Whether or not there is a boom in Jewish education, as some say, certainly there has never been anything like the demand today by parents and children alike for knowledge and participation in the Jewish heritage. Nor has there ever been such a ferment of ideas and programs to meet the demand. Each of the patterns offers its own blending of the “traditional” and the “modern,” its own integration of “Jewish” and “American,” of “religious” and “secular.” Here Morris Freedman gives us a first-hand report of what many regard as one of the livelier and more promising efforts in this direction.
In the past two or three years “Camp Ramah” had been turning up with increasing frequency in conversations about Jewish education. I knew “Ramah” was the collective name for three summer camps for youngsters in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. But, apparently, for many it represented much more: it seemed to them a key effort in Conservative Judaism to provide a full Jewish life—or at least a preparatory sample of it—for American Jewish youth, especially those destined for future religious and communal leadership. To discover more about Camp Ramah and the movement it represented, I last summer decided to visit one of the camps.
In preparation for my visit I went to the Jewish Theological Seminary, a few blocks from Columbia University and across the street from Union Theological Seminary, to talk to Dr. Judah Goldin, who, as dean of the Seminary’s Teachers Institute, formulates the educational program of the camps. Ramah is sponsored and operated by the United Synagogue of America, the organization of Conservative congregations associated with the Jewish Theological Seminary, in conjunction with the Teachers Institute-Seminary College of Jewish Studies.
Dr. Goldin, a slim, scholarly man in his early forties with pleasantly intense eyes and direct manner, was an associate professor in the School of Religion of the State University of Iowa, and Hillel director there, before assuming his present post. He has a B.A. from City College, an M.A. from Columbia, and his doctorate in Hebrew literature and ordination from the Seminary, where he was one of the outstanding students of the late Dr. Louis Ginzberg, considered the leading Talmudist of modern times. Dr. Goldin has also taught at Illinois and Duke; and he assisted the Seminary’s president, Louis Finkelstein, in the editing of the authoritative work The Jews: Their History, Culture, and Religion (1944).
We walked across Broadway to have lunch at International House. “Our premise,” he told me when we sat down in the large, airy dining room, plunging right to what he apparently considered a primary consideration, “is that you cannot fully understand the Bible and the various Jewish holy books, that you cannot fully understand what it is to be a Jew, without Hebrew. You know, Edmund Wilson made a point like this in his recent article in the New Yorker. We want our youngsters to know what they’re reading when they say their daily prayers. Not only the literal meaning of each word, but also the spirit. Consequently, we make Hebrew a living tongue for them.
“Don’t misunderstand me. Go up to one of our camps and you’ll hear plenty of English spoken. But we’d like them to do everything in Hebrew, play baseball, swim, eat, dance, hold their bull sessions in Hebrew. We provide a setting where it is natural to speak Hebrew, and then we hope everything else will follow.
“But, of course,” he stressed, “the Hebrew is only a means to an end. It is almost incidental to our main aim, which is to develop a full consciousness of Jewishness. How without Hebrew, without the language of their people, can one get to love the tradition? Every morning, after daily services and breakfast, from nine-thirty to eleven, the camp divides into study groups. Even our counsellors must attend classes; in fact, that’s largely why they are there; all are students of one sort or another. These sessions range from elementary study of Hebrew, although this is rare, to advanced examination of Talmudic problems. The teachers of the older groups are scholars and rabbis, and we have a resident professor, a member of the Seminary staff, at each of the camps. He is there to lecture, to study, to answer questions and generally to serve as a model of a talmid hacham. Afternoons, generally, outdoor activities—hiking, games, swimming—are followed. The heart of our program is in Jewish observance—daily and Sabbath prayers, grace at meals, reading and studying texts, and so on. Sabbath at Ramah is something to see.”
He went on to tell me about the students. “Ramah is not inexpensive as camps go, $500; and so to make sure we get the best boys and girls, we have a good number of scholarships. These are sponsored by local communities. Ramah in Wisconsin was established eight years ago when Midwestern congregations felt the need to continue their educational programs right through the summer. Ramah in the Poconos was opened in 1950, and Ramah in Connecticut in 1953. Every year we turn away dozens of applicants. If we had the personnel, we could establish and fill ten more camps at once. Right now, we hope our counsellors-in-training will serve as the core for new camps.
“You see, our program at the Seminary is not only to provide rabbis, teachers, and cantors. One of the basic lacks in American Jewish life—perhaps the fundamental one—is the knowledge for proper leadership in local communities—lay leadership. Through our camps, through our Leader Training Fellowship program, we hope to provide this learning and this leadership.”
How Zionist was the camp, I asked Professor Goldin. “We’re not a Zionist camp,” he said. “Not that we exclude Israel and the subject of Zionism. It’s just that our program is not one which revolves predominantly about Israel. We have Israelis on the staff, and we teach Zionist history, indeed, we spend a good deal of time considering the philosophical relations of Israel with Judaism. We are concerned with the totality of the Jewish tradition, and in this, Israel, of course, plays a very large part.”
A month or so later I drove out to Camp Ramah in Connecticut, which is 110 miles from New York City, mostly on Merritt Parkway. The camp, Which covers some thousand acres, lies between Moodus and East Hampton, in the lush, unspectacular hills not far south of the Berkshires, an area sometimes referred to as the Connecticut Catskills. A county road, occasionally used by the public, runs through it, the section from the highway to the center of the camp being paved. Just off the highway is a sign reading: “Cars for Camp Ramah Not Permitted Beyond This Point on the Sabbath.”
I arrived late Thursday afternoon, during a brief rain, to spend a long weekend that included Tisha b’Av, the solemn day of fasting and prayer that commemorates the destruction of the Temple. I parked near the sign that said “Office.” A large pavilion on one side had on its roof two words in Hebrew, the second one of which I made out, from my knowledge of Yiddish, to be “Ramah”; the first one “machaneh,” I learned later, my Hebrew being scanty, means “camp.” The office was in the lobby of an immense building, also open on the sides. In the main room several tall boys were playing basketball, causing the structure to tremble with their leaps. After I had settled myself in a guest cottage on the hill that overlooks the road, I went to look for Dr. Morton Siegel, the director.
