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God of the Poconos

Finding religion at sleepaway camp

Elissa Altman
June 22, 2016
This article is part of Summer Camp.
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It is Friday night; 1974. I am 11 years old.

I sit with my counselors on a splintering, white-painted campfire ring a few yards from Camp Towanda’s red clapboard dining hall, where the kitchen belches heavy clouds of vaporized beef fat through its commercial exhaust fan while a folk guitarist plays the opening minor chords for Shabbat services. Girls are dressed in starched white camp uniforms, and boys, Towanda’s official brown-and-gold, and, together, athletes and dorks, snobs and prepubescent floozies, we silently pass among ourselves 100 stapled-and-mimeographed 10-page prayer books. If I’m sitting in precisely the right spot—I always seemed to be—great gusts of grease mingle with sweet Pennsylvania honeysuckle and settle over me like a blanket. I breathe in deeply. An older, kind-eyed man called Uncle Sid leads us in the opening prayer that will stay with me forever and that now, 42 years later, I whisper to myself on bitter New England Friday nights while I’m out walking the dogs, the snow crunching under my boots. At 52, I say it to myself as a balm, as a way to still myself; my mantra, my private Shabbat prayer wherever I go, wherever I find myself on Friday nights, from Maine to Istanbul to Tromso, Norway, 400 miles north of the Arctic Circle, at a time of year when the sun doesn’t set.

Dear God, as the sun hangs in the western sky and the hills cast lengthened shadows, a spell of quiet comes over our little world. There is a calmness on our lake and the heavens are reflected in the water. The rustling of the branches in the trees is hushed and a stillness settles over camp and in our hearts. Thy Sabbath has come. Open our hearts so that we may allow thy Goodness to enter.

Forest Hills, Queens; 1974: There are parties where male neighbors dump their keys into empty Dansk fondue pots, to be fished out by women other than their wives; there are dinner parties that end with hash brownies and ice cream, and fat joints my mother will tell me, 20 years later, my wing-tipped ad-man father flushes down the toilet because he’s paranoid and afraid of being sent to Rikers. There is Patty Hearst and Richard Nixon and “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar,” and an adult neighbor who has become far too eager with me. I wear the wrong jeans and the wrong sneakers and my hair is uncontrollably frizzy; I hunger for a boring, bland family like The Waltons and I yearn for religion, for a connection and a grounding, for a God who will love me and guide me and save me, please save me, like Billy Graham promises me Jesus will, if I’d just send in five dollars. I am the only child of an assimilated, cosmopolitan, television singer mother and a once-Orthodox father whose idea of observing his religion involves plugging in an electric menorah every Hanukkah; a standing Sunday night dinner reservation at the Tung Shing House for shrimp in lobster sauce and pork fried rice; and regular visits to my paternal grandfather’s Coney Island synagogue, where, as cantor for the Orthodox congregation, my ancient, immigrant grandpa—he ran away from a Ukrainian shtetl in 1905 at 12 years old—sings the services, his eyes half-closed in a meditative, kabbalist trance. On Saturdays, while I watch from upstairs in the women’s section, my grandfather carries the Torah on his shoulder, tender as a baby, and glides down the center aisle of the shul past his son, who reaches out to touch it with his tallis. My father longs for my grandfather to snap out of his reverie, to wake up and recognize his little boy—now a grown man with a child of his own—and acknowledge him as God-fearing and devout and good, but my grandfather never does; he floats past my father, whose eyes redden and pool with tears of yearning that run down his face and into his stiff oxford cloth collar. My father’s religion is one of disappointment and regret; my grandfather has chosen God over his son, like Abraham.

Prayer, my father tells me when I announce that I want to be bat mitzvah, will bring you nothing but pain and sadness.

I can’t believe him; I won’t believe him. After all, it works for The Waltons.

Every summer from 1972 to 1978, my parents send me away for eight weeks to get me out of the city, to keep me busy, to engage my natural athletic ability, to give themselves some freedom. My father doesn’t take into account my spiritual thirst and inclination, or the weekly services I’ll be attending, or the prayers before every single meal; I take to the practice like a duck to water. Summer Shabbat nights in Pennsylvania are silent and warm; our busy camp days of softball and color war and field hockey come screeching to a halt on late Friday afternoons, and while the furious outside world rails and thrashes around me, separated from our quiet campfire ring by a thin membrane of devotion, I live for the 90 minutes each week when everything stops, when 100 of us and our counselors ask together in a drone that wraps itself around me like a shawl,

How can we know God? Where can we find him? He is as close to us as the birds and the trees, and he is as far away as the hills in the sky. He causes the winds to blow and the rains to fall, and speaks to us in the music we hear and sing. That is how we know our God—through the goodness that passes before us. He is in our acts of kindness; he is in our joys. Our Sabbath is here to give rest to man’s hands, to let his spirit be refreshed.

At 11 years old, I sit in the campfire ring next to my friends and my counselors and I gaze up to the vast, sapphire sky and breathe in peace; stars begin to shimmer, a light breeze blows up from the lake and rustles the trees. “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” blares out of the camp kitchen window from a cheap transistor radio; we sing Adon Olam and Shalom Aleichem and Hatikvah and slip silently back across campus to our bunks. We undress and climb into our metal camp beds. I fall asleep chanting our Sabbath prayer, believing it in an impalpable place so deep that it can’t otherwise be accessed: He is in our acts of kindness; he is in our joys.

I return home after eight weeks of camp; eight weeks of Shabbat services; 56 days of thrice-daily mealtime prayer. Standing on our apartment terrace overlooking Forest Hills the last Friday night of the summer before school starts, I read my sleepaway camp prayer book while my father sits in our living room, doing the Times crossword puzzle; my mother is on the loveseat opposite him, watching Tony Orlando and Dawn.

He is in our acts of kindness; he is in our joys, I whisper. I pull the terrace door closed and gaze at the western sky through the brown city smog: Thy Sabbath has come.

Elissa Altman is the author of Treyf: My Life as an Unorthodox Outlaw, Poor Man’s Feast: A Love Story of Comfort, Desire, and the Art of Simple Cooking, and the James Beard Award-winning blog of the same name. Her work can be read everywhere from and Tin House to the New York Times and the Washington Post.