Friday, June 2, 2006

Jewish Week: Letters from Camp

Letters From Camp

In just a few weeks, one of the most important annual rituals of the Jewish calendar will take place: an entire generation will be shipped off to summer camp. In a flash, they’ll all be gone, banished to a world of enormous mosquitoes, clammy bunk beds and off-key renditions of Kumbaya.

Why do Jews, especially, shell out thousands of dollars to subject our kids to this?

I was rummaging through some old stuff recently and came across postcards I sent home from my first summer at overnight camp, when I was 10. It made me appreciate just how well-adjusted my own children are.

“Dear Folks,

I went to the infirmary today. I didn’t feel good. I’m taking pills and I can’t go swimming. Everyone is reading my comics. Not only does my throat hurt, but I’m getting dizzy spells. Please send safety pins. Love, Josh.”

“Dear Folks,

I’m still coughing a lot. I’m homesick. I’m crying a lot. I don’t feel good. I don’t sleep so good. I’m not eating good. I’m taking pills. I wish you could send a bagel. I’m learning to speak fast Hebrew. Love, Josh.”

“Dear Folks,

I REALLY am sad now. I need more food because I haven’t had anything to eat. My swimming teacher is making me jump into the water but I don’t want to. I’m scared of putting my clothes into the laundry because I’ll lose them and they’ll come back different colors. Send ear plugs.”

What’s funny is that I actually loved camp—even that first year—because I discovered there what children have been discovering about summer camp for decades, and what Jews have known for millennia: When you leave home, you can reinvent yourself. As Eric Simonoff writes in his recent book about the American summer camp experience, “Sleepaway,” camp was the place, “where I knew I wouldn’t be that weird, bookish kid who always had his hand up in class—where, instead, I would be the popular kid, the lifelong camper who knew all the counselors, all the camp songs.”

Ever since the Garden of Eden, abrupt displacement has been a prerequisite for growth. Dorothy, Toto, Ulysses and the Psalmist would agree.

Thousands of years ago, the Jewish exiles from Jerusalem sat by the rivers of Babylon and wept for the home that was no more. They wrote a letter from camp that came to be better known as Psalm 137. Ancient Babylon, with its hanging gardens and spectacular ziggurats, was a metropolitan marvel.

But for the Jews, brought there after the destruction of the first temple in 586 BCE, this was their first Exile. King Nebuchadnezzar’s Army Corps of Engineers had constructed a massive network of canals and aqueducts feeding from the Euphrates. These were the “Rivers of Babylon,” where the Jews sat and wept for Zion. This system of canals, ironically, proved the city’s undoing when the army of the Persian King Cyrus was able to conquer Babylon 50 years later by wading through the waist-deep waters of the drained rivers.

The Psalmist probably knew that when Psalm 137 was written; for this Psalm takes the Jews on a journey from Exile to restoration, from powerlessness to the promise of return. It begins by those rivers, where the tormentors forced the Jews to sing songs of their home; but singing those songs was just what they needed. For in doing so, they learned how to sing the songs of God on alien soil. They set up entirely new institutions so that they would not forget Jerusalem; they called them synagogues. They set up Hebrew schools. They wrote down from memory all the stories and laws that had sustained them back home, all those things they took for granted all those centuries. They painted verbal pictures of what life was like back there in Jerusalem, so their children would not forget.

They collected all these stories and laws into a single scroll, which they called the Torah. And these people came to be known by an entirely new name. They were called Jews.

All this happened by the rivers of Babylon. In the face of utter homelessness, they faced Jerusalem and held it up above their greatest joy. Disregarding their sorry lot and defying their tormentors, they forged a new destiny. Psalm 137 marks the moment when the home team learned how to win on the road.

It is a triumph we have repeated time and time again, and through the experience of homelessness, Judaism has become a stronger and more dynamic faith. The Torah was a product of exile, so was the Babylonian Talmud and later, the Kabbalah. It’s been like this from the very start, from Abraham and Sarah, who were known as Ivri’im, Hebrews, from the word meaning “to cross over.” They crossed over those same rivers, leaving behind the very Mesopotamian soil where their descendants would later weep, choosing homelessness in order to found a new faith.

When Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua bemoaned the uselessness of the Diaspora in an American Jewish Committee forum last month, creating a major stir, he was forgetting the centrality of portability and displacement to the Jewish psyche. The Torah, whether given at Mount Sinai or redacted in Babylonia, did not originate back in Zion. It originated, rather, out of the yearning for Home. The Torah, essentially, is God’s letter from camp.

We send our kids in droves to Jewish camps where they’ll weep by bodies of water with names like Gitchee Gumee, but in essence, they’ll be sitting by the Euphrates, reenacting Psalm 137. And even when they sing Kumbaya, they’ll be able to intuit the Hebrew translation of that title, “Arise, God, and come forth.”

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