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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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Liana Finck

State of Nature
by Jerome Copulsky, Camp Equinunk

Long before I had heard his name or encountered his colossal masterpiece, Leviathan, I understood the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. At the beginning of my sophomore year of college, when I came upon his infamous account of the state of nature, the war of “every man against every man,” and the danger of the “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” life, I at once recognized it as a perfect description of my summer camp.

I was 8 years old when I was first sent off by my parents. As a consequence of the camp food or homesickness, I was stricken with a bout of diarrhea that lasted several days and earned me the scorn of my new bunkmates. After that, I was a marked man.

Shy and introverted, a bookish kid stuck in place where there were no books, I was happier on nature walks in the gloomy woods, searching for salamanders and snakes under rocks by the streams, than playing baseball, basketball, or soccer. The other boys, fierce competitors and already old-timers well-acquainted with the terrain, held me in low regard, often teasing me for my awkwardness and for my old-fashioned, clumsy name.

It is not difficult to imagine the cruelty of boys, liberated from the regimen of school and parental control, free to flex their young muscles and exert their power on those nearby. On the playing field, if you missed an easy catch you were mercilessly taunted. Back in the bunk, you had to be on your guard against the perils of wedgies and rat-tails, the wet tip of a rolled-up towel snapped at your behind. So much for hopes of ethnic solidarity.

Alliances were constantly shifting. In an instant, your best friend could turn on you. You never knew where you stood. Nor could you rely on the benevolence of counselors, college kids who were less interested in exerting their authority and maintaining a fragile peace than enjoying their summer break, frightening their charges with tales of the local madman who lived in the woods that surrounded the camp, drinking in the nearby dive bar and returning to puke in the back of the bunk, or sneaking out to fool around with their girlfriends.

It was a brutal and lawless place, where the only rules respected and enforced were those of the various sports we would play. Homo homini lupus. Man is wolf to man.

Yet it never occurred to me not to return. Other campers left after a summer or two, but every summer for seven years, out of some mixture of inchoate obligation and misguided defiance, wearing a blood red T-shirt emblazoned with the camp insignia, I boarded the bus and rode up to a remote corner of Pennsylvania to endure eight weeks of trials, my head filled with hopes that this year would be different.

Over the years, consigned to the purgatory of right field during countless baseball games, I imagined in intricate detail the possibility of my own glory, of hitting the winning home run, or rejecting all of the ridiculous traditions and ceremonies of the camp, and declaring myself a conscientious objector at Color War, all the while praying that a ball wouldn’t be hit in my direction.

I suppose it was there, standing alone in the outfield or in some corner of the soccer pitch, that I first learned to philosophize, to scrutinize the world around me and to begin to formulate the questions I would find myself engaging years later as an undergrad and then as a graduate student—the problem of human nature, of egoism and solidarity, of the formation of society, of freedom and obedience—as I studied the works of Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but summer camp was in fact an advanced course in social theory.

My final exam came one hot August afternoon, close to the end of my final year at camp, when I found myself in an exchange of insults with one of my bunkmates. With a head of light blond curls, his skin bright pink from the sun, he resembled a young Greek god. He was an excellent athlete, and, in his majestic, brutal joyfulness, the apotheosis of the camp spirit, the blond beast of Nietzsche’s fervid imagination. I envied and hated him.

I don’t remember who started the argument or what it was about, but it escalated quickly in the midday heat, our insults becoming personal and menacing.

After I had crossed some invisible threshold of abuse, he growled, “Do you want to take this around back?”

“Yeah, sure,” I retorted.

I knew, of course, that I would most likely be beaten senseless, yet I followed him through the thick overgrown grass around to the back of the bunk. Even as my heart raced, I resolved to stand firm and go through with whatever was to occur. For a moment, my vanity, my innate desire for glory, flared up, overcoming my usually powerful instinct for self-preservation.

Alone behind the cabin, he turned to me and asked, “Do you really want to fight?”

Did I? It seemed that all of my anger, my resentment, frustration, and disappointments of the past seven years were focused on this contest, on the kind of encounter I had tried to avoid for years. I took a deep breath and clenched my fists and prepared myself for significant pain.

“Well?” he asked.

“Not really,” I replied.

Without a word, he grabbed me by the shoulder and together we walked back around to the front of the bunk, where the others were sitting around lazily in the shade, glancing at their comic books or playing card games, and not noticing or caring we were gone and back.

He had nothing to prove, yet I wondered, as I sat there, why he had called off our battle. Was it due to noble disdain, empathy, a glimmer of friendship? I pondered the mystery of this event for the rest of the afternoon, until the announcement that we were to go down to the lake to take our afternoon swim.

It’s been more than 25 years since I’ve seen those guys. Recently, I have begun to be “friended” by some of them on Facebook. I accept their invitations and study their profiles. Some have even taken the time to locate and post snapshots from those summers, revealing their nostalgia for what was, for them, a series of summer idylls, which they hope their children would one day enjoy. And when I think of them, I think of the lessons they taught me, lessons which I now try to relate to my students, without the wedgies and rat tails, of course.

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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