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The Zionist Dream in the Poconos

An excerpt from the new memoir ‘Why Not Say What Happened’ conjures lost summer worlds

Morris Dickstein
January 30, 2015
New Haven, 1966.(Photo courtesy Liveright Publishing )
New Haven, 1966.(Photo courtesy Liveright Publishing )
This article is part of Summer Camp.
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Summer camps were another Jewish institution I had skipped during my years in Rocky Point, on Long Island, but in my freshman year of college I discovered a camp quite unlike the others, though I can’t recall how I first heard about it. Many camps were either charitable operations that lifted poor kids out of the sweltering ghetto or lavish sports complexes that reflected the growing wealth and wider horizons of the Jewish middle class. Tennis and camping in the woods became one of their children’s tickets to America. Other camps were routine facilities gussied up with faux-Indian tribal motifs. Camp Massad was different. It consisted of a pair of camps in the Poconos, near the Delaware Water Gap, founded in 1941 by a Zionist family, the Shulsingers, who were mainly in the Jewish publishing business: prayer books, Passover haggadahs, gift books for Chanukah, Hebrew-English dictionaries. The camps’ religious orientation was gently Orthodox but their real mission was to instill Zionism into American youth by immersing them in a wholly (not holy) Hebrew atmosphere. This was exactly what had been missing in my old-style yeshiva, where the primary language, as in Eastern Europe, was Yiddish and the study of Talmud crowded out the rest of the Jewish curriculum. A middle-aged Israeli, Shlomo Shulsinger, abetted by his perky wife, Rivka, ran the camp with a stern voice and an iron hand. Stocky and short, with wavy, iron-gray hair, Shlomo dispensed homilies about the Land—Ha-aretz, the Holy Land—and reprimanded anyone caught speaking even a few words of English. His wife, looking equally strict and fit—I rarely saw her without a soccer ball in her hand—ran the sports programs for the girls’ camp. They became my image of the new Jew, the Israeli chalutzim, pioneers who had returned to the soil, embraced manual labor, and were making the proverbial desert bloom—except, of course, that he and she were living in the United States, hands-on emissaries for the Zionist cause.

I arrived at Massad the same year, 1958, that Leon Uris’s Exodus dominated the bestseller list, soon to be followed by an even more popular film version starring Paul Newman as the Sabra hero. They enshrined a tale that left American Jews bursting with unearned pride, easing the pain and unspoken guilt over what had befallen the Jews in Europe. It told how the Zionists had wrested a homeland from the ashes of the Holocaust and how a new kind of Jew, bold, strong, determined, had sprung forth to supplant the persecuted Jew of the Diaspora—the meek, unworldly Talmud scholar, the exploited worker, the small urban storekeeper like my father. This might explain why Zionism had scarcely impinged on my Orthodox Jewish childhood. I had carried around the blue-and-white collection box of the Jewish National Fund, raising money to plant trees in Israel, green forests in an arid land. But many religious Jews, though excited by the David-and-Goliath story of the birth of the Jewish state, saw Israel as a dubious experiment at odds with the fundamentals of the faith. The epitome of Zionism was the kibbutz, which meant tractors, socialism, and free love, with children separated from their parents and brought up in common as sun-baked young pagans. There were religious Zionists too, pioneers in khaki shorts with tiny knitted skullcaps, but Zionism scorned what it saw as the passivity and otherworldliness of ghetto Judaism, as it also spurned the assimilation and material values of America’s Jews. For many kibbutzniks the Soviet Union was the preferred model; for others it was European social democracy. Giving up the dogmas of religion, they grew fanatically devoted to political disputation and ideological commitment, a fractured legacy of the European Left.

In my interview with Shlomo Shulsinger he quickly realized that my spoken Hebrew was rudimentary, despite the courses I’d taken at the Jewish Theological Seminary, which had been my first real encounter with the living language. “There’s only one place at Camp Massad for someone who doesn’t speak Hebrew,” he said. “You could be a waiter this year and, if you learn enough Hebrew, become a counselor next summer.” Thus I signed on to wait on tables with the camp’s renegades, an unruly crew of young waiters who prided themselves on behaving like a band of outsiders, the camp’s recalcitrant counterculture.

