This past weekend, I found myself chatting with a girl wearing the remains of a bedsheet who had introduced herself to me as "Jungle" (turns out she probably thought it more exotic than "Ariana") during a "booze cruise" -- cheap drinks, good friends, and slutty women on a boat traveling around Barnegat Bay for a couple hours on a Saturday night -- and she happened to mention that she was from Cherry Hill, NJ. Now, I know plenty of people from Cherry Hill; a full quarter of the kids on my Israel tour in 1990 were from Cherry Hill. This should come as a surprise to no one who knows anything about the Philadelphia suburbs east of the Delaware River.
Anyway, I mentioned to Jungle that I had spent plenty of time with people from her hometown.
"How do you know them?"
"Oh, right, of course. Which one?"
"Oh, Julia -- she's around here somewhere, wearing the leopard print dress and the tiger-tooth necklace -- went there."
Of course she did. Someone had to. Every time a group of relatively secular Jews from the Mid-Atlantic gets together, someone either went to Camp Harlam (notice the different spelling -- the full name is the patently awkward "Joseph & Betty Harlam URJ Camp Institute") or knows someone who did. It's touted as the "flagship" of the URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) camps, whose stated goal is to provide "the finest in recreational and educational activities for Reform Jewish youth." What they don't tell you is their unstated goal is to get Jewish kids from all over the country to spend the summer engaged in heavy petting so that once they graduate college they'll want to marry each other and create Reform Jewish children.
Or so my cynical 30-year-old self has been led to believe.
Getting back to my story… so I located this Julia person. Turns out she was the same age as my campers (they were 10 when I was 17, making them 23 today; scary, I know), and filled me in on the current whereabouts of a few of them. I can't say I'm surprised that one of the troublemakers is actually in prison. Well, a little surprised; that's pretty much a prediction that rarely, if ever, actually comes true. And we chatted a bit, and then she and her friends went to the overpriced dance club and my friends and I went to the other overpriced drinking club.
I'm still thinking about camp, though.
It's not just that chance meeting, of course. Summer camp seems to be popping into my life a lot these days. A few weeks ago, I was out with another group of friends, and one of the people I was introduced to, it turns out was actually one of my campers for two summers. Then my friend Lisa lent me a book entitled Sleepaway, a collection of short stories about summer camp, compiled and edited by an alumnus of Harlam (okay, fine, make all the Bronx and Staten Island jokes you want), who I believe was actually a counselor when I was a camper.
Also, it's the end of the summer, and I always get nostalgic this time of year for summers past. I spent a good deal of time at summer camp - as a camper from 1985-1989, and then on staff for the summers of 1992 and 1993. In addition, my trip to Israel was sponsored by the camp, and I've been back to visit on multiple alumni days. Yes, I'm a Jewish camp geek. Given, I'm other types of geek, too, but no one wants to read an entire column on why my iRiver H10 can kick your iPod's ass.
I know I'm not alone. My camp has an online bulletin board and at least once a year we all get together for drinks and to see if anyone's gone fat or bald (or both, which is much sadder with the girls.) I still consider a few of the friends I made at camp some of my closest friends in the world, regardless of whether I see them all the time or once every few months, or just once every few years. I was just invited to the US Open by a friend I haven't seen in probably 10 years; it didn't matter and he still offered me the ticket. Heck, my longest relationship to date was with a girl I knew from summer camp. We didn't work out because I'm a bastard, but there was something very right about having that shared experience of Harlam from 10 years previous.
I know other camps have their alumni events, their reunions, their traditions. And these are things that stay with you. I still can't hear the word "announcements" without thinking of a song we used to sing whenever one of the staff members was tricked into saying the word (or things close to it. I once got the chant started by submitting an all-camp message saying something about "canal cement"). There are inside jokes that never get old, stories about who did what to whom, fully-formed opinions about people we knew when we were 12, and that ever-present regret of not hooking up with the guy/girl we really wanted.
Summer camp was where you go to be both more of yourself and also to reinvent that person that you always wanted to see yourself as. My friends from school who never went to camp and only saw me from September to May never really understood. Nor can anyone, I think, who didn't do the summer camp experience. The closest thing I can liken it to is college, but without the bunks. Or Neil Rigler.
That's not to say that summer camp is a uniquely Jewish experience. I know plenty of people who went to church camps, Boy Scout camps, chess camps, band camps, etc. My brother actually hated Harlam, but found his niche at a more secular sports and arts camp. But I would make the case that the percentage of Jewish kids sent to camp every summer is greater than that of our benign Gentile neighbors. In my area of the country, at least, even the non-Jewish camps were Jewish camps. Hell, I even know people whose camps had non-denominational services on Friday nights. That's not at all telling, is it?
As I stated before, the point of Jewish summer camp was to inoculate little Jewish boys and girls into the idea of growing up and making more little Jewish boys and girls. Jews do tend to make a big thing about not letting the religion/culture/people die out, and, really, who can blame us? I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure that there aren't many Episcopalian families out there worrying that their children might marry Lutherans or Unitarian parents telling their son, "Well, you can marry that Presbyterian girl, but I don't want my grandchildren having her work ethic."
Of course there are Jewish kids who don't go to camp. My friend Deb, for example, for whom "nature" is a 4-letter word. For the most part, though, come summer, we're packed and ready to head for the hills, as it were.