He had gone off somewhere, and I was invited by the amiable lady in charge of guest accommodations to wait for him on the porch of his house, which was a small two-story building of white clapboard attached to the kitchen and dining room, much larger, sprawling buildings, although of one story. Most of the buildings were made of bark-covered logs that had turned nearly black with weathering. The area was quiet except for the muffled clatter from the kitchen and the distant thumping of the basketball players. The rain had died away to a mist. I rocked softly, leafing through the pamphlet containing information for parents. Most of it was conventional, but I was caught by two items: “Please do not send or bring comic books to camp,” and “Please leave all guns and knives home.” In a little while, a station wagon drove up to the side of the house.
A tall, husky young man in brown trousers, tan sport shirt, and brown denim bombardier cap squashed back on his head, got out and strode up to the house, holding a cigar, his genial, rosy face grinning broadly. “I’m Dr. Siegel,” he said and thrust out his hand. “Shalom.” I said hello, and he sat down alongside me in another rocker. . . . I spent a good deal of time with Dr. Siegel on his porch during my stay, talking about the camp; losing quick games of chess to him, with a set of medieval figures decked out in crusaders’ outfits; and occasionally eavesdropping while he took care of camp problems.
Dr. Siegel had got his B.A. in 1945 from Yeshiva University, but abandoned his graduate work toward the rabbinate there one year before finishing. One among several reasons for this step was that he felt class discussion ought to be conducted in Hebrew rather than in Yiddish. He also has an M.A. and Ph.D. in history from Columbia, and had taught in Jewish schools while attending Yeshiva and Columbia. He was principal of the Religious School of the Laurelton, Queens, Jewish Center (he insisted on bestowing the word “Religious” on it to make its function unmistakable) before he became director of the Department of Youth Activities of the United Synagogue, which post he now holds.1 He was thirty last December, and has three children.
I asked him about the Hebrew. “All the campers—there are 204—have to know the language to some considerable degree before we accept them,” he said. “Our more than thirty counsellors, and some of the older group, carry on most of their communication in Hebrew, and when any of us are addressed in English we’ll answer in Hebrew generally, explaining any difficult words or idioms.”
I apologized for not making my question clear, and asked him about the rationale for using the language. He looked at me blankly for a moment, then nodded briskly. “I see,” he said. “Well, how else are you going to get them to know their Jewish background? They’ve got to live in the language before they can get its spirit, before they can grasp the meaning of the Holy Books. There’s no substitute. Translation never does justice to a language. You can’t get the spirit of a people in translation. Take Chaucer or Dante. Did you read the article in the New Yorker about the Hebrew Bible?”
We broke up our discussion a short while later to go to supper, but I pursued the question of Hebrew throughout the five days I was there. Aside from the standard telephone and Western Union plaques, all public signs were in Hebrew, except that those like “Keep Out,” “Danger,” “Director’s House,” and “No Parking,” were also in English. The signs in the kitchen indicating the dairy and meat sections were in English only. The walls of the dining hall were covered with small illustrated posters in Hebrew giving the appropriate blessings for the various foods. One poster, accompanied by fanciful little drawings, urged one to “Wake in Hebrew, Dress in Hebrew, Wash in Hebrew, Eat in Hebrew, Study in Hebrew, Play in Hebrew, Dance in Hebrew, Dream in Hebrew.” The library, too, had posters in Hebrew, but some of these, identifying local trees and birds, were partly in English, and the poster warning of poison ivy was entirely in English. Mimeographed sheets were also posted in the library and distributed throughout the bunks illustrating the Hebrew for such common camp words as “toothpaste, sandals, broom, shower, bathing suit.” All announcements on the public-address system were in Hebrew. They opened with “Hakshivu, hakshivu“ (“Pay attention, pay attention”), which began to sound after a while like “Now hear this, now hear this.” A mimeographed newspaper covering world and camp events was published in modern Hebrew. Material intended for the younger children indicated vowels by the vocalization symbols; for the older ones, the symbols were omitted.
I asked Samuel Dinsky, the Educational Director, about pronunciation and vocabulary. He is Educational Consultant the rest of the year to the Jewish Education Committee of New York City, and originator of the “Schenectady Plan for Jewish Education,” under which all ideological groups in a community combine to sponsor an educational program; he is currently completing his doctorate in Jewish education at Dropsie College. He is a short man with a mustache, forty years old, and breathes an intense energy. His office put out reams of mimeographed matter in Hebrew. The typewriter does not indicate vowel points, which have to be inserted by hand, and I once entered his office to see an almost medieval picture: an old, thin-haired man with stooped shoulders and skullcap working closely with a stylus on a stencil, carefully marking the vowels.
“Our pronunciation is a compromise between the Ashkenazic,” Dinsky said, “more common in America, and the Sephardic, the Israeli way. Mostly it’s a difference only of the ‘s’ and ‘t,’ you know, kashrus, or kashrut. We tend toward the Israeli. As for vocabulary, we have a problem. Obviously, classical Hebrew cannot give us all the words we need, and the Israeli vocabulary has no words for American things and is sometimes too free for us.
“Let me tell you what happened when we opened our canteen in the social hall. There is no word in classical Hebrew for canteen. So a modern word was created: chanutia, which is the diminutive for a retail shop or store. We put up a sign over the canteen reading chanutia. When our first group of Israeli counsellors arrived, one took me aside and hesitantly told me that I had the wrong word over the door. I asked him for the right one. Canteena, he told me. We left it at chanutia. We would lose something of the point of our program if we adopted this Israeli attitude toward Hebrew. They laugh at some of our expressions, and we laugh at some of theirs.”
The problem of vocabulary has troubled other Hebrew-speaking camps in this country, and one of them, Camp Massad, which is run by the Histadruth Ivrith of America, has put out a glossary of the Hebrew for contemporary American things. (Massad requires every activity to be carried on in Hebrew, disciplining counsellors and campers who lapse habitually. A visitor to Massad once overheard an outraged baseball player swearing in Hebrew at an opponent. “The disparity between his violent feeling,” he told me, “and the mildness of the only available Hebrew epithets—‘donkey,’ ‘animal’—was touching.”) Dinsky has made up glossary sheets for swimming and for arts and crafts, and was preparing one for baseball. I asked one of the counsellors for the Hebrew for “Kill the umpire,” and he rolled it right off—“Destroy the judge,” it comes out. Certain international words are left alone. Thus, telephone, television, sardines are the same in Hebrew; automobile, however, is mechanit, a vehicle. Some words used in Hebrew are the same in English—sandals, melons. The campers all used their Hebrew names, or if they didn’t have any, were given ones by Dinsky. The air was filled with “Shulamith, Devorah, Yehoshua, Yehudah,” and the like.