The waiters lived in unsupervised chaos in a large bunk at the foot of a hill in the far corner of the camp, near the recreational pull of the ball fields, the basketball court, and the wide lake. In this bunk English reigned supreme, in a spirit of rebellion against Shlomo’s severe discipline. But even as the camp’s happy outcasts, we were part of an educational experiment that would loom large in my life. My “Marty” identity quickly gave way to Moshe, accent on the second syllable, and it was not long before I actually became Moshe, as my homey Yiddish and prayerbook Hebrew gradually receded. Slowly I learned the Sephardic pronunciation of the spoken language, with its hard consonants and trilled r’s, so different from the Ashkenazic Hebrew that was second nature to me. Its very intonations seemed to reflect the Sabra myth and the recoil from every model of the European Jew—the pious Polish Chasid, the cultivated Judeo-German, the wry or demonstrative shtetl Russian. Israel was now a decade old; its Hebraic revival was echoed here, altering American Jewish culture.

With its daylong schedule of sports, its end-of-summer color war competition between bunks, Massad was in many ways a typical summer camp. Though sports had never been my chosen pastime, during free hours I would swim in the icy lake or shoot baskets for hours on an empty court, trying to improve my game without undergoing the embarrassment of team competition. I quickly bonded with a few other camp intellectuals, some of them future judges, college professors, and rabbis. In the mountains I had met girls but made no real friends since everyone working there was so much older than me. The good Jewish girls on the far side of the camp seemed remote and out of reach, but I struck up warm male friendships. My two closest chums were both named Shlomo, though they were opposites in other ways. Shlomo B., lean and wiry, was a serious young man and quite a good athlete; with the patience and determination that would later make him a keen literary scholar, he could practice shooting baskets or playing handball even longer than I could. Shlomo R., on the other hand, was already softly rabbinical, with dark curly hair and an ingratiating manner that would later win him a wide following. He had grown up, as I did, in Flushing, Queens, but in a family not at all observant. Now, after a kind of conversion, he was studying at Yeshiva University, catching up with the Talmud classes I had left behind but also embarking on a serious major in classics, pursuing a dual assault on Rome and Jerusalem. Both Shlomos would eventually give up flourishing careers in the United States to emigrate to Israel, one to a professorship at the Hebrew University, the other to found and lead a moderate religious settlement in the West Bank, not far from Jerusalem itself. Camp Massad undoubtedly helped shape their future.

I did not always take easily to becoming a waiter, which stirred up dim anxieties I didn’t know I had. The conflicts and insecurities of my first college year came back in a new guise. I developed a low-grade ache near my groin and imagined that I had ruptured something while carrying heavy trays. This kind of intestinal hernia had been a common ailment among workhorse Jewish males on the Lower East Side, the occasion for many jokes, folk wisdom, and finally, for some, a dose of corrective surgery. A medical quack, advertising his surgical skills, had supposedly posted a sign in Yiddish—Dein killa is mein gedilla—which translates very loosely as “Your rupture is my rapture.” My uncle Julius, after a life of hard labor, was more herniated than most. His bulging abdomen was a ropy terrain of bumps and lumps, like a relief map, but he had the family terror of any kind of surgical procedure and postponed operating on it for decades.

When it came to physical ailments I too had a vivid imagination; the most innocuous symptom, any unfamiliar discomfort, could suggest to me some serious condition. Having observed my uncle’s various belts and corsets, I wrote home to my parents to send me some jockstraps. They must have been surprised I was suddenly taken with sports. Working at the Kanco Hotel, in the Catskills, I had prided myself in stacking seven cups of hot coffee up the crook of my arm. Now I began using a serving cart rather than shouldering trays. As usual, with each new turn in my life, some resistance was holding me back, a voice saying I was overextended, skating on thin ice. Another voice demurred, and I carried on without too much difficulty, but the cart and the jockstraps served as a crutch, a reassuring placebo. At least this time I was lucky that the ache of fear, lodged in a corner of my mind, did not get the best of me.

