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?

Judah Cohen, a professor of musicology at Indiana University Bloomington, made a key point I had not heard before. Mostly what we remember as “camp songs” were not composed at camp or for camp, but were composed outside of camp for another primary audience.  Camp normativizes this music, which then allows for its greater dissemination. I think Judah means that when these songs are taught many times at camp, the music takes on a shape that can be sung by most camp people. Then those camp people take that music home to their local communities where it is heard and sung by many more audiences until becoming part of what we might call “the Jewish song book.”

Joshua Jacobson, an emeritus professor of music at Northeastern University, shared his memories of the Israeli music that he and his peers sang at Camp Yavneh in the early 1960’s. He called these songs “the cannon of the Yishuv” and emphasized that by singing them over and over, the Yavneh crowd “became these songs” and took on “an invented national identity.” He suggested that although most of the Yavneh crowd had yet to travel to Israel, they were able through repeatedly singing this music to imagine themselves as part of the Yishuv. The music felt “cool, joyous, youthful” and this imaginative identification with the Yishuv functioned as a youthful rebellion against the comfortable, suburban life of their parents. They had only traveled to this camp in New Hampshire, but in their hearts they were transported to whole other plane of existence. Such is the imaginative power of music learned at camp.

Asya Vaisman Schulman,  director of the National Yiddish Book Center’s Yiddish Language Institute, brought us into much less familiar terrain, Hasidic girls’ camps. These are single-sex camps run by Hasidic communities for girls and women. In this all-female environment, the women and girls can do something they are not allowed to do in their homes and shuls: sing in public.  They are also allowed to compose songs, though on what we would consider a narrow range of topics. Nevertheless, when Anya played a sample of these Yiddish songs, my heart melted. It was poignant and full of aspiration for the lives of these young Hassidic women. This was a piece of Jewish camp music that I had never imagined or heard.

All this singing happens at Jewish camp, and with that, all the longing and imagining that goes with that singing. How rich and marvelous to learn that at a research conference.

Joseph Reimer is an associate professor of education and Jewish professional leadership at Brandeis University.