The counsellors and many of the campers used Hebrew quite unaffectedly, and lapsed as often from English into Hebrew as from Hebrew into English. While I talked with the older counsellors, one of them, at a loss for the right English expression, would occasionally turn to the others and give them the Hebrew for what he wanted to say, always promptly getting an English equivalent, which he sometimes rejected as not offering the right shade of meaning. This happened both with Israeli and American-born counsellors.
Once I was sitting on Siegel’s porch while the top personnel of the camp, all American-born, held a meeting inside. The talk shifted constantly from Hebrew to English and back again. A swimming session I attended was conducted entirely in Hebrew. The simplest announcements as well as the most advanced discussions were in Hebrew. One evening, after the closing grace for supper, the top woman counsellor delivered a short address to which the hushed dining room listened solemnly. She was urging campers to go to the lost-and-found office occasionally. I heard a group addressed by Dr. Chaim Zalman Dimitrovsky, the Seminary’s resident professor, on the distinctions between wisdom and emotion in a poem by Solomon ibn Gabirol, the medieval writer. One of the teen-age girls, who, I saw, was listening with awed attention, later confessed to me that it had been pretty much over her head. I came across groups of the older boys and girls conducting animated discussions in Hebrew—and equally often, in English—although the baseball and touch football games I eavesdropped on were entirely in English. “Moses never was a good passer,” I heard one eleven-year-old complain loudly about a team-mate. The religious services, however, were conducted entirely in Hebrew. To encourage the youngest campers to use the language, a list indicating proficiency was posted outside the dining room. Campers who read five books in Hebrew (mostly thin children’s texts) and then wrote a report in Hebrew on them got a small Hebrew-English dictionary inscribed by Dr. Siegel.
The counsellors amused themselves with translation. At supper one night, one counsellor asked in Hebrew for the bottle with the cat on top; he wanted the catsup. Last year the camp put on The Wizard of Oz in Hebrew, and was planning Alice in Wonderland when I left. Much of the humor in the translation, one counsellor told me, is lost on the campers, but the counsellors at least laugh for weeks after at some of the constructions.
Religious observance was quite as organized and disciplined—and, apparently, as comfortably accepted—as the use of Hebrew. Every day began with morning prayer a half hour after the loudspeaker, which could be heard throughout the widespread camp area, issued its first “Hakshivu, hakshivu.” The service I saw Friday morning was typical.
The waiters and waitresses, and the youngest campers, gathered first in the outside pavilion and launched into the ritual. Then the campers wandered into the large assembly hall singly and in groups of two and three. (This was the building where I had seen the basketball players. The Ark stood under one of the baskets.) All the boys wore caps. I noticed a good number of basketball and other sport caps, and also one or two Confederate caps and several bright green and red plaid golfing caps; there were relatively few yarmelkes. Some boys had on Dodger shirts.
The boys sat in one of the sections, the girls, who arrived later, in the other. I was told that this was purely accidental since the campers entered in bunk groups; one morning, I did see a number of girls sitting on the boys’ side. The boys, carrying little velvet bags with the Star of David embroidered on them, paused before sitting down to bare an arm and wind the tefillin around it, and then around the forehead. They donned their prayer shawls, picked up prayer books piled at the end of the bench, sat down, and opened the books. All of this was done with the abstract air of habit. A boy took his place at the lectern to lead the congregation, a girl at his side to announce the pages. Participation was clearly routine.
On Saturday morning when the Torah was taken out of the Ark and unrolled, two boys held its corners, and at intervals one came up to the lectern from the congregation to read a passage. I recall particularly one burly, tall, blond boy with a crew-cut lumbering up, kissing the fringe of his prayer shawl, touching it to the Torah, then reciting the blessing. When he returned to his place, he was stopped along the way by boys who shook his hand. The boys, and many of the girls, too, swayed and weaved, young evocations, except for their thin voices and their disciplined rows, of all the old men I had ever seen in shul.
“The religious services,” Siegel told me during one of our rocking sessions, “are much fuller than is normal in the city. We follow the traditional form. Our study program is related to the Bible text read at weekly services. The text for the week and the portion in the Torah that is read are studied all week at the morning sessions. Our theme this week is ‘Out of Darkness, Light.’“
I asked about the participation of the girls in service. “Well,” Siegel said, “we give them a big part, as you saw. But we don’t go against tradition too much. A girl won’t be called up to the Torah, for example. But she does announce the passages, and we have the sermon of the week delivered by a girl from time to time.
“Our general attitude is to conserve as much as we can of meaningful Jewish tradition. We don’t insist that the older boys not use a straight-edged razor. Those that feel strongly, of course, use an electric razor or depilatories and we provide facilities for them.” (Before my first meal, I had asked Siegel whether I had to wear a head covering. “It’s not necessary,” he replied promptly, taking a spare skullcap out of a pocket, “but it’s the custom, and if you like, you may borrow this.”)
After breakfast Friday morning, I accompanied Dinsky on a tour of the classes. We began with the nursery group, eleven children of three and four supervised by three teachers. They were indoors, in a large screened room with tiny benches and closets, playing blind man’s buff—in Hebrew. “Some of these kids,” Dinsky told me, “know Hebrew as their first language. A few are children of Israeli counsellors, but one or two, born here of American parents, old-time Zionists, use only Hebrew at home.” A group of five-and six-year-olds were lolling about outside the nursery, sucking lollipops and listening vaguely to a lesson in English on the destruction of the Temple. “The Jews refused to bow down to idols,” the teacher said as we went by. We passed a class of boys of about eight or nine sheltered in a grove reading a text with large Hebrew letters with vowel “dots.” The instructor, a red-faced man around fifty with white hair and horn-rimmed glasses, was following intently. When we passed by later, during the recess, the boys were loudly and vigorously playing touch football, and the teacher was standing at the side absorbed in a copy of the New York Times.