As a waiter, living in a rat’s nest of young hooligans, I learned only a smidgen of conversational Hebrew, but the atmosphere of the camp had its effect. I stumbled through another interview with Shlomo the following year and was anointed a counselor, a madrikh. This brought its own problems. The boys’ greatest respect, a mixture of fear and hero worship, was accorded to counselors who were superb athletes, not to dreamy college students in love with world literature. This was less of an issue in the first year, when my charges were five ten-year-olds, nowhere near puberty—one of them still occasionally wet his bed. By the second year I had a larger group of rambunctious eleven- and twelve-year-olds, some of them big and strong enough to knock me down if they had a mind to do so. I was surprised at the personality that emerged in me, warm and big-brotherly when the situation allowed but at times almost military in enforcing discipline. On rare occasions this had to be backed up with strategic blows, a dose of corporal punishment to keep the troops in line. The kids’ safety, their well-being, was in my hands, and it tasted more like premature parenthood than army discipline. But it was strangely gratifying to win my bunk’s grudging affection for being tough but fair, as if I had conjured up a stern doppelgänger with a keen sense of adult responsibility. As with my drift into Zionism, I was trying on new identities I didn’t know I had.

The pervasive Zionist atmosphere in Camp Massad embraced more than the spoken language. Each bunk was named after a town or kibbutz in Israel, usually a place we knew nothing about apart from its exotic name. My first bunk was called Beit Alfa, but this meant little to me. When I visited it a few years later, I saw the most exciting archaeological site in Israel. Its masterpiece was the tiled floor, with strange biblical and zodiac design, of a synagogue some fifteen centuries old. While evenings in the Catskills had been filled with the fading remnants of vaudeville comedy and Yiddish theater, Massad evenings revolved around Israeli dances and songs, such as the lilting tune about a lass called Simona from Dimona. Hey Simona, mi’Dimo-ona, hey Simona-mona, mi’Dimona. One counselor joked that, hey, Dimona was no more than a gas station in the Negev; that was good for a laugh. Who could imagine that it was the future site of Israel’s nuclear program, and later a magnet for Russian immigration? Even then we didn’t quite grasp that this was a song about a Sephardi girl—a shkhora, or dark-skinned girl—at a time when these so-called oriental Jews were still an exotic but growing underclass in Israel.

We also sang popular American songs with lyrics transposed into Hebrew, some of them the work of Zvi, the plump and jolly head counselor himself. I can’t forget the Hebrew version of “When the Saints Come Marching In” (Ha’tzadikim, haim nikhnassim . . .) and the Hebrew lyrics lamenting the end of the summer, set to the main themes of Brahms’s resounding Academic Festival Overture (Ha’kaitz chalaf kvar, he’nay hegiyah ha-sof ). But mainly we sang Israeli folk songs about pioneers working the soil or sitting around the crackling campfire watching the coffee pot, Ha-finjan, or about centuries of dreamers on Mount Scopus looking down with longing on the stone buildings of Jerusalem, a city then still in Jordanian hands, off-limits to Jews. We were all young Americans, but we were meant to feel that our exile was ending, that Israel was our once and future home.

The larger buildings at the camp were named not after towns but after Zionist heroes and heroines, though not for living political figures. The main auditorium, where most indoor activities took place, was called Ulam Szold, after Henrietta Szold, who had founded Hadassah in 1912 and later emigrated to Palestine. The visionary Theodor Herzl, the lexicographer Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the national poet H. N. Bialik, the pioneering essayist Ahad Ha’am, the dying Joseph Trumpeldor, killed in 1920 defending his farming village, the young wartime martyr Hannah Senesh, parachuted into occupied Europe, even the controversial revisionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky, whose enemies labeled him a fascist, were names we heard every day. They were the glowing stars in the Zionist firmament. Alongside such heroic models and the revival of the Hebrew language, the ultimate ideal of Camp Massad was Aliyah, emigration, the lodestar of all Zionist indoctrination. The words of Herzl, Im tirtzu, ein zo aggada (“If you really will it, it’s no legend”), were inscribed on the walls and were ever on Shlomo Shulsinger’s lips. To me this was a warm, distant, and unreal notion.

