she is so disdainful? Can you write…s’more… (sorry).

This was a very funny piece. I went to Camp Ramah in Mass. in the late 70s and everything rings true, although I didn’t have my walkman yet. The music, btw, was REO Speedwagon. Not to throw a wet blanket, but like tuitions, it seems to me that the cost of “jewish camp” has escalted enormously in the past couple of decades. Back in my day, most everyone went for the full 8 weeks – I don’t have camp age kids yet, but I get the impression this isn’t so common anymore, largely because of cost. Are prices making jewish camps more exclusive than ever? Any thoughts anyone?

Elizabeth — I wrote pathetic letters from camp every year, even when I loved camp. Diagnosis: I was a drama queen. (And also had trouble adjusting to new environments.) Maybe your daughter is similar. See what she says at pickup…I bet she’ll be all OMG YOU ARE MY BFFS 4EVA, TOTALLY LETS STAY IN TOUCH!

And if she still hates it THEN, maybe there’s another camp she’d like more next year.

DRW: Great post. Jewish camp IS expensive…but if you’re sending your kid to public school instead of Jewish Day School, it doesn’t feel so painful. (And I don’t know how it compares with the rate of inflation. Maybe a Foundation for Jewish Camp person is reading this and can tell us.) My understanding is that Jewish Day Schools have taken a terrible hit in this economy, but that Jewish camps have been much less affected. And as you know from your own experience, which is backed up by research, Jewish camp seems to be a HUGE way to foster positive Jewish identity.

I think one reason few families do the full 8 weeks is because the start and end of the school year vary so widely. The July session started while my kids were still in school (but kids in other states have been out for a month) and we don’t start school until Sept 13 this year, while other states start in August. I also suspect that today’s parents are less willing to take their kids out of school for family vacations (in NYC, attendance counts toward middle school and high school admissions), so they do family travel in the summer.

Cynthia says:

Am I the only one who hated camp? Hot and sticky during the day, miserably cold at night, lots of rules, and some seriously mean girls (some of whom have now become Facebook friends…time heals all, etc.). 1 1/2 hours of Jewish-studies classes each day didn’t make it more fun, and it might have helped if the boys weren’t separated from the girls by nearly a mile of woods. But even from nearly a mile away, we could smell the Paco Rabanne…

Marjorie, I think you and I went to the same camp and were in the same bunk. Did the camp of your childhood begin with the letter “Y”?!

OMG, Ilona, I remember you very well! Hi!! Yup, I went to THAT camp for a year or two, then switched to a camp whose initials were C.R.I.N.E.. Don’t tell anyone.

Shelley says:

its a little late to post but wanted Tziporah with the two boys who have MD to know that there are mainstream Jewish summer camps who will take her sons for more than just the week-long camp that the MDA offers. I had a son with Duchenne MD and he went to camp every summer from the age of 11 until his death at age 21, first as a camper and then as staff. His time at camp were the best moments of his life.

Shelley, I’m glad camp brought your son joy. I’m so sorry for your loss.

Robin says:

Dallas Arts Salon !
Uniforms at Camp Akiba : Daily blues and blues. Friday night and Saturday morning whites. Sunday dinner blue and gold(yellow tops). Playing other camps blue and gold. Cold weather longs and longs. This was the best camp ! Canteen, milk bar, hikes to Appies, swimming the lake, socials, all day trip, roller skating. watching movies in our pajamas, crab soccer, Sunday morning breakfeast, Linden Court, Alex Tobin, job wheel …..
The most beautiful camp on earth ! Woods,lake, loads of big tress, hills, nice wood cabins, daddy long legs …..

The last line is so true – oh, to enter a world that is disconnected and old-fashioned… & connected in some many other, perhaps more important ways. I hope Josie loves her first camp summer! I wish I’d been as a child; when I have children, I will certainly send them.

mmmm….. You are right, Marjorie, this piece doesn’t sound even remotely like a mommyblogger…..

I’m sensing SARCASM!

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Camp, Then and Now

Three decades, two very different trunks

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