The main area for classes was a large undulating meadow surrounded by forest, known in Hebrew as the “pool area.” “That’s because,” Dinsky told me, “our small swimming pool is there and it’s on the way to the river, where we do our main swimming. On warm Friday nights we hold outdoor services here.” Clusters of campers—one only three in number, another numbering thirteen—were reclining on the ground under trees, or sitting on the porches of nearby bunks, or against the handball wall. One boy perched on a garbage can. Here and there, boys and girls leaned against one another. “Each group has a specific place to go,” Dinsky said, “for good weather and for bad. They can always change their assembly spot, but they have to let me know. I have charts showing where they are all the time, and what they’re supposed to be studying. They can set their own subject, with our approval, of course. They also have library and free study periods. This week most of the material has been connected with Tisha b’Av.” I heard a number of discussions in Hebrew. An advanced group, led by a counsellor languidly holding a cigarette—a rabbinical student at the Seminary, Dinsky told me—happened to burst into spirited argument as we went by. The group, Dinsky said, was engaged in considering the rabbinic legends associated with Tisha b’Av. Other groups were examining Jeremiah, the Ethics of the Fathers, and Medieval Hebrew poetry. We interrupted the tour of the classes for a brief inspection of one of the recently built bunks, a V-shaped building in a warm brown wood. The narrow cots were quite close together and at the head of each was a clutter of personal belongings. I saw a tennis racket and a fencing foil and mask. The counsellor’s area was marked off by a partition with a window in it.
Halfway through the one-and-a-half-hour study period, the loudspeaker announced recess. The groups dispersed abruptly, the stillness was broken by shouts of play, and a basketball session and several handball games began. Two boys produced tennis rackets and banged a ball against one of the handball walls. We stopped to talk with one group, and I asked a boy in his teens about class participation. “It gets very hot and subtle,” he said. “Last week, during the regular Saturday afternoon discussion period, we had no subject to take up ourselves, and the counsellors suggested we talk about following ritual without understanding why we do so. That session lasted all week end, in Hebrew and in English, with everyone, counsellors and campers, joining in.” I asked Dinsky whether he had any problems with students who played hookey or didn’t keep up with their work. “No,” he said at once. “First, they wouldn’t be here unless they were interested; second, social pressure forces them to keep to the norm.” As we passed the library room on the way back to his office, he found two boys of eleven who should have been inside leaning against a car outside. He shooed them in. “See,” he said to me with rueful satisfaction, “our kids are normal.”
Friday afternoon was quiet. Many of the campers were in their bunks. As I wandered around, I could see in the distance a baseball game going on, or a group of little girls singing and dancing in a circle. The assembly hall, in the main area, was buzzing. Lovely slim girls of twelve and thirteen were running around in ballet slippers and leotards preparing for the Tisha b’Av pageant Saturday night. Two platforms had been built out from the stage, and I saw several groups posed on it. A chorus sat in front. The dramatics counsellor, a bushy-haired, slim-hipped, athletic young man from Israel, during the few minutes I watched him went from cajolery to explosion. “Remember,” he shouted in English, “don’t so much as blink an eye! You are statues. Statues!” When he subsided, he resumed in Hebrew, and the rehearsal went on. At five this activity as well as the games ceased and a hush fell over the camp.
About six, the first boys and girls re-appeared. They were dressed entirely in white. The girls were wearing, generally, white shorts, white blouses, white socks and shoes. The boys had on white slacks and almost all had white satin skullcaps. Gradually, the open area in front of the assembly hall filled. The boys and girls looked healthy and fresh and eager; they were relaxed, moving around casually, talking gently without excitement, waiting. It was a cool evening, and some were wearing sweaters or jackets with college insignia. I saw the seals of Wesleyan, Wellesley, Yale, Harvard, Yeshiva, and Brandeis. Then they moved into the hall and took seats. The air was bright with their whiteness and their youthful alertness. The camp leaders came in, sitting on the side, also dressed for the Sabbath. Siegel was wearing tan trousers, a brown jacket, a starched white shirt, and a brown figured tie. “This is the way I generally dress for the Sabbath,” he told me later. “We ask the children to wear white so they’ll feel the difference. Of course, you’ll notice not all of them do. We’re not strict about it.”
In usual fashion, the assembly closed services with the singing of a lilting melody, and the boys and girls filed out, smiling, laughing, and talking spiritedly, wishing everyone “Shabbat shalom” and shaking hands at random. I must have been greeted twenty times in this way. One group broke into a circling dance, the hora, on the road just outside the door, their arms gripped around one another’s shoulders, their legs kicking out in well-practiced unison. Another group started a lively song, which I learned was an Israeli folk tune, then shifted to what sounded suspiciously like a passage from a Mendelsohn oratorio. It was actually from Lewandowski, an early 19th-century German Jewish composer, one of whose compositions the camp choir had not long ago presented.
Gradually, the boys and girls filed into the dining hall, which was brightly lit, the Sabbath candles adorning the table at which Siegel and his chief assistants sat. Immediately after the benediction for bread, the waiters and waitresses (who were also campers but paid about half the usual fee) fell into a spirited, stamping “Conga” line that wound between the tables. They sang a spirited Sabbath melody, accompanied by the diners. Some of them carried their aluminum trays, and some of the girls were in shorts. Suddenly the line dissolved and almost at once dinner began appearing on the tables. It was a big meal, including grape juice (in lieu of wine, because of the younger children), soup, fricassee, roast chicken, vegetables, potato kugel, cucumber salad, cake, and tea. A little mimeographed menu in Hebrew was laid at each place. The waiters simply delivered the serving plates to the tables, and the campers, aided by the counsellors, distributed the contents.
