Bunk Raids, First Kisses, Color Wars: A Book of Memories

By Marissa Brostoff

Published May 22, 2008, issue of May 30, 2008.
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Did you hear about the kids at Camp Tel Yehudah in upstate New York who wrote and performed a stage version of Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir “Dawn” — set to the music of Billy Joel?

How about the ones at Camp Ramah in the Poconos, who teamed up for basketball every Tisha b’Av — kids who were fasting vs. kids who weren’t? (The fasting kids always won.)

Such gems are the stuff of “Camp Camp” (Random House), a collection of summer camp ephemera edited by Roger Bennett and Jules Shell. The duo’s 2005 collaboration, the similarly conceived “Bar Mitzvah Disco,” attracted enough of a following among American Jews who came of age during the heyday of big dance parties and bigger hair that when Bennett and Shell announced their next project, some 80,000 photographs arrived in their mailboxes.

It turns out that 13-year-olds take amazing pictures of everything from their tennis coach crushes to the dirty dishes in the dining hall.

“The sheer number of individuals who are behind their desks as lawyers or accountants, still waiting for the color war canon to go off at a second’s notice, is incredible,” Bennett said, referring to one of the many cultish camp pastimes that appear throughout the book.

One striking feature of “Camp Camp” is that while it is not marketed explicitly as a book about Jewish adolescence, about a third of the 120 camps featured are Jewish, and, according to Bennett, many others attract a disproportionately high number of Jewish campers.

“Someone told us that only the two summer months were in color and the rest of Jewish life was lived in black and white,” Bennett said.

Others represented in the coffee table ethnography perceived their Jewishness as something that hounded them — in the form of dorkiness or lack of athleticism — during the school year, but could be easily assimilated at camp.

“At school, playing dodgeball, my strategy was to let myself get hit as quickly as possible. But at camp I found moves,” contributor Jenny Weiner writes of her time at Camp Emerson in Massachusetts. “I heard people shout, ‘Watch out for Weiner.’ They feared me.”

Bennett and Shell do not shy away from including recollections of the less heartwarming aspects of camp. One of the most memorable essays in the book is a “letter” from author A.J. Jacobs, seeking forgiveness from the most picked-on kid at Southwestern Virginia’s Camp Powhatan in the summer of 1981. After relating a long list of tortures he and the other kids in Bunk 12 inflicted upon poor Scott Blonkin, Jacobs concludes: “Does it make you feel better to know that I refuse to send my sons to an all-boys camp, because I now know that the level of cruelty at all-boys camps is about equal to Abu Ghraib? Probably not.”

For Bennett, the interplay between “Fantasy Island” and “Lord of the Flies,” as the authors put it in their subtitle, is what makes summer camp so fascinating.

“The bar mitzvah was the perfect storm of adolescence where you’re surrounded by family and friends. Camp is the next step,” Bennett said. “It’s this unbelievable world where adults are out of the equation.”

Marissa Brostoff is the editorial assistant of the Forward.

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