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The Best Jewish(ish) Books About Summer Camp

If you—and your kid—are in mourning for Jewish camp, maybe a literary visit will help

Marjorie Ingall
June 19, 2020
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

The Jewish summer-camp faithful are desperately missing the machaneh. Kids are yearning for ga-ga, color war, amanut, archery, rikud, bug juice, mocking the semi-edible offerings of the chadar ohel, and most of all seeing their camp friends and appreciating human contact, even if that contact results in lice after long monkeylike sessions of hair grooming and sharing accessories. We adults are also missing having our children out of the house, mainly so we can have nonfurtive sex.

But thanks to COVID-19, the summer of our collective dreams is not to be. Between attending protests, doing ongoing advocacy work, applying hand sanitizer like there’s no tomorrow (lest there be no tomorrow), and coordinating our masks to our self-administered pedicures like some kind of low-rent Kardashian, there’s a lot of time to fill. To that end, here’s a selection of delightful books about summer camp for kids of different ages. They’re the next best thing to being there.

Fun picture books:

Sadie, Ori, and Nuggles Go to Camp by Jamie Korngold, illustrated by Julie Fortenberry. A relatable subject for young overnight campers—will I be mocked if I bring my favorite stuffed animal?—comes to life reassuringly in this gentle tale. The Jewish content is subtle but well integrated into the story: The camp greeting is “shalom”; Sadie notes the ease of being in an environment in which she’s not the only Jew, as she is in her classroom. (Callback to when my own daughter, upon saying that we don’t have Santa because we’re Jewish, was told by a gobsmacked first grade classmate, “I thought you were normal!”) The pictures show Shabbat candlelighting and some kids in kippot, but the Jewishness isn’t dwelled on. Thankfully, when the kids get to camp, it turns out that Ori’s entire bunk is Nuggled-up with their own favorite soft lovies. (Ages 3-6)

No Baths at Camp by Tamar Fox, illustrated by Natalia Vasquez, is so redolent of all the sense memories of camp, you can practically smell the bug spray. The plot is simple and blissfully nondidactic: Mom tells Max it’s bathtime, and Max reminisces slightly sulkily about how there are, well, no baths at camp. His memories take us through a typical week at camp: swimming, painting, Israeli dancing, acting out scenes from the Torah, canoeing, roasting marshmallows. The only bath comes on Friday night before Shabbat; the book conveys the quiet beauty of that special day, culminating in Havdalah. Meanwhile, through Vasquez’s clever art—a mix of cutout digital art and collaged bits of photographs—subtly proves to the reader that while there may not technically be baths at camp, there are water-balloon fights, hand sanitizer use after the campfire, playing in water from a hose. Kid readers will get the joke—there sorta are baths at camp!—and appreciate the memories of Jewish and universal camp fun. (Ages 6-8)

Camp Wonderful Wild by Laurel Sndyer, illustrated by Carlynn Whitt. Again, most of the Jewishness here is in the images, not the text. Some kids wear kippot, we see Shabbat candles, kids create menorahs and dreidels in the art room, the theater chug puts on Fiddler on the Roof. The text is a gift for kids who can appreciate irony; it’s full of complaints about camp that the clever reader quickly comes to understand are actually pretty great and fun to kvetch about.

There are monsters in the wild.
There are loads of chores to do.
There are buzzing, stinging, winging things. . . .
There’s muck and mud and goo.

And oy, the long hikes, the ghost stories about spirits that haunt the camp, the absence of TV, the little kids who follow you around like you’re a rock star ... so tiresome. All my letters home from camp in the ’80s read like this. Extremely cute.

For kids just beginning to read chapter books:

All of Leslie Kimmelman’s contributions to this genre are a gift; there are very few Judaism-infused books for newly independent readers. Sam and Charlie and Sam Too At Camp!, illustrated by William Owl, is the summertime installment in the Kimmelman canon. (Kimmelman and Owl bring in one of the newer bits of fun that today’s campers experience: Yom foam! Like a foam party at Burning Man, but with less MDMA!) Each Sam and Charlie and Sam Too book is a painless but sophisticated course in mussar, the spiritual practice of internalizing Jewish moral values. In this installment, Sam and Charlie learn about shomrei adamah, human stewardship of the earth; part of going to camp in a beautiful natural place is cherishing and working to care for it. But lecturing is kept to the barest minimum, and all these books (sadly, unlike many Jewish children’s books) are beautifully published, with a fun trim size and good-quality paper.

