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Speaking Camp Hebrew

Jewish summer camps offer kids a unique linguistic landscape

Jenna Weissman Joselit
June 21, 2019
Photo: Heinz H. Weissenstein/The American Jewish Historical Society
Jewish youth dancing the hora at Camp Wel-Met, 1948Photo: Heinz H. Weissenstein/The American Jewish Historical Society
Photo: Heinz H. Weissenstein/The American Jewish Historical Society
Jewish youth dancing the hora at Camp Wel-Met, 1948Photo: Heinz H. Weissenstein/The American Jewish Historical Society
This article is part of Summer Camp.
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In the summer of 1954, Morris Freedman went to camp—a Jewish summer camp. Nothing unusual about that, not at first blush. By the 1950s, American Jewish parents could choose from among any number of summertime options: Massad and Ramah catered to those moms and dads interested in immersing their offspring in a Hebrew-saturated environment, while Boiberik and Kinderland did much the same thing for Yiddish. Camp Haswell promised that its happy campers “will learn all about model airplane building,” while the Jayson Camps made sure to point out that it solicited “boys and girls from the finest Jewish families.”

What rendered Morris Freedman’s visit unusual was that he was neither a counselor or a camper or even the parent of one. Rather, Freedman was a Ph.D.-wielding journalist, an associate editor at Commentary, who had gone to camp—to Ramah in Connecticut—to take a look around at what he and his colleagues characterized as “one of the livelier and most promising” phenomena of the postwar Jewish experience.

Adopting the posture and sensibility of an anthropologist studying tribal culture, Freedman—at once quizzical and curious, absorbed and removed—spent nearly a week at Ramah, where campers were encouraged to “Wake in Hebrew, Dress in Hebrew, Study in Hebrew, Play in Hebrew, Dance in Hebrew, Dream in Hebrew.” He hung out on the porch with the camp’s director, musing about this and that; observed goings-on in the dining room and by the lake; bore witness to ceremonial moments, among them Shabbat as well as Tisha B’Av; and interviewed campers, counselors, and parents about their experiences.

Months later, Freedman published his account in the May 1955 issue of Commentary. I suppose the folks at the Jewish Theological Seminary, which oversaw the network of Ramah camps (and still does), were mighty pleased by the publicity, which took the form of a highly detailed, 13-page article that portrayed Ramah as an affable, attractive, and worthwhile exercise in community.

What struck me in reading this piece more than 60 years later was the emphasis Freedman put on the normalcy of the campers. He labored hard to convince his readers, and himself, that they were just like other American boys and girls. Time and again, the journalist zeroed in on their appearance, noting how the girls were pretty and their male counterparts hale and hearty. Referring to Erev Shabbat, when virtually the entire camp was decked out in white—white shorts, white blouses, white socks, white satin yarmulkes (or what Freedman called “skullcaps”)—he wrote of how the “air was bright with their whiteness and their youthful alertness.” Elsewhere, he commented on how Ramah campers were “bright, self-possessed, alert, intelligent, and on the whole, remarkably free of dogmatism or any sign of fanaticism.”

That some of the counselors sported sweaters bearing the logo of Harvard and Yale, Wesleyan and Wellesley, while their young charges were well acquainted with a baseball bat and could swim in a lake without drowning reassured him that all was well with the Jews in the wilds of Connecticut.

What gave the man pause, prompting him to look for proof that Ramah campers were normal American kids, was the ease with which they conducted themselves during both weekday and Shabbat services—they knew their way around the age-old prayers—and their receptivity to speaking in Hebrew. In Freedman’s estimation, both took the cake, or ha-ugah, as the case may be. How, he wondered, was it possible in this day and age, for Shulamith, Devorah, Yehoshua, and Yehudah to feel at home in shul and with modern Hebrew? When he posed that question to one of the camp’s educators, he was told rather firmly, “This is a new generation.”

Was Freedman convinced? Did he leave Ramah with a good feeling about the future, or for that matter, the viability of Jewish summer camping? It’s hard to say. The journalist didn’t tip his hand, one way or the other, leaving it to his readers to draw their own conclusions.

If, in the years that followed, the proliferation of Jewish summer camps across the entire denominational spectrum was any indication, I’d say that champions of Jewish summer camping took heart from Freedman’s article and rallied around the flag. More to the point, perhaps, they clustered under the many different camp banners that declared the fealty of one segment or another of American Jewry to, say, Zionism or Yiddishkeit; Conservative Judaism or Reform Judaism; Hebrew immersion or Hebrew infusion.

