Camp Is Great For Jewish Americans. We Russian Immigrants Got Bullied Mercilessly.
I watched Roman across the camp’s dining hall, surrounded by a group of jeering boys. He was the other “Russian” at camp, but we had never actually spoken, intuitively certain that any contact would intensify their taunts.
“Look at the two gross Russians. I bet they wanna make out, ew!” they’d probably say.
I imagine things were even worse for Roman than for me. The violent delights of the boys’ bunk included “purple nurples”—a practice of twisting someone’s nipples until they bruise, and giddy punches in the testicles. He was looking down in unresponsive defiance to the boys’ shouts and I knew how he felt.
Like me, he was stuck here by well-meaning but clueless parents for eight weeks without visitation at a Jewish overnight camp that felt more like a prison—I’ll call it “Camp Bagel,” so as not to tarnish institutional reputations by things that happened so long ago.
I attended Camp Bagel in the Midwest the summer of 1990. I was ten years old and not even a year into my life in the U.S. Given the Soviet premium placed on a summer spent outdoors, it makes sense that my mother and stepfather felt confident sending me to Camp Bagel sight unseen. We came to an orientation evening where we saw videos of kids swimming, sailing and playing soccer. It seemed like paradise! And the experience would be heavily subsidized by the generosity of other Jewish families.
I eagerly signed up for the full eight weeks. We never thought to ask how many other immigrants would be there, because it never occurred to us that it would matter. I was genuinely thrilled when I learned that some of my classmates from the Jewish private school would be in my bunk. Even though they never talked to me, I imagined that we would magically become close friends. How could we not? We would be living together, eating together, sleeping together. They would finally see me as more than a “smelly Russian”— the only name I responded to on the playground.
Oh, how wrong I was.
It wasn’t even my first time at an overnight camp. I was only five years old the first time I spent two weeks away from home. Memories of homesickness mingle with the smell and taste of the wild strawberries we gathered in the forest.
My other memory of Soviet overnight camp was a summer spent outside of Leningrad in 1986. I was sent there from Kiev to live with my grandfather after the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. I still remember feeling insulted when a boy at camp insisted that “Kiev was the same as Chernobyl.” It wasn’t the same, but it was close enough that even at age seven I knew people in Kiev brought their own Geiger counters to the markets and complained that all the produce exceeded the recommended radiation levels.
As any child of Russian-speaking parents will tell you, fresh air is a cultural obsession. This was especially true after the Chernobyl disaster. That summer I learned to feel indebtedness for the air I breathed. I was safe at summer camp while my family was back in Kiev, surrounded by radioactive dust. As long as I was breathing fresh air and eating uncontaminated food I had no right to complain about anything.
Aside from some war games, in which we got to try on gas masks, there was little structure to the camp near Leningrad. I signed up to be in the “Animal Lovers” cabin and we spent our time taking turns carrying around a rat named Larissa and a guinea pig whose name I don’t recall. Getting to hold these animals was the greatest honor and the greatest happiness.
“Can I have her?” a camper from the “Book Lovers” cabin would implore, jealously eyeing the rat. “You’re not an animal lover! Go carry around one of your books!” we responded with stern pride.
This experience did not prepare me for eight weeks at Camp Bagel.
Admittedly, there were already lots of things about me to make fun of. I had crooked home-cropped bangs. I was freakishly tall, nearly at my full height, but dressed in my mother’s Soviet 1970s clothes—shorts that were too short and tank tops that should have been worn with a training bra.
But it wasn’t just my looks that made the other girls dislike me. I was depressive and intense—a female Eeyore if Winnie the Pooh had been authored by Dostoevsky.
My schoolmates did not like me any more at summer camp than they did at school. My bunkmates decided early on that I was “a bitch” and deserved everything I got. To these emotionally fragile girls, away from home for the first time I represented everything they feared. My early development, made obscene by ill-fitting clothes, made me a curiosity, a special target.
Somewhere in America, there lives a middle-aged woman whose camp photo album holds an image of me grabbing my crotch, my fist held up in a pretend microphone, performing Madonna’s “Express Yourself” in a Russian accent at my bunkmates’ collective request.
Campers from other cabins, whom I didn’t even know, harassed me everywhere I went. They hated me, no doubt due to the intolerable thought that under different circumstances, they might have been suffering through the fate that was mine. So they told themselves that I deserved it and intensified their attacks to prove their rightness, to claim their righteousness. They hated me because they were weak.
My bunkmates mercilessly bullied me for my emotional volatility, but they, too, could have been characters in Girl, Interrupted the tween edition. Everyone was homesick and a bit raw.
There was Laura, a child of divorce who never smiled, started every sentence with “my Daddy” and threatened to beat me whenever I dared look at her. There was Shar, who declared on the first day of camp that she “would never leave the house looking like a zombie” and tearfully remained in the bunk if she was having a “bad hair day.” And then there was Lea.
Without Lea my summer might have been really unpleasant. Thanks to Lea, it was horrific.
We already knew each other from school. We spent a lot of time together, and I think she genuinely enjoyed my company, as she tormented me. No one dared cross her, but like me, she didn’t have any friends. I guess you could say that I became her bitch.
Possessed by a malicious spirit that demanded constant sacrifice, on the first day of camp, Lea picked on several girls. But soon, alliances formed, they were no longer easy prey. I quickly became her favorite victim.
She made a sport of finding new ways to make me cry. “Everybody hates you and everyone loves me,” she would hiss in my ear as we sat down for Shabbat prayer. Sometimes she would be nice to me and gain my confidence, only to humiliate me later. When I confessed that I liked a certain boy, she told him, prompting him to publicly declare that I was gross even though I had “big hooters.”
