Jew Camp Confidential

by Angela Melamud

If you’re a Jewish kid from New York City, you’ve most likely spent at least one of your adolescent summers tucked away at a Jewish sleepaway camp. Myself, I spent two summers at Surprise Lake Camp. My mom deemed me difficult and thought that having me sleep away somewhere in the mountains of Cold Springs, New York, would correct things. I had my heart broken the night before the end of summer dance; I spent every Friday evening sitting on the grass lip syncing prayers in Hebrew that I knew absolutely nothing of; I wrote back home complaining about the cruelty of my counselors and their monthly cleanup day (my bunk had unfortunate dibs on the bathrooms; you can imagine what happens to 12-year-old girls and their bathrooms).

To recall all of the other great times and to cap the summer right, here are three more confessionals of Jew camp.

JEIN FUNK, Camp Cherusham, 1997–2001

“I went to Cherusham from the ages of 9 to 13. It was a hasidic sleepaway camp, girls only, though I heard they had a boys version two mountains away. It was in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, and it was miserable. It was a super religious place, and I was the only one that didn’t go to yeshiva. Most people knew how to read in Hebrew, knew how to daven, but I didn’t know any of that shit. I barely knew English at that point.

My counselors had to try extra hard to make sure that I said all of my appropriate prayers. There’s a prayer for the first time you pee in the morning to thank god, I guess, that your bladder is still working all right and all that stuff. So every morning when we went to pee, my counselors would listen with their ear to the little bathroom stall to make sure that I was saying the appropriate braha afterward.”

ABE GURKO, Camp Galila, 1969

“I was supposed to go for the whole summer, but I left after the first month because it was torture. It was an Orthodox Jewish camp, and it was the first sleepaway camp that I had ever gone to. Normally, my family would take summer bungalow colonies up with all the Jews in the borscht belt.

The drama was, I had just had my bar mitzvah in May, but I wasn’t really into being Orthodox Jewish and all. I got to this camp, and because I was bar mitzvah’d, I had to go with all the guys of bar mitzvah age to do the tefillin in the morning. I was so not into it, so I told everybody that I was 12. My friend Larry, who I had went to school with, knew I was bar mitzvah’d because he went to my bar mitzvah, but he kept the lie for me.”

SHAUL SHTOCK, Camp Gan Israel, 1995–1997

“I attended this camp from ages 9 to 11. It was my very first year, and it was about a quarter way into the summer. I thought I’d hate it, but I thought I’d give it a shot. It seemed okay, but then I was really hating it. I don’t remember exactly what happened, but I had some interaction with a camper and then with a counselor that I went to for help, and everything just went completely to shit. I hated everything. I hated the world, I hated people, I hated my camp and everybody and everything. To hell with all of them.

So I ran away into the woods. I figured they wouldn’t even have noticed that I was gone. They were on their way to an activity, and I just dipped into the woods. I found this steep ravine with a rope tied to a tree at the very top of it. I used this rope to go about halfway down the ravine, and about halfway down, I saw this log that had fallen so perfectly that you could actually sit on it, and either look out into the open space or — and this is what I chose to do — you could turn around and just stare at this almost sheer wall.

There was a little rock outcropping in the face of this ravine that I was staring at, and suddenly out of nowhere this little chipmunk just popped up. He was sitting there perfectly still, and he was looking directly at me. He was looking into my eyes, and I was looking into his eyes, and at any moment — you know, it’s one of those experiences with nature that something cute looks at you and then it darts away, but he was not going anywhere. We were there for about 15 minutes.

As I was sitting there, I realized I wasn’t just staring at some object or some thing — let’s say the rocks, if the chipmunk hadn’t showed up. I was actually looking into the eyes of this living creature, and eventually if you sit and stare at something long enough, it starts to get a little different on you. Eventually I wasn’t looking at a chipmunk, I was looking at another living creature. It was suddenly this implicit trust that I discovered this creature had in me so as not to run off, and eventually I trusted this animal such that I stopped feeling like an idiot for sitting there and staring at its eyes for so long.”

Angela Melamud writes and lives and tweets in Brooklyn.