Hebrew infusion—you might well ask, what’s that? It’s a term linguists use to describe the manner in which Hebrew makes itself felt at many American Jewish summer camps: present but not dominant; gentle rather than overbearing.

Hebrew Infusion is also the title of a forthcoming book (due out next year from Rutgers University Press) by Sharon Avni, Sarah Bunin Benor, and Jonathan Krasner—an applied linguist, a sociolinguist, and a historian, respectively—about the imaginative ways in which a variety of stakeholders—educators, camping professionals, and campers—value and relate to the Hebrew language.

The degree to which Hebrew should define the universe of Jewish summer camps vexed its partisans ever since the phenomenon first came into its own. Baffling Freedman back in the day, this issue, at once a matter of language proficiency and cultural vitality, continues to baffle contemporary constituencies. Is fluency in Hebrew a value in its own right or a means to an end? If the latter, is its purpose to deepen an attachment to Israel and Jewish peoplehood or to a particular denominational identity? To promote cultural literacy or emotional connection? And how much Hebrew is too much? Or not enough?

These and other issues animate the finely wrought pages of Hebrew Infusion, whose original insights make clear that more than fun and games is at stake. Drawing on a cornucopia of sources—survey data, interviews, historical records, photographs, and participant observation (shades of Morris Freedman!)—the book deftly explores the relationship between Jewish summer camping and the deployment of Hebrew over time, bringing the story up to, and focusing most intently on, the present. Its trio of authors pored over thousands of documents, generated questionnaires and, for a period of several years between 2012 and 2015, spent part of their summers at 36 camps that ranged from the Reform movement’s Olin Sang-Ruby Institute in Wisconsin to Sternberg, an Orthodox girls’ camp in the Catskills.

Training their sights on the “linguistic landscape,” the visual presence of Hebrew in bunk names, directional signage, and artwork, they also listened closely to the ways in which campers gave voice to Hebrew: heavy on nouns, light on verbs. Few were able to speak grammatically intact, full sentences, much less spontaneously erupt into Hebrew. Instead they “practiced the receptive skill of listening”; leavened their English with Hebrew words, talking, for instance, of “going to the agam [the lake] for a swim”; or engaged in clever wordplay, naming a chug, or specialty club, “Chugs and Kisses.”

Camp directors, for their part, varied in their level of linguistic commitment. Some placed a word limit on the amount of spoken Hebrew lest they risk overwhelming the campers and irritating their parents. Others went all in, expecting those under their care to chatter away throughout the day as if on the beach in Tel Aviv.

Some camp professionals preferred to keep things light and fun, trusting to song to infuse camp with just the right amount of Hebrew atmosphere or enlisting the services of a counselor-turned-caped-superhero named Mr. Milon (Mr. Dictionary) to deliver the Hebrew word of the day.

Others gave in to doubt, wondering how playing baseball in Hebrew could possibly “contribute to the well-being of Israel.” And then there were the educators who hoped that, through some kind of informal osmosis, campers might pick up Hebrew from their Israeli counselors, only to discover ruefully that Israeli Hebrew and “camp Hebrew” had little in common. The latter, related one disgruntled Israeli, was “like a museum piece.”

Whether a function of the season or the setting, ideology or institutional tradition, camp Hebrew—which the authors of Hebrew Infusion prefer to call “Camp Hebraized English”—turns out to be no antiquated relic or pallid copy, a poor cousin, of the real deal, but its own thing: a “distinctive cultural phenomenon” with deep historical roots and wide-ranging sociological implications, whose contribution to American Jewish culture should be saluted, not decried.

True, the impact of Camp Hebraized English on contemporary Israeli life might be minimal, but for those campers who wield the language like a native, it conjures up a summer world alive with possibility and meaning. More a matter of affect than fluency, cultural improvisation than declension, this seasonal American Jewish form of expression speaks to who we are, and aspire to be, as members of the tribe.

Perhaps one parent, a male physician, put it best. When asked by Morris Freedman in 1954 why he sent his two teenage sons to Ramah, he responded: “All this really means something to them. Maybe they won’t become rabbis, or community leaders, or even observant Jews. But, what the hell, they’re really learning something solid, not just crap like woodcraft or hiking. I’m all for it.”

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.