by Jonathan B. Krasner
Long before Ben Platt was a Broadway sensation in Dear Evan Hansen, he was wowing audiences in Hebrew language productions at Camp Ramah California. Platt recalled playing Sky Masterson in a Hebrew language production of Guys & Dolls and even sang a few lines of “Luck be a Lady Tonight” (“Hey lady, tni li mazal”) in a November 2016 episode of Late Night with Seth Myers. Ramah was a formative experience for Platt, who credits it with keeping him engaged with Judaism. His memories of the Hebrew show tunes he performed help keep the connection solid all these years later.
One of the takeaways of Hebrew Infusion: Language and Community at American Jewish Summer Camps, the recently-published book that I coauthored with Sarah Bunin Benor and Sharon Avni, is the critical role that music plays in creating a Hebrew atmosphere at many Jewish summer camps. Often, multiple Hebrew music genres comprise a camp’s soundscape, with one form or another coming to the fore, depending on the context.
Hebrew singing has been heard in some form at Jewish summer camps since their inception at the turn of the twentieth century. Many of the early camps, particularly the philanthropically-funded “fresh air camps,” were charged with Americanizing the children of immigrants, while other privately operated camps attracted a middle-class and wealthy clientele.
by Sarah Bunin Benor
Second in a series
courtesy URJ Jacobs camp
This week in a non-pandemic year, I would be driving up to the mountains to visit my middle daughter at Habonim Dror Camp Gilboa, dropping off my oldest at the bus for Ramah in California, and hugging my youngest as she goes through airport security to fly to Ramah in the Rockies. What I find myself missing most this year is not the clean, quiet house (although that is never far from my mind), but scouring for Hebrew words in the parent blog posts and photos from my children’s camps.
For the past eight years, my colleagues Jonathan Krasner and Sharon Avni and I have studied how Jewish summer camps use Hebrew. Our book Hebrew Infusion presents historical and contemporary analysis of what we found through camp visits, interviews, surveys, archival research, and outward-facing materials like websites and parent updates. Camp leaders infuse Hebrew words, signs, songs, and fun activities into the camp experience to create a rich local tradition and foster campers’ connections to Hebrew, Israel, Judaism, and the Jewish people.
We found sentences laced with Hebrew words – mostly nouns – in dozens of camps. At Solomon Schechter, an independent camp near Seattle, we heard, “Madrichim, madrichot [male and female counselors], you can pick up dessert for your tzrif [bunk].” At Hilltop, a Reform camp in California, a staff member announced, “We’re going to the teatron [theater] for Shabbat shiur [lesson].” We call this register “Camp Hebraized English.”
by Sharon Avni
First in a series about the new book Hebrew Infusion: Language and Community at American Jewish Summer Camps, the product of the Mandel Center’s Hebrew at Camp project.
Courtesy Ramah Day Camp in Nyack
For all of the six years that Sarah Benor, Jonathan Krasner, and I spent researching and writing about the use of written and spoken varieties of Hebrew at American Jewish overnight camps, we never imagined that as our book Hebrew Infusion: Language and Community at American Jewish Summer Camps was coming off the printing press we would be facing a situation in which most of these camps were making the painful decision to close for the summer of 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though we had some inkling around Passover that camp leadership was grappling with the implications of the virus’s severity, there was still a glimmer of hope that if anyone could figure out a creative way to keep camps open and safe, it would be Jewish overnight camp directors, who seem to have superpowers that enable them to do what often seems like the impossible: keep hundreds of campers and staff members engaged, entertained, well fed, and happy, while dealing with the logistics of staffing, grounds keeping, and security issues. But the joy of finally receiving copies of the book was tempered by the reality that camping was not going to happen this summer. As a camp alumna and a parent of two children who have attended Young Judaea camps for years, I, along with my family, was devastated by the news we received in May. The annual ritual of pulling out the enormous duffle bags from the basement closet, beginning to label clothing and packing up their belongings was quickly replaced with feelings of sadness and disbelief.
One of the central findings of our book is that Jewish overnight camps have a “secret sauce”—and that Hebrew is one of the key ingredients in creating each camp’s distinctive Jewish flavor. Continue reading
By Joseph Reimer
As I look back at last month’s The Power of Jewish Camps, a research conference at Brandeis’s Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education that Jonathan Krasner and I planned, I am pleased with how many of the sessions went. The session that made the deepest impression, however, is “Jewish Music at Camp and Beyond.” Let me share its significance.
Virtually anyone who has spent a summer at a residential Jewish camp could tell you what a significant role Jewish music, and particularly, communal singing, plays in the life of the camp. Camp alumni report remembering fondly the way the whole camp came together to sing on Shabbat and how they still remember the songs they once learned for a camp play or song festival. The music lives on when other details fade.
So how can we more systematically understand the role that Jewish music plays at these camps?
By Sandra Fox
Kiva Rabinsky, Seth Winberg, Sharon Feiman-Nemser and Joseph Reimer at the conference
At last month’s conference on Jewish summer camping, at Brandeis’s Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, I hoped my participation would place a friendly parenthetical question mark at the end of the conference title. This hope grew out my research, which questions the assumptions Jewish leaders and educators hold about camp’s power, and highlights the perspective of the youth they seek to mold. However, I ultimately found it refreshing to talk about camp with fellow scholars and practitioners–people who, like the historical figures I write about, participate in and shape the lived experience of Jewish camping today. Continue reading