Chaim Potok writes about going to summer camp.


It arrives, finally-summertime! Gone forever-so it seems as we joyously enter summer's wonderland-are the cruel winds of winter. An enchanted realm stretches before us: a landscape washed in golden sunlight; a languor of long lazy afternoons; flocks of birds and clouds of butterflies; nights cool and fragrant; mornings miraculous with dew. And a sudden dazzling explosion of color: from the dull browns and grays of winter to the exhilarating kaleidoscopes of flowering fields and dense woods and grassy meadows and piney hills and a vast visible cerulean sky.


Summertime. And summer camp

.
During the first two decades of my life, the thirties and forties, poliomyelitis was a frightful scourge made all the more horrifying in that most of the afflicted were children. Summertime the disease would run rampant through urban populations, striking randomly, at times paralyzing the legs and the respiratory system of its victims. Parents sought desperately to send their sons and daughters out of cities--to summer camp.


I grew up in New York, where the fear of that illness was so overwhelming that my father, a deeply religious man brought to ruin by the Great Depression, would send me to non-kosher Jewish overnight camps sponsored by local community centers, the only free camps available to us. Breathe the fresh air, he would say. Have a good time. He did not say what I read on his face and in his eyes: I am sending you Out of the city so you will be far away from this sickness that is crippling children.


Those polio epidemics, as we called them, would begin with the coming of late spring and hang over us like shrouds all through the summer months, and fade only with the end of the summer camp season and the first cold weather of autumn. A train or bus would carry us away from that invisible killer and the streets it menaced, and only when we were out of the city across the bridge or through the tunnel would I feel myself begin to shed the miasma of dread under which we lived. Each summer a dreamlike world presented itself to my innocent eyes: vast green fields and rolling hills and dense stands of trees and the sky an astonishing blue, open, enormous. My family--left behind. My street and neighborhood and city-vanished. The threat of paralysis or death--gone; for the time being, blessedly gone.


So compelling was the threat that, on Visitors' Day, no outside children were permitted to enter the camp, not even the young siblings, relatives, or friends of the campers, lest they be carriers of the disease. And one grim summer, when a particularly virulent polio epidemic raged in the distant city, visiting parents were forbidden to approach too close to their children and restrained behind a roped-off area. Campers and parents shouted greetings and conversations across a wide sunlit meadow bordered by tall embowering trees.


And so, as I grew up, chief among the uses of summer camp was the saving of young lives.


* * *


There were, of course, other uses, more subtle, unspoken, imperceptible at the time to me and to my parents, uses that changed me forever.


Fresh Air Camp. Camp Sussex. Surprise Lake Camp. Names rising to memory as if drawn from a magician's wand. Gossamer images. The first night in a summer camp: excitement, anxiety, apprehension, disquiet. Strangers in bunk beds. Cold clear night air. Cicadas and frogs: the mysterious pulsing of the earth. Then, finally, the fall into deep sleep. And awake early to the birds and the dawn. Ground mist on the grass and in the woods. Silent ghostly trees. A lowing cow somewhere in the distance. Blades of grass jeweled with crystalline beads of dew glistening in the first rays of the sun. A city child gazing through a cabin window on his first wondrous morning in a summer camp.


I used summer in camps to study nature much as I used winter in school to study books. My eyes, drawn away from the black and white of the printed page, learned to gaze upon grassy fields and mountain paths and soaring birds and wild flowers. Tiny harmless creatures of the wild-salamanders, frogs, milk snakes became my companions in miniature zoos I built for them out of wooden boxes and tin cans. Rowing on tranquil lakes; canoeing along churning rivers; campfires in silent forests; the hot smoky taste of roasted potatoes and corn and marshmallows charcoaled at the edges; ghost stories by our counselor, his face lit with the dancing flames of the campfire (did I learn to appreciate the power of storytelling as a 1 sat enchanted by night tales spun by summer counselors?); and then Lying in a sleeping bag on the earth and listening to the hum and beat of the night world and gazing up at a velvet black sky so brimming with stars it seemed about to overflow and shower them upon me in a cascade of cool radiant white-blue crystals.