Books to entice middle-grade readers:

Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great, by the great Judy Blume, is again not explicitly Jewish, but again has an undeniably Jewish voice. Sheila Tubman, age 10, is afraid of everything: dogs, spiders, water, pretty much everything else you can name. When her family sends her to day camp in Tarrytown, New York, she gets the opportunity to be scared of the Headless Horseman as well. Her adventures at camp as a bossy, controlling, yet deeply chicken kid are delicious, and boy, do we come to respect Marty, her beleaguered swim teacher. The part of this book most of us remember is the Slam Book, in which four girlfriends, including Sheila, share exactly what they think of one another. This scene haunted our childhoods. (Probably Tina Fey’s, too, since there’s a scene like it in Mean Girls.) But there’s a lot more here, and it’s really funny. Also less traumatizing to Sheila than it was to us. (Ages 7-10)

Secrets at Camp Nokomis by Jacqueline Dembar Greene is one of a series of books about Rebecca, the Jewish American Girl doll from the Lower East Side. In this installment, she’s sent to summer camp, where mysteries begin to occur and a girl winds up missing. Perhaps it’s perfect, or perhaps it hits too close to home, that the story is set during the early stages of the polio epidemic. The kids’ anxiety about disease, and the loneliness that’s also part of living through a pandemic, will be familiar to many kids today. But this being an American Girl book, the mystery is solved and everything ends happily. I loathe with all my being the consumerist frenzy of the American Girl Industrial Complex, but I gotta admit, the books associated with the historical dolls are often surprisingly good. This one is no exception. Guess what, kids: COVID-19 isn’t America’s first epidemic! Enjoy that toasted marshmallow! (Ages 7-11)

The Path of Names by Ari Goelman is sadly out of print, but Tablet enjoyed it back in 2011, so if your kid is willing to read on devices (mine will only read books with pages) or you wanna pick up a used copy, do. And it’s super-duper-Jewish! One critic called it “like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay for kids,” which, sure, but spookier. It’s about the mysterious camp experience of magic- and math-loving Dahlia Shulman, who is sent to Jewish camp and starts having strange visions of little girls and a man being pursued through long-ago NYC. Also, why are all the campers being warned away so vociferously from the hedge maze? As a kid who was obsessed with gematria as a Jewish day school student, I was psyched to encounter it here. Plus there’s Kabbalah and missing kids and, well, you (and your kid) will just have to read it. (Ages 10-14)

Nerd Camp by Elissa Brent Weissman. OK, it’s not officially a Jewish camp, but it’s called the Summer Center for Gifted Enrichment (aka the Smart Camp for Geeks and Eggheads), so, let’s say Jewish. Another funny book, this one’s about a super-geeky East Coast kid named Gabe who knows that after camp ends, he’ll be meeting his super-cool, skateboarding future stepbrother from Los Angeles, Zack. Gabe sends Zack postcards that make him (he hopes) seem way hipper than he is. He keeps a running tally of “Things I Can Tell Zack” (“We put music and sports pictures on our walls”) and “Things I Can’t Tell Zack” (“They are of Beethoven and the rules of badminton”). It turns out, of course, that the boys form a bond despite Gabe not convincing Zack of his coolness in any way. In the sequel, Nerd Camp 2.0, Zack and Gabe wind up at camp together after a wildfire destroys Zack’s non-nerd campground. Can they guide their respective campmates, dork and jock, into coexistence? (Ages 8-12)

From Night Owl to Dogfish by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer was on my best-books list of 2019 because it is hilarious, even for grown-ups, without sacrificing any kid-friendliness. It’s more Jew-ish than Jewish. (Yes, that’s a theme here.) It’s basically The Parent Trap (two girls meet at sleep-away camp and plot to get their parents together) in reverse (two girls whose parents are dating meet at sleep-away camp and work furiously to break them up). It’s an epistolary novel, told entirely in emails, letters, loudspeaker announcements, and voicemail. Avery is a neurotic, neurasthenic New York City Jewish kid who’s terrified of everything; Bett is a fearless, outdoorsy non-Jew from California who loves all things adventurous. Their dads decide to send them to the same summer camp so they can get to know each other and eventually become a family. The girls, of course, initially hate each other. As they grow closer, it’s clear via postcards and voicemails that the dads’ romantic getaway is devolving, hilariously. Secondary characters, including a meddling bubbe, are delightful. One review compared the book to Judy Blume, but it’s way more slapsticky, in a good way. (Ages 10-14)

Enticing young adult books:

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray is generally described as “an all-female version of Lord of the Flies,” which means it’s set on a deserted island in which the kids create their own civilization and learn about themselves and the world, which is exactly like camp. Work with me here. In this extremely funny, extremely feminist book, a plane full of teen beauty-pageant contestants crash-lands in the ocean near an uncharted jungle island where they have to learn to survive. So, that makes it Lord of the Flies plus Survivor and maybe The Bachelorette? This is satire like Jonathan Swift is satire: Over-the-top, gasp-inducing, profoundly witty. The comedy is super-broad—I laughed til I was wheezing. Like Swift, Bray tackles big topics: in her case, misogyny, transphobia, racism, the excesses of capitalism, government power running unchecked, the economics of war. And to my delight, Bray never mocks teenage girls who love makeup and hair and fripperies. This book is one of my faves. (Ages 13+)