After a two-thousand-year hiatus, Israel seemed an astonishing political creation, an almost miraculous fulfillment of a millennial dream. I don’t recall that the Arabs of Palestine were ever mentioned, though the enmity of the surrounding Arab states was a constant theme, an echo of the vulnerability Jews had felt through centuries of pogroms. As I read Moshe Dayan’s vivid diary of the 1956 Sinai campaign, I felt at once proud of Israel and anxious about its fate. But in my real life it remained a remote fantasy, though the dances, the songs, the tales of the kibbutz, and the strange yet familiar names of the towns seemed magically appealing; they projected their own vigorous reality. The Zionist project, Ahavat Tzion (the love of Zion), the attachment to the biblical land, was reshaping us into different kinds of Jews, and my best camp friends would eventually emigrate, something I was never tempted to do, though I wondered at moments what such a life might be like for me. Zionism made us imaginary inhabitants of a place most of us had never seen.

Meanwhile, to relieve the hothouse quality of camp life, we were emigrating internally; each week on days off we set out for different corners of Pennsylvania, not exactly a stand-in for the promised land. One day a rowdy crew of six waiters piled into an old car and drove to the top of a nearby mountain. On the way back down the brakes failed, or so the driver said. At first this seemed like a joke, but as I looked toward the dashboard from the middle of the backseat I could see the pedal pushed down to the floor, with no braking effect whatever. I heard the driver shouting and watched the speedometer push past 100, taking aim at 120 on the steeply descending road. As we whizzed around slower cars, poky farm vehicles, and knots of surprised people and animals moving along the side of the road, I could only think of the next day’s newspaper headlines, the shock waves at the camp, and my parents’ bottomless grief. It seemed like the silliest way to die, in some tabloid tale of wild and crazy teenage kids, killed while joyriding. Gradually the road flattened out, the car slowed and came to a halt. I had never till then understood what relief meant. The driver had done well by steering around every possible obstacle, never losing control, but had done rather badly in the first place by flooring the brake and burning it out. Still, we would live to make new mistakes another day.

Once I became a counselor I was taking my days off with the two Shlomos, though none of us drove a car or had one at our disposal. We were city boys exploring the country by hitchhiking, though today it’s hard to imagine who would have up picked three nineteen-year-old guys. Either it was a more trusting time, when hitchhiking was routine and few bothered to lock the doors of their homes, or else we looked laughably unthreatening. We took trips to see the natural wonders of the green and lush Poconos, to Scranton, an already dying coal town, where many downtown businesses stood deserted, and even to faraway Philadelphia to see the Liberty Bell, with its famous crack, and other early American sites. Somehow we came and went in one piece, chattering on, exploring a corner of rural America while embarked on our summerlong seminar on what it meant to be a Jew.

This was 1959 and 1960, just before the Eichmann trial, when the Holocaust was still a buried subject. It had yet to impinge deeply on the American consciousness, since both the survivors and other Americans, including Jews, were determined to put it behind them. In the upbeat climate of the 1950s, only the most hopeful and muffled versions of the Jewish catastrophe could be assimilated. I had been deeply moved by The Diary of Anne Frank in one of my Broadway excursions, without thinking how this story of an ardent teenager coming of age, experiencing her first love, affirming her unshaken faith in humanity, stopped well short of her camp experience and death.

At Massad, a very different kind of camp, we were sequestered in a self-contained world, keeping the larger world at bay. At home I was a news junkie, engrossed in politics, driven by the curiosity of a budding journalist. But there was no television in the camp, and I scarcely saw a newspaper. Years later I realized that the carnage in the former Belgian Congo and other crises in the summer of 1960 remained little more than blanks on my mental map, remote rumors I barely assimilated at the time. Even my fanatical love of the Yankees had begun to wane. Nor could I do much reading, since I was on duty or with my campers almost twenty-four hours a day. Summer was my retreat from my own world as a student and would-be intellectual. One summer I did manage to read The Brothers Karamazov, about ten pages a night, after lights out, with the help of a tiny flashlight, as if pushing back grimly against the sunny kibbutz-like life I was now leading.

