Last week, this article about summer camp in Tablet caught my eye. I’m sure it was intended as humour, but when the article showed up in my RSS feed, promising advice on surviving the return from camp, I half-expected a full-length article for young 20-somethings who have non-camp jobs for the first time. Instead, the article provided tongue-in-cheek strategies for parents to handle eerily realistic problems that their kids have brought home from camp: a persistent desire to play a dodge-ball variation called Gaga, the insistence that the entire family pray Birkat Hamazon after every meal, and moaning and groaning about missing camp friends.
This is my second camp-free summer. I didn’t quit cold turkey: after three summers on staff at one Jewish summer camp, preceded by four summers as a camper at another, I spent two final weeks in 2008 introducing 8-year-olds to their first taste of camp. After that, I succumbed to the pull of a biweekly paycheque and spent Summer 2009 working a desk job. This past summer I participated in the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute internship in Waltham, MA. I still miss swimming in the agam (lake), and speaking in the hybrid Hebrew-English slang that turns Hebrew words into poorly Anglicized short forms. I know my friends miss it, too – last week, one sent out a link to an archived This American Life episode all about camp. We talk about it often, with both nostalgia and criticism. We wonder whether camp will ever provide an atmosphere where campers will feel safe challenging the norm, and in the next breath we bemoan the smallest of changes to camp’s structure as threatening its very integrity (how dare they change the setup of the tables in the dining hall?!). Even our casual references to “camp” – it never needs any other descriptor or a proper noun name – signify our simultaneous familiarity and unease with the place, since our tones of reference change depending on context.