By Sarah Bunin Benor, co-director of the Hebrew in North American Jewish Summer Camps project
What is a Hebrew word doing in an American Netflix preview? Near the end of the official trailer for Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, this appears briefly on the screen: “וגם (featuring) David Wain.” Wain, the show’s co-creator, plays Yaron, the one Israeli counselor at Camp Firewood. The insertion of a foreign word – not decipherable to most prospective viewers – fits in with the absurd, “campy” nature of the film. But as a sociolinguist, I see a whole world of significance in that word and in the Hebrew used in the show.
The words in the trailer flash by so quickly that it would be easy to miss the Hebrew completely. For those who catch it, different viewers would have different responses. Some would see squiggles, rather than letters in a foreign language. Others would recognize the word as Hebrew but not understand it (וגם, v’gam, means “and also”). They might assume it is the Hebrew equivalent of “featuring,” the word in parentheses after it. For many American Jews who have spent time in Jewish summer camps, that one Hebrew word may remind them of the “camp Hebrew” of their childhood.
I recently completed my 4th summer of research about how Jewish sleepaway camps use Hebrew, along with my colleagues Sharon Avni and Jonathan Krasner, as a project of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, at Brandeis University. The fictional Camp Firewood is a good representation of some culturally Jewish camps (well, minus the absurd events), at which there is little or no religious observance and Hebrew use is limited to the occasional Israeli staff member. At camps that offer some Shabbat observance, Hebrew words are used primarily surrounding Jewish religious life. The Jewish camp in Maine that David Wain attended, Camp Modin (coincidentally, also attended by my 97-year-old grandmother), is such a camp (at least today). According to Modin’s website, they use words like Shabbat [Sabbath], challah [Sabbath bread], ruach [spirit], Tisha b’Av [summer mourning holiday], and tikkun olam [repairing the world]).
Many of the camps we visited for our research (Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Zionist, etc.) use English peppered with “Jewish life” words like these and also dozens of Hebrew words for locations, activities, and roles at camp. We heard many sentences like this: “After birkat hamazon [grace after meals], chanichim [campers] and madrichim [counselors] go to the teatron [theater] for peulat erev [evening activity].” The other camp that Wain attended, Camp Wise in Ohio, uses words like: boker tov [good morning], chofesh [free time], chadar ochel [dining hall], and divisions like Chalutzim [pioneers] and Ohalim [tents].
This kind of Camp Hebrew is not found at Camp Firewood. The dining hall is not labeled with a Hebrew sign, and the Friday night activity is a musical, not Kabbalat Shabbat [prayer service], shira [singing], and rikudei am [folk dancing]. Even so, there are several indicators that Camp Firewood is a Jewish camp, including multiple appearances of the shofar, the ram’s horn sounded in synagogues around the High Holidays, and the scene where a man at the wealthy, WASPy camp across the lake calls Firewood kids “a bunch of sunburnt Jews.” But Yaron’s language also gives Firewood a Jewish feel, not just an Israeli feel. After his initial “Haim at rotsa lirkod iti,” which he immediately translates as “do you want to dance with me,” most of the Hebrew words he uses are familiar to many Jewish audience members, including kibbutz [Israeli collective], kehillah [community], Shabbat, Shabbat shalom [Sabbath of peace], b’vakasha [please/you’re welcome], yofi [nice], and Rosh Hashanah [Jewish New Year]. These are not just common Israeli words, but they are also frequently heard within English conversations at American Jewish schools and synagogues (evidence: they all appear in the Jewish English Lexicon, my interactive dictionary of Hebrew and other words used by Jews within English).
The show creators didn’t have to incorporate so many Hebrew words into Yaron’s lines, just as camp directors around the country don’t have to use Hebrew words. Both decisions give camp (Ramah, Young Judaea, “Firewood,” etc.) a more Jewish feel. Yes, we use language to convey thoughts, but sometimes our choice to use a word in a foreign language also highlights our connection to that language. In the case of Jewish summer camps, the presence of Hebrew – in various forms and amounts – sends the message that Hebrew is an important Jewish language, connecting campers to each other, to Israelis, and to Jews around the world. That’s why it doesn’t matter that the Netflix trailer “translates” “וגם” as “featuring” (a decision by Netflix that adds another layer of humor for viewers in the know). Those three Hebrew letters invite prospective viewers into a Jewish-tinged cinematic experience and, for many, bring back memories of childhood summers by the agam [lake].