After the dishes were cleared, song books were passed out, and the camp’s music director, a sturdy girl in her twenties, pulled out a chair from a table and stood on it to announce the songs. (This was a nightly procedure; on Friday evening, however, piano accompaniment was eliminated.) All of the melodies were catchy. The early ones were calm, one of them, I was told, a jukebox hit in Israel, “Colaniot,” with the slow, schmalzy quality of something like “The Tennessee Waltz.” The singing increased in intensity. One incremental song sounded like a Hebrew version of “Old Macdonald Had a Farm.” “Clementine” was rendered in Hebrew, and even “Happy Birthday to You,” in honor of one camper. Guest directors were called up to lead the assemblage. One, Rabbi Seymour Siegel, a rotund young man, now an official at the Seminary but a few years ago a counsellor at Pennsylvania’s Ramah, in which post he obviously was remembered fondly by those of the campers and counsellors who had known him there, directed an enthusiastic, wordless, Hasidic song that had the assemblage alternating between whispering and shouting. After an hour, a girl broke in with the opening of grace, the excitement subsided a little during the reading, and Friday night supper was over.
Outside again, there were more greetings of “Shabbat shalom,” and a dancing jag began. In waves, the campers were now surging toward the brightly lit assembly hall.
There was no instrumental music, just the steady singing, stamping, and clapping of the campers. Two great circles had formed, occasionally cutting into one another, and each itself constantly changing shape, flowing in and out and breaking up. Now and then, smaller circles would develop. Once, two concentric circles formed, the outer one of girls, the inner one of boys, and the partners kept changing, linking and unlinking arms over their heads, their feet moving in minuet-like steps. In the midst of all this movement, I noticed a lithe but chunky girl, her face flushed into vivid prettiness, who was providing some kind of leadership, mostly directing what already was happening. She jumped, and turned, and bounced, with professionally controlled abandon. (She was the dance director, I found out, an Israeli here in America to study nursery school methods.)
Changes from one type of dance and from one song were spontaneous. A shout would suddenly go up, the dancers would re-form, and a new pattern would emerge. In one, the campers grabbed one another around the waist and started a Conga line that undulated around other dancing groups up to the stage, into the lobby, back into the center of the hall, where it dissolved into another circling number. Throughout all this, boys and girls walked outside in pairs, where they strolled away into the darkness, holding hands; they’d come back in a while, move into the hall, and abruptly join the dancing again.
As the evening wore on, groups of campers were shepherded out to bed by their counsellors, the younger ones, of course, leaving first. The floor became roomier, and the dancing settled down to more elaborate, slower, more graceful steps, the singing never slackening nor even the dancing, transitions from one step to another being made with out pause. Here and there, a boy or girl would stand outside a circle watching the leg and hand movements closely, then would join in, hesitantly at first, more confidently in a few minutes.
One of the counsellors stopped for a moment to talk with me. “This is nothing,” he said. “You should see us when we can dance outside. We go up and down the road and end up in the pool area.” About eleven, I left to go to sleep. On my way out, in the lobby, I saw the Israeli dance instructor demonstrating an especially complicated kicking and clapping number, and I went to my cottage, exhausted. I learned the next morning that after the dancing concluded (it lasted, I was told next day, till midnight—Standard Time; like all camps, Ramah doesn’t run on Daylight Saving—the camp curfew), the counsellors and the visiting rabbis repaired to Siegel’s house for refreshments and sedentary singing.
Saturday was a leisurely day, with the camp waking late. There were no announcements on the loudspeaker at any time during the day. Morning services were relaxed and began without the girls. A counsellor later explained to me, with a grin. that this was an attempt to embarrass the girls into coming earlier; they were consistently late on the Sabbath, partly because they lived farther from the assembly hall than the boys, partly because they just took their time. All the campers were again dressed in white. At the end of the service, a blond athletic-looking girl came up to the lectern to read the sermon she had prepared. Later, I got a translation of it. She connected the destruction of the Temple, and the Exile, the themes of Tisha b’Av, with a loss of respect for law and justice. There were more “Shabbat shaloms” outside. Again dancing and singing broke out here and there, including, briefly, “Alouette.” Breakfast, also, took a long time and, again, was followed by prolonged singing. The afternoon was spent in study and discussion, with Dr. Dimitrovsky leading one group in the explication of a Talmudic passage. Other counsellors were considering with their groups the significance of Tisha b’Av.
Siegel spent a good part of Saturday afternoon looking through the Hebrew text that gave the correct Tisha b’Av ritual. “All sorts of little problems come up,” he explained to me. “For example, should we use wine for the havdalah tonight. The havdalah is the ceremony separating the Sabbath from the next day, but tomorrow is Tisha b’Av, which is a day of sadness, and wine is a sign of joy.” After discussing the point with one of the visiting rabbis and with Dr. Dimitrovsky, it was decided to have the wine drunk by a minor, that is, someone not yet Bar Mitzvah, but to change nothing else. “You know, the nine days preceding Tisha b’Av are supposed to be days of denial—no swimming, no meat, and the like. Some of our campers are following the strict Tisha b’Av procedure, and we have special arrangements for them. Tomorrow will be a fast day, or at any rate, most of it will be. The first meal will be at one, and there’ll be two suppers, one at six for those not following the fast, and another at sundown for those following it strictly.” I asked Siegel whether the camp was as liberal in making exceptions for those less observant than the norm. “There aren’t any campers here who want to do less than we do. They wouldn’t be here to begin with if they felt that way.” In the afternoon, he held a seminar on Tisha b’Av with a group of counsellors.
The Sabbath ended soberly. Tisha b’Av, of course, began at sundown, and the campers, after supper, went to their bunks, from which they emerged in dark, even shabby clothes. Siegel changed to a brown crew-neck sweater and a leather lumberjacket. Others made similar changes. The assembly hall was left unlit. Benches were arrayed around the stage, and platforms built out from it. Hundreds of candles in glass holders (shaped in the form of five-pointed stars, although the counsellor who had gone to buy them in the Middletown five-and-ten had looked for six-pointed ones) were put out on the benches, and when it got dark outside the candles were lit. The campers, without shoes, shuffled in quietly and squatted on the floor in front of the benches, on which they rested their elbows and prayer books. The candles threw a flickering dramatic light, fuzzing all shadows, suddenly catching a face here, a face there, in darkly sculptured emphasis. The guests took their places in the permanent seats along the side. The Negro and Puerto Rican kitchen helpers stood by the exits.