My first lessons in cultures other than my own came from summer friends, cabin mates from various parts of the city. In my bunk we were not all Jews, but we were all more or less of the same age, and from poor homes. Odd, those friendships: intense, intimate, and never lasting beyond the boundaries of the summer; no letters, no phone calls-it all vanished; as if summers were an unbridgeable Rrigadoon world. And with my counselors, whom I learned to trust as I did no one else, I would hold long conversations in which I talked openly of my deepest fears and fantasies. And afterwards the counselors too would disappear: What was it about those summers that so opened us to strangers?


We fled the city to save our lives and breathe fresh air and have fun; we did not know we were being educated. Summer then had its own special uses, and it played them upon us like a wind through the strings of a harp.


* * *

Let it be noted that mine was a religious Zionist family deep in the ranks of the rightwing Revisionist party, zealous followers of Zetev Jabotinsky. The youth movement of the Revisionist party was, and still is, known as Betar, named after the last Jewish stronghold to fall to the Romans in the 67-70 C.E. revolt. Because the Second World War depleted the pool of people available for camping staffs, my new summer home, as a novice fifteen-year old junior counselor, became Camp Betar

.
There I quickly discovered some rather unusual uses of summer.
Sports, swimming, boating, campfires, cookouts-all the normal uses of summer were to be found in that camp. But for staff and older campers there were other activities as well: military drill, rifle practice, ideological discussions. How those Revisionist ideologues loathed the centrist and left-wing Socialist Zionists! The place was an odd mix of fun and ferocity, relaxation and tension, democracy and fanaticism.


I learned too that summer about the ravages of forest fires when I joined a crow to engage a mountain fire rampaging too near the camp and was suddenly beneath a ceiling of flames leaping across the crowns of trees and rushing downward to form a surrounding wall of burning wood and air which abruptly parted and let us plunge through to safety. I became from then on rather respectful of fire: another use of summer.


Nights free after the campers were put to bed; hanging out with truck drivers and townspeople in the diner on the highway outside the camp; girl friends; hitch hiking on days off. There seemed more civility then; hitch-hiking was an acceptable way of getting around. I discovered the lure of the road that wartime summer, an indispensable beguilement to a future writer.


Three summers later, a senior counselor now in Camp Betar, I hitch-hiked to Hyde Park and stood reverently before the grave of Franklin D. Roosevelt, in silent homage to the man who had been a sort of deity to those of us who grew up in the terrible years of the Great Depression and the Second World War. What we know now about Roosevelt we didn't know then. Perhaps it was better that we didn't know it: we needed faith in powerful gods to steer us through those awful times.


Weary of overheated and melodramatic right-wing ideology, I moved on to a privately owned camp in the Catskill Mountains of New York State, where the ideology was: Fun, Frolic, and Frivolity. There I remained for two years as a Division Head, responsible for, if memory serves, four counselors, five junior counselors and about sixty campers. Vacuous summers during which I sailed, swam, played ball; enjoyed delightful escapades with young women; entered into deep female and male friendships that never extended beyond the camp; learned to taste and enjoy the world as pure Tactile Experience, as an Immediate Now-sensuous, sun-drenched, demanding nothing beyond the Moment Itself.


In the course of the second of those summers I led a Color War team the entire camp was divided into two teams that competed in sports; what a glory to be triumphant in such a war!-and discovered a deeply concealed black shard of bestiality inside myself that was terrifying and sobering. During a boxing match between two twelve-year-old campers-at stake were high points and victory for one team or the other-I found myself screaming full throated at the boy on my team: "Hit him! Kill him!"-and realized later, after the celebrations were over and the jubilation of victory had subsided, that if the uses of summer were to be only Fun and frivolity, empty spaces might open up in one's being into which odd dark creatures would migrate and lodge; queer monsters crouching to spring forth at unexpected moments.


I thought it might be time to move on.


The following year I entered the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary and discovered Camp Ramah.


* * *


On the green northeastern rim of Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains near the New York State line; the closest habitation a village comprising a country store, a few houses, a post office; mile after mile of farm country and winding two-lane roads; lakes and deep blue skies and violent thunderstorms; deer suddenly plunging from the dense woods onto the country roads; tall hills and long deep valleys-the site of my first unequivocally Jewish camp experience: a unique use of summer.


