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Camp Stories

A humiliating first day, taking it outside for a showdown behind the bunk, the first stirrings of an urge for aliyah: readers’ stories of summer camp—and illustrations inspired by them

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Two weeks ago, we asked Tablet Magazine’s readers to share their most memorable summer camp stories, promising to select our favorites and ask illustrator extraordinaire Liana Finck to contribute an artwork inspired by each story. Here are our top three selections, accompanied by Liana’s illustrations.

Liana Finck

On the Bus
by Jordana Horn, Camp Eisner

I first went at age 10. I was the rookie who made the mistake of packing books (to read for fun!) rather than eyeliner or bras. I should have shown up at the bus wearing a shirt that said “Pariah.”

I drove to the New York City street corner where the bus would pick us up with my parents. I was very nervous, knowing no one, and was trying not to cry. My parents told me to go put my stuff on the bus and then I’d come off and say goodbye to them. I got on the bus and put my bag down on a seat. I went back to the front of the bus.

“No one gets off the bus once they’re on the bus,” the head counselor said, in a weird riff on Ken Kesey‘s “Either you’re on the bus or you’re off the bus.”

“But I didn’t know that rule.”

“Now you do,” he said, and went back to looking at his clipboard.

My parents protested, but it was no use. The head counselor, Hitler-in-training, wouldn’t budge: I was on the bus. I sat in my seat, looking out the window at my parents on the sidewalk. I was trying my best not to cry like a baby. But snot was coming down my face. It wasn’t working out. These people were assholes. This was a huge mistake.

I thought things couldn’t get any worse. But they could. At that second, the loose tooth I’d been wiggling for weeks decided to come out, emerging with a geyser of blood. With snot and blood coming down my face, I went to the counselor to beseech him if not for mercy then at least for a tissue. “I told you, sit down,” he said before I even opened my mouth.

I went back to my seat, bawling, blood cascading over my lips and chin and onto my shirt (which, I guess, was as good as wearing a shirt that said “pariah” after all).

Needless to say, no one sat with me. The bus doors closed, and we were on our way.

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Vivian says:

I too went to a Camp Betar. It was in upstate NY but I don’t remember the name of the town as I was only 5 and 6 years old when I was there in 1943 and 1944. The camp was definitely run by the Revisionist (Herut) Zionists. A memorial tent for Jabotinsky was located at a central position in the camp and there were honor guards outside the tent on the eve and day of his yahrzeit.

We did a lot of marching to commands in Hebrew. The Hebrew was not a problem. The problem was that I still could not differentiate my left from my right.

As I was already well aquainted w/ the horrors of W.W.II and I grew up in an Irish Catholic neighborhood in the Bronx I considered myself fortunate to be at a Jewish camp.

So, how did I turn out? The happiest years of my life were spent in Israel from 1959-63. My son and grandson were born there. I’m not a Likudnik but proud and, in some cases, understandingly tolerant of the cultural and religious diversity.

Fern Sidman says:

Great story, Eileen !! A classic Camp Betar experience. My first year at Camp Betar was back in 1971 when I was 11 and I was scared out of my mind. Had never been to sleep away camp before and it took a while to get used to the strange happenings and the Zionist fervor, but what I learned there helped to shape the person I’ve become and has impacted my life in a multitude of ways.

I cherish the memories of the 8 summers I spent there and the wonderful people I met and am grateful for the enduring friendships I’ve made. Just think, if we were all back in camp on this very day we’d be still getting to know each other as camp is only a few days old and we’d looking forward to the annual July 4th fireworks display on the misdar grounds.

Tel Chai to all fellow Betarim, both near and far who may be reading this.

My dad was in Beitar before WWII and I recall him telling me about the “Tel Hai” greeting. Had no idea they had a camp.

Fast forward to 1972, Camp Herzl, Webster, WI. It was rural, to be sure, but by no means scenic. Herzl is situated on freezing Devil’s Lake, which I was happy not to have to stick so much as my toe in for the entire three weeks, and was plagued by mud and mosquitoes. The big campout was on a piece of sharp-grass terrain known as — are you ready? — Klugman Acres (right. In rural Wisconsin). Also heard the scary tale of the local madman.

The sewage system at Herzl was apparently not built for the size population that was using it, and the girls’ bathrooms were constantly getting blocked, presumably with toilet paper and female sanitary supplies. The camp administration’s solution? They confiscated our toilet paper, which reappeared magically on Visitors’ Day.

God the place should’ve been shut down by the Health Board. Ditto for Camp Tel Yehuda, where I worked in the 1980s. The entire camp is rotting wood and peeling linoleum situated in a charmless cleft between the polluted Delaware River and some cliffs. Are any Jewish camps scenic?

Eric C. Bauman says:

Ah, sweet memories of Nevers(t)ink, NY. My summers there in the late ’60′s bring mostly fond memories. Somehow at age 10 I became the camp plumber – perfect preparation for my life today in politics!

Amazingly the lessons I learned in how to be a Jew still sit with me; I learned to Daven, be a proud Jew and I developed a reverence for Eretz Yisrael,a reverence that remains even as I am a political liberal/progressive. Betar helped instill a deep level of Yiddishkite in me that remains to this day.

Betarim Tel Chai!

Eric C. Bauman

Bill Pearlman says:

Hi guys, the “wall” here. Had a terrific time at Camp Betar. Would do it again in a minute. And has a matter of fact had dinner a few weeks ago with some of the guys from Fair Lawn. 35 years and we still crack up at some of the stories.

Love the mix of 3D “stuff”, scanning and writing Bravo!

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Camp Stories

A humiliating first day, taking it outside for a showdown behind the bunk, the first stirrings of an urge for aliyah: readers’ stories of summer camp—and illustrations inspired by them