I've often wondered why this is. Why this mass Exodus (sans desert and only getting lost once or twice) from the suburbs (or urbs) to scenic Whereverville PA, or DE, or NY, or VT? I've had various theories throughout my life, and discarded more than a few. At first I just figured Jewish parents didn't like their children: "Oh, man. School's out. Now how am I going to get them out of my hair? I know - I'll send them away!" I still haven't 100% discarded this theory, but I think it's more than that, or Protestants wouldn't be in the majority at boarding schools.
Then I figured maybe Jewish kids were just too much for mom and dad to handle. Maybe it's not that our parents don't like us; maybe it's just that we're really unpleasant to be around. But I discarded that one pretty quickly -- who wouldn't want to be around an 11-year-old me? I mean, come on.
On to theory 3: something in our collective memories wants to erase the Holocaust meaning of the word "camp" and replace it with "place where Jewish kids engage in semi-supervised swapping of saliva."
Again, not a good theory. And in pretty poor taste, all things considered.
In the end, I figure it's just a place where we can go and be among normal everyday kids who just happen to share our religion and our heritage. I know it should be deeper than that, but I think that's it. No one makes fun of us for singing songs in Hebrew. We don't get asked questions about being "the Chosen People" or being forced to defend the policies of Israel. No one makes jokes when someone drops a penny and eighteen of us get hurt fighting over it. (Yeah, that doesn't really happen.) It's a celebration of our shared culture without having to apologize for "being different."
I also think that we get sent there to shape us as adults-to-be, in a way. To not rely on our parents, to find out who we are as people (turns out I play piano), and to bond with boys and/or girls for whom we're less bound by geography than our friends from home, and more so by a shared experience of whatever camp at which we happen to find ourselves. Sports camp, band camp, church camp, drama camp -- the first time those cars and busses drive away on that first afternoon, no matter what kind of summer camp it is, and you think to yourself, "Wow, I'm on my own," that's when growing up begins for a lot of kids.
Or I was right the first time, and our parents just want us out of the house.
A native of Elkins Park, PA, Adam Kraemer spends way too much of his time repeating "K-R-A-E..." He moved to New York City in 1998 and earned Master's in Journalism at NYU; don't let his writing fool you. He feels he is best known for saying the things no one is thinking, but afterwards wish they had been. He spends his free time wondering where all his free time goes and why he can never come up with a decent kicker for the ends of his articles.
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9.9.05 @ 1:15p
So, no communal shower rooms, I'm guessing?
9.9.05 @ 1:33p
Since I already lived in a very small town and spent hours every day in the woods on my pony, they didn't need to send me to camp for some fresh air and "nature." So, I never went to camp. I spent, however, one summer at my aunt and uncle's house in Fort Lauderdale going to a private summer school. I took tennis, swimming, French, typing, voice and piano. (My idea of fun was going to school and learning things in the company of my peers.) Since the only typing or French class they had that summer were high school level ones, I got to see at ten what it was gonna be like at sixteen. I held my own in those classes, and my classmates treated me like the bratty little prodigy I'd always wanted to be. The tennis class enabled me to become a coach to all my Saturday afternoon tennis pals at home. When we all went down to the river and jumped in I got to teach them the backstroke I'd learned in swimming class and how to breathe correctly while doing the Australian crawl. Grandma bought me an old beat up upright piano and found me a crazy long haired piano teacher when I got home, too, and my mother gave me my first typewriter. That summer "daycamp" at the private school changed my life in a lot of important ways. My friends and I could now pepper our speech with all the dirty French words I'd learned from the sixteen year olds and not get hassled about our "bad language." I don't know how much my aunt and uncle paid in tuition but I'm sure it wasn't nearly enough considering what I got out of it.
9.9.05 @ 1:43p
So, no communal shower rooms, I'm guessing?
That's where you'd be wrong, Russ.
Okay, maybe not rooms, but we had group showers.
No soap-making classes, though.
Come to think of it, possibly my favorite memory at camp ever was when we were 14 and realized that the lock on the girls' bunk for the door by the shower was easily opened if you hit the door in the right place. They caught on pretty quickly, though.
9.9.05 @ 7:37p
OK...now the announcement song is in my head and it's ALL YOUR FAULT!!!!!!!
Great column...good memories...and I really want to know who is in prison!!!!!
9.10.05 @ 4:37a
Man, you are making me feel both old and nostalgic. Harlam brings back lots of fond memories for me. And, I cannot wait to send Joshy there... of course I'll have to block out some of my memories to do that. So... who is in prison? (I have a few guesses, but I need to know!)
dr. jay gross
9.12.05 @ 8:00a
Was it that long ago? The experience was a little less than 5 decades ago and is as clear in memory as if it was yesterday!! You have actually written a column that is stimulating.
"Announcements.......a horrible way to die....." That song is 'camp'. It must be universal.
- and her name was Jane Switzer. She had a small scar on her knee......
Many more memories surround that experience. We grew up and realized that we wouldn't be kids forever (good or bad). It wasn't quite Anatomy 101, but it certainly felt that way!!
9.12.05 @ 11:15a
I remember when the time between evening activity and when you had to report to your bunk was called "Bush Time". Then, when I was 12, they changed it to "Road Time."
I don't understand what was wrong with the first name. There was only one road to count, but there were dozens of bushes.