Dr. Dimitrovsky, wearing a sweater over an open-collared shirt, stood up in front of the stage. He waited until all movement stopped, and then, in the hush, recited (from memory) in Hebrew the passage from Chapter 37 of Ezekiel about the dry bones in the valley which rose and lived again. “. . . these bones are the whole house of Israel . . . .” He followed this with a commentary on the significance of Tisha b’Av, the burden of which, a rabbi sitting next to me whispered, was that Tisha b’Av should be a symbol of hope, not of despair. The day, he said, should be one for optimism and joy in the eventual redemption of the Temple. When finished, Dimitrovsky went to the side, where he sat down on the floor against the wall. Then the campers and counsellors ranged in front of the stage began the haunting recital of Lamentations, following the text by flashlight and candlelight. Now and then, an expert tenor or bass would take up the primitive, piercingly melancholy chant. Only one of these voices, I learned, belonged to a student of the Seminary’s cantors’ school. Without knowing a word, I was chilled by the bleak lament. Once, from the choir, a low, exquisite mezzo-soprano sounded out, incredibly poignant.
The pageant was slow and dignified. The platform on the left contained several figures in flowing, dark blue robes representing the oppressors. As they went through their stylized movements indicating attack, the boys and girls on the right platform, representing the Jews but dressed likewise in dark blue, cowered. The group on the stage itself, between the two platforms, read the text of the pageant, written by the dramatics counsellor, and a tall, good-looking girl, an older camper who had directed the choreography, appeared as Rachel to intercede with God in behalf of the Jews.
The services and pageant took several hours, and toward the end some of the younger campers were leaning against their counsellors on the floor, nodding with sleepiness. As candles sputtered and went out, counsellors went over and replaced them with fresh ones. The final chant was in a lighter vein. When I asked Siegel about this, he explained that an attempt is made to close all services on a cheering note.
Immediately after the services, the younger campers went to bed, and the older ones wandered around a while before they too retired. Normally, however, Saturday night is devoted to social dancing, the music being provided by records. A few of the counsellors made up a party to go into town.
Normal activities were also dispensed with on Sunday, which normally is a day like all others, even when parents come visiting. After the morning services, Dinsky came to the front, pushed forward a large blue and white box with a slit on top, and made an announcement about gifts to the Jewish National Fund. Aiding the reconstruction of Israel is considered part of the positive celebration of Tisha b’Av. The campers were to make their donations by bunks.
I had been introduced Friday during the study period to a boy of fifteen who had been elected president of the camp’s Leader Training Fellowship. I ran into him and asked him about his election. “I guess I was chosen,” he told me, “because my associates thought I had the qualities of leadership. I did no campaigning, although I wanted the honor of the job, even though it’s a great responsibility. We decide such things as evening activities, and help settle problems of discipline. Why do I want to be a leader? So that I can serve my community better, so that I can put my Jewishness to its best use. I want to be active in center affairs and help make Jewishness a living, important thing.” He was wearing a sports jacket, white shirt with open collar, khaki trousers, and fashionably soiled white buckskin shoes, looking much like a typical college freshman except for his intricately embroidered skullcap. I saw him now and then walking hand in hand with a pretty girl.
Later during the day he appeared on the porch with a friend to ask Siegel whether the two of them could go into town briefly. Siegel considered that a while, joking with the boys in Hebrew, and then said that they could if it really meant so much to them, but that since their trip couldn’t be established as a matter of routine, it would be up to the two of them to explain to any others who wanted the same privilege why no one else could go. The two boys looked at each other, giggled, lowered their heads a while, and then said that they guessed going didn’t mean that much to them. Generally, camp discipline is scarcely a problem. The pranks are mild; a waiter told me of a typical one. A half dozen twelve-year-old boys woke at five in the morning one day and, after tumbling their counsellor out of bed, held a pow-wow to plan some mischief. They decided to go to the dining hall to set the tables, then to hide to see the surprise of the waiters.
In the afternoon, Siegel introduced me to two boys of fourteen and fifteen. One lived on Fifth Avenue in New York, and the other in Rochester, where his father owns a nursery furniture store. I asked them about their parents’ attitude to their going to Ramah. “Well,” said the boy from Fifth Avenue, “mine are not very happy about it. I got interested when my tutor who was preparing me for Bar Mitzvah persuaded me of the importance of Judaism. He’s a protegé” of Rabbi Milton Steinberg. The only reason they went to the bother of Bar Mitzvahing me was because of my grandfather. Now, they’re indifferent. I follow my own kind of kashrut at home, that is, I don’t eat any pork products, although of course there’s nothing for me to do but eat the same meat everyone eats.” The Rochester boy’s parents were very pleased with their son’s growing Jewishness. “I have a married sister, though,” he said, “who’s as far away from this as you can get.”
The boys also told me that they could never conceive of marrying Jewish girls with a strong resistance to being observant—much less, of course, Gentile girls; that family background made absolutely no difference in camp relations; that camp ritual became automatic after a few weeks; that both had been to Ramah before and hoped to keep coming back; and that both were near the top of their classes in their public high schools.
I wandered into the empty dining room during the late afternoon. A tall, husky boy, a counsellor, was sitting there, leafing through a pocket edition of Shaw’s Man and Superman, and carrying on a desultory kidding conversation with a tall blond girl in shorts. I joined them. The boy was a Harvard sophomore, majoring in liberal arts; the girl was a high school senior from Philadelphia. Our bull session lasted for well over an hour, and it was joined near the end by several other counsellors. I asked them how they felt about Israel.
“I’m planning to go there as soon as I can,” said the Harvard boy abruptly. “I hate the way Jews observe the Sabbath and their Jewishness in general in America. Did you ever go to services on a Saturday morning in a well-to-do synagogue? Minks, Cadillacs, diamonds, a Bar Mitzvah show, constant chatter.” I suggested that things might not be different in Israel. “I’ve thought of that,” he said promptly. “I want to go see. Then, maybe I’ll just become a rabbi in America.” That idea startled everyone. “That would be the only way I can see of reforming American Jews,” he explained.
A freckled, vivacious girl answered me sharply when I asked how the girls felt about being left out of religious services in certain important ways. “I’ve been to Orthodox Jewish schools since I’m four, and I feel in fact that many things are far too lax here. Like some of the chief counsellors eating supper today before sundown. It isn’t the place for good Jewish girls to be involved in services so much, or to sit together with boys.” I asked her whether she planned to go to a mikvah or shave her head before marriage. “That’s going too far now,” she said.