Instead of news and books we were enveloped in Zionist ideals joined with Orthodox Jewish routines. Religious practice was hardly the main focus of camp life. But in all my years in synagogues and at the yeshiva, I had never found myself in a more congenial religious environment, enthusiastic, spontaneous, and brightened by our rural surroundings. At the camp’s Friday night prayers, always my favorite service, we welcomed the Sabbath Bride in white shirts and khaki shorts, singing psalms that should have been enough to convert the heathen and soften the hard heart of the anti-Semite. Back home the restrictions of the Sabbath, which I had once taken for granted, had come to vex and annoy me. The day seemed full of Thou Shalt Nots, in thrall to the letter of the law rather than the spirit behind it. For some Jews these restrictions, like the blessings intoned before even the most trivial act, were full of meaning, a hallowing of everyday life. For many others they were simply habitual—brief pit stops in an unthinking routine. Too often obedience to the rules was all that mattered.

But synagogue music, especially this Sabbath service, so familiar to me, was enough to melt my now unbelieving heart. It gave me an indescribable feeling of peace and joy. At Camp Massad, a hive of activity all week long, the Sabbath offered not only rest and renewal but a numinous sense of being in touch with something Beyond. The isolation of the camp, the unspoiled youth of the campers, the beauty of the setting, the rare sense of communal purpose, all brought such feelings home. At these moments I could feel what Wordsworth called “the sentiment of being” flowing through me and connecting me to the world.

Camp life also did wonders for my knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, which had remained rudimentary at the yeshiva, where it was ignored and taken for granted. My growing comfort with the language had made the easier books, especially the storytelling works, more accessible; the poetry of the prophetic books was more difficult, though I was studying them at the seminary. I now understood much more of the Sabbath prayers I had learned by rote, taught to pronounce without really comprehending them, like the ritual repetition of the Latin Mass. It was as if a veil had been lifted as I grasped the meaning of biblical passages I had sonorously chanted aloud and prayers I knew by heart.

Each year in Israel there was an elaborate Chidon Ha-Tanakh, a kind of World Cup of Bible competition. Camp Massad had its local version, and I decided to bone up for it, poring over texts of prophetic books, poetic works, and history chronicles I barely knew existed. With illicit aid from English translations, I plowed through the prophets, major and minor, reread tales from Abraham and Sarah to Ruth and Jonah, and memorized the knotty sequence of the kings of Israel and Judah. I walked away with a small prize, a blue, metal-bound copy of the Book itself, published in Israel, in which I took inordinate pleasure. The competition was more like a spelling bee than real scholarship, yet I learned more about the Bible’s astounding range of works and styles—and the history recorded in them— than I had ever known. As with my seminary classes, I was making up for the lapses in my early education, but also for the gaping holes in Columbia’s core curriculum, which gave short shrift to the Hebrew sources of the Western tradition.

But the real miracle, for me at least, was becoming comfortable with the Hebrew language, which I spoke haltingly, then more fluently. I had a decent ear and a gift for mimicry, so that even the Sephardic pronunciation, at first so alien, began to come easily. Without noticing it, I passed through the border between translating mentally and actually thinking in a language, the way a musician no longer thinks of the notes he wants to play, but lets his fingers do the thinking for him. Despite the Orthodox observance of the camp and the traditional atmosphere at the seminary, I was at once moving imperceptibly from a religious way of life, marked by punctilious daily practice, to a feeling for the cultural links that bound me to the community, beginning with the newly revived language.

Excerpted from Why Not Say What Happened by Morris Dickstein. Copyright © 2015 by Morris Dickstein.

Morris Dickstein, distinguished professor emeritus of English and theater at the Graduate Center of the City University in New York, is the author, most recently, of Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression. His memoir, Why Not Say What Happened: A Sentimental Education, will be published by Liveright in February.