I haven’t read Camp by LC Rosen because it’s brand new and I’m trying but I can’t read everything! But it sounds great! “A sweet and sharp screwball comedy that critiques the culture of toxic masculinity within the queer community”? Sign me up! It’s about musical-theater-loving Randy Kapplehoff, 16, who goes to a camp for LGBT kids and has a big crush on Hudson Aaronson-Lim, who is only into straight-acting guys, which means not Randy. So Randy decides to give himself a makeover (we love makeovers!), “even if it means giving up show tunes, nail polish, and his unicorn bedsheets.” But will Hudson fall for it? And even if he does, is it worth hiding one’s true self? Kirkus (aka the review outlet that hates everything) says, “This novel has the appeal of a rom-com movie-makeover but with more substantive explorations of self-betrayal, self-evaluation, and eventual awakening.” Rosen has mentioned attending a Conservative Jewish summer camp where his queerness wasn’t as accepted as he might have liked, which, sadly, I believe. (Ages 14+)

I reviewed The Haters by Jesse Andrews for The New York Times, where I said I laughed so hard I scared my cat off the couch multiple times, which is true. It’s a camp book in that it is about escaping from camp. Best friends Corey and Wes (Wes is Jewish) are the least gifted musicians at jazz camp. Andrews’ depictions of white guys in fedoras fetishizing jazz—and Wes, who has dark skin—and talking like tragic ’60s hipsters are uproarious and make clear why the boys want to flee jazz camp. With a girl guitarist named Ash, they hit the road in a wild tour of playing together in bars and becoming better musicians. It’s a flawed book (Ash feels very much like a girl character written by a dude, and there is some stuff about nonexplicit sexual consent that did not sit well with me) but it is so, so funny and so, so appreciative of music, and so, so right on the importance of being able to put aside notions of coolness and just love the sounds you love. (Ages 15+)

Sugar Summer by Hannah Moskowitz (Sydney Taylor Award winner for last year’s Sick Kids in Love, which I also adored) is a lesbian retelling of Dirty Dancing. I know, right? Set at a Jewish resort in West Virginia, the plot revolves around Sugar Applebaum and her burgeoning romance with Mara Del Olmo, the resort’s dance instructor. Much of the fun lies in waiting for the iconic movie moments—the lift! That thing where Patrick Swayze runs his hand down Jennifer Grey’s arm and she keeps giggling! No one puts Baby in a corner!—to see how Moskowitz works them into her modern-day version. Alas, this is digital only and poorly copy edited, but it’s fun and innovative and the only people who won’t like it are those who wouldn’t know a new idea if it hit them in the Pachenga.

Perhaps reading this roundup has made you want to reminisce about camp yourself. If so, check out Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah, the late photographer Andy Sweet’s chronicle of the summer of 1977 at a Jewish camp in South Carolina. Sweet was a camper at Mountain Lake himself, then a counselor and photography instructor, “teaching kids who were essentially younger versions of himself—secular Jews from South Florida, straddling the lines between societal insiders and outsiders, comfortably middle class yet raised within a deeply conservative region filled with lingering traces of open anti-Semitism. The setting was an ideal one for observing moments both profound and offhandedly joyous.” (Also, judging by the wonderful photos, the setting was full of tube socks, feathered hair, and T-shirts reading “I Love the Fonz” and “CB Freak.”) You might also explore How Goodly Are Thy Tents”: Summer Camps as Jewish Socializing Experiences, a fascinating ethnographic and sociological analysis of the role camp plays in Jewish life, written by Brandeis professors Amy L. Sales and Leonard Saxe. It not only looks at how camp helps form Jewish identity, but also at how other Jewish institutions could learn from camp. (And to bring everything full circle, professor Sales’ daughter Leila wrote one of my favorite Jewish young adult novels of 2018. I hope she’s kvelling.)

We know why summer camp is a perennial subject of teen movies and adult reminiscences. We know why Jewish researchers say it’s the best way to instill positive Jewish identity in our youth, way more so than Jewish day school. Camp is sui generis. It’s an entirely kid-focused world, a safe place to explore identity (queer, athletic, Jewish, style) and relationships. Time at camp seems so short, but it also seems to stretch forever. Our camp friendships are intense, often lasting into adulthood (shout out, Michele, Amy, Stuart, et al!). I understand why kids are grieving its absence this summer.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.