It is easy to be impressed by the boys and girls at Ramah. They are bright, self-possessed, alert, intelligent, and on the whole remarkably free of dogmatism or any sign of fanaticism. Dr. Goldin had remarked to me that many of them have double educational programs in the city, at their regular schools and in Jewish centers. “And generally,” he added with hesitant pride, “the ones who come to Ramah are among the best at both places.”
I was especially pleased to find little of the unctuous smugness one comes to expect in prodigies. The boys and girls cross-examined me vigorously, but with courtesy and tolerance, when I suggested to them that there were many persons who considered themselves Jews but who happened not to have been Bar Mitzvah, were largely ignorant of Jewish history and tradition, and knew no Hebrew at all—yet never felt the lack of any of these things. (Only one person—and he was a visitor to the camp, a salesman—said to me, when he intruded on the discussion, that such persons might as well go over to Christianity. A visiting rabbi, an otherwise amiable person, shouted at me once that one who had read the Bible in English alone could not possibly have understood it.)
A good number of the male waiters and counsellors and campers had intentions, of varying degrees of seriousness, of becoming rabbis or cantors. But most kept returning to Ramah simply because they liked the life there. “It’s fun to keep your mind and senses active,” a tall, pretty girl said, smiling. She was a Bridgeport high school senior. “The ritual is no burden, and we keep its meaning alive through constant talk and relating it to the ancient writings.” A boy broke in. “The attraction is obvious,” he shrugged. “Some people like music or art camps, or summer school, we like this. Besides, this has some point for us spiritually and culturally as well as intellectually. Our individual lives, those of our families, present and future, will be affected by this. Also, just being Jewish in some vague way is not as satisfying, to us anyway, as giving our Jewishness substance in living and knowledge and thinking. Maybe this sounds pompous, but you wanted a serious answer.”
I asked the group how many young people were here because of community ambition alone, the desire to be prominent in camp politics and later on in center affairs. “I know what you mean,” another boy, a junior counsellor, said quickly. “Sure, we have stuffed shirts, and they get elected to various offices. They’re ready to work, so let them. But they’re surrounded by the rest of us, and I can tell you a politician out of Ramah is likely to be more alert, more skilled, than someone who hasn’t gone through this mill.” With the exception of the Harvard boy, none wanted or expected to go to Israel; all were members of organizations in their synagogue centers.
“You know,” Siegel said to me, when I expressed my wonderment at the complete acceptance of Hebrew and of religion among the campers, “this is a new generation. They know nothing of the Socialist Yiddishist tradition in American Jewish life. We should like to tell them of this in our study periods, but we have more important things right now, and I’m sure that we’ll get around to including this.” One visiting rabbi expressed himself as sorry that none of the kids was being acquainted with Yiddish in any way. Another was troubled that Jewish thought and history were not being related more intimately to world affairs and culture.
The three head counsellors were regarded with deep respect and admiration by the campers. During services, there were occasional silent and intimate exchanges of smiles between the congregation and the counsellors when the reader at the lectern faltered or erred in his chant. Chaim Potak, chief counsellor, a dark, solemn young man in his twenties, is a graduate of Yeshiva and a rabbi ordained by the Seminary. (He has just been assigned by the Seminary for duty as an army chaplain.) Every morning he stood in front of the lectern speechless and expressionless until the assembly was quiet. He then resumed his seat, and services began. At the conclusion he rose, issued a few instructions, and bid the campers “Boker tov”— “Good morning.” This was always followed by a drawn out, mass response: “Boker tov, Chay-yim.” His specific group was made up of the boys and girls in the Leader Training Fellowship, by whom he was regarded with obvious affection. One evening the group encircled him after supper, and several of the taller girls casually rubbed noses with him, murmuring delightedly.
David Arzt, also in his twenties, is a rabbi ordained by the Seminary, of which his father is vice-chancellor. (Just recently, he took a post in Portsmouth, Virginia.) He has an undergraduate degree from Columbia College where he studied engineering. His college career was broken by army service. When I asked him about the ingenious ways I had noticed some of the campers had of donning their tefillin (one boy whipped his cap off with one hand while adjusting the cube on his forehead with the other with a wonderful deftness), he answered drily. “Yeah, we line them up every day and give them military drill—one, two, three, hup—in putting on their tefillin by the numbers.” The third counsellor was Bathsheva Segal, a dark young woman with rimless glasses and full-blown hair, whom I never saw with makeup. Her three-year-old daughter, who knows Hebrew and English equally well, was at the camp.
The Israeli counsellors, of whom there were twenty, were regarded as a mixed blessing. The administration finds it necessary to hire them simply because there aren’t enough otherwise qualified persons who can speak Hebrew fluently. While they are great enthusiasts for Hebrew (the two I spoke with happily referred me to Edmund Wilson’s article), they are more than indifferent to the religious emphasis of the camp. “Only in America,” one said, “where religion is so fashionable can you find this kind of thing.” I saw another walk out in the middle of services one day, muttering about the waste of time. All of them also happen to be ardent nationalists, and one of them pressed me for nearly an hour on the indispensability of Israel to the Jews of the world.
I spent an intensive couple of hours with Dimitrovsky, whom I was urged by everyone to talk with since he was the intellectual model of the camp, and, apparently, of the whole movement. An Israeli by birth, he was ordained a rabbi in Jerusalem, and has his master’s from the Hebrew University and doctorate from the Seminary; he is very pious, and at one time studied to be a mathematician. Mathematics is still a hobby. He is a tall, gangly man with a bony face, in his early thirties, and has the remotely shy and gracious manner of some scholars that seems to hide a confidence bordering on assertiveness. Our confrontation was most courteous and vague. I felt unable to convey to him an attitude of Jews toward Hebrew and Judaism that sprang from less than total commitment. His answers, in a soft, mellifluous voice, gave the impression that this was a problem he had long settled; he cited—once again—Wilson’s article, quoted a number of fetching aphorisms from the Talmud, and told me of personal experiences he had had with doubters who had finally decided to become rabbis. I am afraid that in spite of the most earnest intention, our attempt at communication was far short of successful.
