“Jewish summer camp,” like “crisp apple strudel,” is one of those phrases meant to bring back a gush of warm feelings. Friends met their spouses there, others their very best friends to this day. Educators praise its ability to create Jewish habits to last a lifetime (meaning davening and Torah values, I assume, as opposed to complaining about the weather). The Foundation for Jewish Camp describes camp as “transformative” and responsible for no less than “assuring a more vibrant North American Jewish community.”
Others remember camp as a place of sexual awakening, group bonding, endless hijinks (some legal), and self-discovery. Not always high-minded, perhaps, but no less transformative.
Here’s my confession about camp: It nearly ruined me, and 30-plus years later I’m still recovering.
You’re going to hear a lot about Jewish summer camp in the next few weeks, and not just from your friends whose kids are away and are either a) thrilled to have their houses to themselves, or b) frantic because they’ve been trolling the camp web site and can’t find a photo of their child actually smiling.
This month Netflix is releasing a miniseries based on the 2001 cult film Wet Hot American Summer, which is sort of the Citizen Kane of Jewish summer camp movies — if Citizen Kane had jokes about STDs, epic French kissing, talking vegetable cans, and total nerds from Millburn, NJ. The cast is famous for featuring every single comic actor currently working in the American cinema, including Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, Molly Shannon, and Judah Friedlander. I’m pretty sure that’s Dame Helen Mirren in the role of the shell-shocked camp chef, but I could be wrong.
Writers Michael Showalter and David Wain based the movie, set in 1981, on their own memories of Jewish summer camp. Inside jokes abound. There are campers named David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Schneerson. The kid who reads the camp announcements puts in a plug for his “Jewish day school radio” show. A boy woos a girl by confessing, “I love it that sometimes for no reason you’re late for shul.”
But mostly it’s a spoof of every other movie about the endless quest by counselors for a summer fling. Or two. Or six.
I spent three summers as a waiter and counselor at a Jewish summer camp that will go nameless, in the same blow-dried, tight-shorted era as Wet Hot American Summer. The campers were rich kids from various New York-area suburbs. Each had a suitcase-sized boom box, which all played exactly two songs: “Funkytown,” by Lipps Inc., and “You’re the One That I Want,” from the Grease soundtrack.
The camp was run by a barrel-chested martinet who based his management style exclusively on the promise to parents that their girls would not get pregnant. The road separating the boys and girls camps was slightly less penetrable than the Korean demilitarized zone. Counselors caught holding hands in the canteen after hours were threatened with expulsion — or worse, another summer working at camp.
The result of all this “don’t think of elephants” Puritanism was exactly what you’d expect: the most sexually charged atmosphere to be found anywhere outside of a red-light district. Boys spent their days plotting how to cross over to the girls’ side. At night, counselors would slide their beds against the doors of the bunks to keep their charges from escaping, when they weren’t themselves looking for dark corners to canoodle.
The camp also promoted an alarming competitiveness among its campers and staff by turning every activity into a high-stakes contest. There were “standings” for softball, basketball, and swimming. A “friendly” game of ball was unheard of. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were rankings in the pottery shed.
This was of a piece with a mania for status that carried over from “real” life — kids and staff obsessed over the right sneakers, the right hat, the coolest handheld electronic game. On Visiting Day, the parking lots looked like a tent sale for Mercedes-Benz. Coming from a modest background, I absorbed the snobbery, but lacked the means to actually act on it.
Lust, competition, status: My camp memories are less Wet Hot American Summer than The Wolf of Wall Street. I didn’t love the person I was before camp. I hated the one I became after. I didn’t fully detox until I spent a summer on a left-wing kibbutz — and the autumn at a ba’al teshuvah yeshiva. I needed socialism and fundamentalism to scrub off the smell of Paco Rabanne.
If you’re the parent of camper-aged children, I’m not trying to scare you. I just wish I had been aware of the alternatives. My kids spent summers at NJY Camps, which hit the sweet spot between instilling Yiddishkeit and letting the kids be kids for the summer. Reform Judaism’s flagship Camp Kutz is celebrating its 50th anniversary as “the birthplace of modern spiritual Jewish folk music.” My family and I spent a month at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, where I ran writing workshops; the whole place gave off a crunchy, menschy vibe.
I learned two lessons from my camp summers. First, know your kid. There are as many summer camps as there are types of people, from the artsy and laid-back to the intense and academic. One is right for your child.
The second lesson is, know yourself. Try to find the places and experiences that speak to who you are, not what others expect you to be. I’m sure alumni of Camp Madoff cherish their memories of the place — it just wasn’t for me.