Her greatest achievement was waking up early, taking all of my meticulously labeled underwear out of my cubby, smearing them with mud and hanging them up in the trees all over camp. I watched from the cabin window in mute horror, as the camp director used a stick to spear a particularly soiled pair and quizzically inspected it.
This would have been funny if I had someone with whom to share the joke. And if I had more clean underwear. With the camp director’s help, I collected all the pairs, washed them all, and continued wearing them for the rest of the summer.
Despite my social difficulties, there were many things I enjoyed about Camp Bagel. I loved swimming, and the hikes we took. The adults couldn’t protect me, but they were kind.
My mother and stepdad didn’t visit me on Parents’ Weekend that summer. It was logistically difficult for them, and they didn’t understand why they should. I spent the day with the camp director, who made me lunch at his cabin and even gave me a box of Matt’s chocolate chip cookies—a popular name brand we never bought. I didn’t know the unspoken rule of bringing your own stash of junk food, so I treasured those soft, chewy cookies, and they are still my favorites.
It never occurred to me that I could leave camp early, or that I didn’t have to go the next summer. That sense of indebtedness to the salvation of summer camp has remained since my Soviet childhood. Even as I write this now a voice inside me seethes, “You ungrateful worm! They gave you fresh air! They fed you! So you were funny looking and said stupid things, so they teased you for it. Why are you being so sensitive, thirty years later no less?! Why didn’t you just stay quiet and enjoy the food, the shelter, the swimming? They tolerated you the best they could. What else do you want?”
But I wanted a lot. I wanted what they had.
In my mind, the pleasures of friendship, collective belonging, and the most tempting thing of all—boys—were only possible at a Jewish overnight camp. I was determined to go back.
When I got home from my eight-week Bagel incarceration, I was filled with determination to redo that summer. As a child, I didn’t consider class differences, xenophobia or institutional failure as factors in my unhappy alienation. It was all my fault and it was up to me to change.
I began listening to Tony Robbins’ Unlimited Power motivational tapes, bought by my chronically-under-employed-stepfather, perpetually in search of get-rich-quick-schemes. I even took notes. My stepfather and I each had our own visions of success: He wanted to be an overnight millionaire, and I wanted to come back from overnight camp with my underwear intact.
I made a plan. I would need to learn English perfectly, to use enough hairspray to get my bangs to stand up, to intonate with the right mixture of innocence and bitchiness.
And of course, I would need the essential sacred camp objects of the early ‘90s that signaled one’s belonging: plain GAP t-shirt, boxers worn as shorts with a pin to hold the crotch closed, Umbros, and white Keds. Even certain foods had social status: I would bring Pringles, Twizzlers, and Rolos, and I would share.
It turned out that I had over-prepared. I didn’t go back to Camp Bagel the next summer. Instead, my parents signed me up for a different camp – I’ll call it “Camp Knish”, which was less expensive and would only be four weeks.
Looking back, I realize that it wasn’t just my “makeover” that accounted for the stark difference between the two camps. Inclusion can’t happen when you only have one immigrant, one differently-abled child, one child of color. At Camp Knish there were two other “Russian” girls in my cabin, and several Russian immigrants in the boys’ cabin, including Roman, my male counterpart from Camp Bagel.
And so, that summer I made good friends, and not just with the other Russian-speaking girls. I experienced what it feels like to be part of a community. I was cast as a lead in the camp musical (The Jewish Princess Bride), and composed a crass rap about the boys’ cabin for the talent show.
There was one final test of belonging. Everyone knew that camping meant making out. Would I still be too gross to kiss?
It turned out that Camp Knish was a more egalitarian place in all respects. After several delirious rounds of spin the bottle and truth or dare, we sat around the campfire, resting our tongues. Roman and I had still barely spoken, but by the light of the fire we were transformed, no longer “the Russians.”
“So, you went to Camp Bagel, right?” I said cautiously. I didn’t want to spoil the collective mood of peaceful satisfaction.
“Yeah, I remember you. I like it much better here,” he replied, like it was no big deal.
“Totally,” I nodded.
“Wanna French?” Roman offered.
I moved toward him. The kids around us didn’t snicker or laugh as we performed the sacred rite of eleven-year-olds left to their own devices by counselors who were busy elsewhere. We were no longer freaks—just two kids, enjoying summer camp in the fresh air.
As I watch my kids growing up, nearly thirty-year-old memories of summer camp horrors float back to the surface. I wonder how their experiences might be different from mine. My kids attend public school in a suburb of Dayton, Ohio. They are in the minority because they are Jewish. As a Soviet immigrant in Chicago, I was a minority at my private Jewish school and then at Jewish camp because I wasn’t Jewish enough.
Will my kids be accepted at any Jewish overnight camp they attend? Or will they still feel like outsiders even with their perfect English and American mannerisms? On their websites and social media, both camps post old photos to court alumni. They evoke nostalgia, inviting parents to continue the tradition, to send their own children to relive their happy memories. Camps take pride in their legacies and I wonder to what degree institutional cultures endure. Are some Jewish spaces just better at inclusion? I cannot answer that question with intellectual certainty. When I see a picture of grown-up Lea under an article about her camp memories with a promise to send her own kids there, emotionally, I am ten years old again.
Childhood memories are too vivid, too formative not to color our judgment. Parents from my community in Dayton send their kids to both of the camps and both are warmly recommended. But I would not hesitate for a moment when making a choice between a “Bagel” or a “Knish.”
Masha Kisel is a lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Dayton