Nor did I fare better with others. Once I asked a visiting rabbi, perhaps too obliquely, whether the camp ought to be using the group pressures present in all such enterprises to put over its religious program. “That’s it exactly,” he replied enthusiastically. “What better place than a summer camp to teach Judaism to youngsters, since you can control their daily lives in every way?”
I seemed, moreover, to have failed completely in getting anyone to discuss whether the very success of the camp in developing facility in Hebrew and instilling an automatic observance of ritual, toward the end of a “fuller” Judaism, might not indicate an escapist attitude to the reality outside the camp that was taking a considerably different direction. No one would grant that the camp might be fostering a separation from the mainstream of American life, or for that matter, from the American Jewish community. “A full Jewish education will help a child lead a richer life anywhere,” was the theme of the replies I got. Another rabbi oratorically insisted that a Jew should know Isaiah as well as Confucius, and, when I assented, plunged forward for the kill: “But you’ll never really know Isaiah except in Hebrew and by also knowing ritual.”
I made several visits to a nearby Jewish summer hotel that had no connection with the camp. Its cottages bore such names as “The Tel Aviv” and “The Weitzman” (sic) , and its social hall displayed Israeli and American flags. No one there seemed to have any idea that Tisha b’Av eve coincided with Saturday night. A small orchestra was playing in the social hall. I met the mothers and fathers of several Ramah campers there.
“We can’t stay any longer at the camp itself,” one father explained. “The cots in the guest bunks are so hard and narrow, and there’s nothing to do there. We never miss a week end, though; sometimes our boy doesn’t even know we’re there. We just stay in the distance to catch a look at him.” The man and woman had escaped from Germany, where both their families had been entirely wiped out. This was their only child.
“You don’t know what this camp means to us, and to our boy,” the father said to me, as we stood at the bar. He had had a number of drinks before we began to talk, and he urged a double Scotch on me. “We used to send him to camps before, and we never felt safe. I would give the swimming counsellor a ten-dollar bill every week just to keep an eye on him, and still we worried. Now we have no worries at all. We know he’ll be taken care of completely.”
“It’s a pleasure,” his wife, a thin, pretty, alert woman broke in, “to see him at the morning services.”
“Yes,” the father said at once, “that’s something to see. He’s making a Jew out of me again. I stopped believing in anything after Hitler. What’s the use of it all, I thought. The whole family gone. But we had him Bar Mitzvah, and he got interested. He was very unhappy his first year here. But then he learned how to put on his tefillin, and to recite the prayers, and we glow all over when we watch him.”
A physician and his wife at this same hotel had two teen-age boys at the camp. “It’s amusing to watch the kids becoming tsaddiks,” he said to me. “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, even though my wife gets a little edgy when they start badgering her about blessing candles and being kosher. I tell them we’ll lead our lives our way, they can lead theirs their way. I am sure they’ll get over all this the way adolescents do.” Siegel had previously told me, with much satisfaction, about one boy who, when his parents asked him what he wanted most for his seventeenth birthday, replied, “A kosher home.” Siegel said the parents were overjoyed to comply. “Before he came to us,” he told me, “the boy was at loose ends in every way. Now he is doing well in college and wants to be a rabbi.”
Siegel estimated that about 20 per cent of the parents were rabbis or lay community leaders (of the dozen or so visiting rabbis at Ramah, about half had children at the camp; the others were combining a vacation with checking on offspring of congregation members); about 50 per cent were “positively” Jewish, ranging from strictly Orthodox to merely observant; the rest were indifferent. None of the indifferent parents, Siegel said, had ever to his knowledge objected when their children came home filled with “Jewishness.” An Orthodox father, a surgeon, who was initially dubious about Ramah was very happy at the end of one summer. “I never thought there was a place where my children could retain a strong Jewish identity and remain so essentially American. No beards, no Yiddish accents,” he said to Siegel.
The administration is not happy about backsliding campers. I met a boy in his late teens at the guest table. He had driven up to see some close friends he had made at the camp in the Poconos the year before. He himself had no interest at all in continuing the regimen. “My family didn’t encourage me and weren’t much impressed when I came home able to speak Hebrew at the dinner table and telling everybody about the customs and holidays,” he told me. “They had no objection especially; they just didn’t care. I didn’t come from a center where these things mattered much anyway, and one winter away from it, I began to feel silly about the whole business.” I mentioned this boy to Siegel. “We made a mistake,” he said a little darkly. “We can’t afford to invest our effort and time indiscriminately. That’s why we choose our applicants so carefully, to cut down on those who won’t go into our leadership program. I’m surprised we took someone that old who had such little promise in the first place.”
It was raining again on Monday morning, and before I left I joined Siegel on the porch. I apologized for asking any questions which might have disturbed or embarrassed anyone. “Quite all right,” he said crisply with his broad grin, “I hope we didn’t give any answers that were disturbing or embarrassing to you.” I told him that one could find the whole concept of the camp disturbing; in its attractiveness, in its air of certitude, it constituted a challenge to those whose idea of Jewishness might not be the same; to some it would seem, I thought, almost an affront, especially in the way it considered the question an utterly settled one.
“Well, it is settled, you know,” he said, “for us. There really is no other way to be a Jew, without religion, without Hebrew. It means nothing to be a Jew on the basis of heredity, or an interest in intellect alone. Of course, there is a generation lost to us, to whom such a conclusion is incomprehensible. There is almost nothing to do for them. That’s why we concentrate on our youth. An enlightened center knows the survival of Judaism in this country depends on its young people and that’s why it will concentrate its energies and finances on education of the young, on fully Jewish educational enterprises like Ramah. We hope that our alumni will go out and make Judaism the living, meaningful thing it is. You’ll notice that our kids are not fanatics; if anything, they take all this so much for granted they don’t quite know how to argue about basic things; for them these have long since become elementary. They’re polite, skeptical, intelligent, well adjusted in the American world, tolerant, and very well educated. They don’t think of themselves as missionaries, certainly, nor behave like them. And of course this is the way it should be to accomplish our ends.”
He hesitated and smiled. “Can you think of anything better?”