The Camp Ramah movement was in its infancy then, its first East Coast attempt in Maine having ended in less than success. A number of Seminary visionaries, some of them veterans of the pioneering Hebrew speaking Camp Massad, others encouraged by the success of Dr. Albert Schoolman, founder of Camp Cejwin, had determined to do for the Conservative movement what so many other Jewish groups had already done or were then in the process of accomplishing: open a summer camp and put it to use as a two-month sojourn in a recreational-educational Jewish Land of Oz.


The Pocono Ramah was in its second year when I came to it as a Division Head.
My training as a counselor had been rather rigorous, and I found in that Ramah a disconcerting looseness of structure: the tight disciplined use of camp program time that I had until then been accustomed to seemed to have become a rather loose net upon the Ramah camp day. Campers were presented with program choices and were urged to attend the sports and specialties they selected. Most benefitted from this exercise in democracy and adult responsibility. Soma seemed perfectly content to lounge around in their bunks much of the day, and counselors would repeatedly have to flush them out.


Mornings after breakfast and bunk cleanup were given over entirely to formal class studies-a startling new use of summer for me--and afternoons and evenings to recreation. In those days, counselors doubled as teachers. We taught in the morning and ran sports and specialty programs in the evening. How did we get through a camp day without collapsing from exhaustion? We lived, it seemed to me, in a permanent state of exhilaration born of a sense of high purpose and accomplishment. We were educating the next generation of American Jews in a living Judaism

.
I remember my first Friday Evening Service in that Camp Ramah. I was not a newcomer to prayer; I'd been praying since long before becoming a bar mitzvah. The entire camp gathered beneath a huge spreading shade tree. (Garbed in white, we sat on benches that formed a semi-circle: a hushed throng, more than three hundred people, here and there bathed in the final rays of a slowly setting sun. Warm evening air. A breeze in the leaves, and birdsong. And then the start of the service--a song softly sung by all about the setting sun and how we were going forth to greet the sacred and blessed Shabbat queen who was descending to us accompanied by her angelic host of peace and tranquility. I knew the words but had never heard them sung before: a poem written by the secular Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik and now being quietly sung at a religious service and somehow transforming the very air through which it sounded into particles of sanctity. I was transfixed by that service. It remains a radiant memory.


That summer was filled with work and joy and learning: new Israeli songs and dances; heated discussions deep into the night about the future of American Jewry and the young State of Israel; and sports and overnight camping and more talk around campfires. For the first time, I met Israelis and got to know some of them well. There was nothing we could not talk about or say in that camp-as long as we obeyed the rules it set down for Jewish behavior during the months we served as staff. It was a community of like souls, though not without its tawdry flareups and petty quarrels and mediocrities. Rut there was al the heart of things a sensitivity to the moral and ethical dimensions of life, and we tried hard to keep in focus that essential core. Friendships I made that summer have continued all through the ensuing years. And it was in that camp that I met the young woman who would later become my wife.


I spent many years in the Camp Ramah movement, advancing from Division Head to Head Counselor to Camp Director. None of my subsequent Ramah experiences has approached the quality of that first Ramah summer-save the time my senior campers in the Nyack Camp Ramah put on Porgy and Bess in Hebrew. Only when I spend a summer at work on a book do T experience as intense a flow of vital forces as l did that summer of 1951 in Camp Ramah in the Poconos.

 

* * *


And so-summertime.


The children of dear friends now go off to their separate Jewish camps: religious, secular, Zionist, sports, arts, work on a kibblltz, tours of America and lsrael and Europe. My own children have been to Ramah and have returned with experiences memorable and forgettable. My niece is a counselor in a Ramah camp. Now there are Jewish camps in the former Soviet Union and in Poland. The proliferation of summer camps bespeaks our understanding of the most unique use of summer: education caught rather than taught.


Gone is the terrible need to flee from the horrors of polio epidemics-that first use of summer in my life. Drs. Sabin and Salk saw to that. Now we have fears of a different sort. Ponder the serious summer talk presently taking place in Jewish camps: intermarriage; assimilation; the general shallowness of Jewish knowledge among Jews; the probability of the vanishing of American Jewry as a uniquely creative culture participating openly in contemporary American life-and what we must do to counteract that troubling vision of the future.


The season of long days of sunlight and warmth offers us so much. Rest of all it offers us a worthy use of summer.

 


A Worthy Use of Summer

Jewish Summer Camping in America

Foreward by Chaim Potok

 

Return to Teacher Resources