Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Chaim Potok Goes to Camp...Betar

Chaim Potok writes about going to summer camp.

It arrives, finally-summertime! Gone forever-so it seems as we joyously enter summer's wonderland-are the cruel winds of winter. An enchanted realm stretches before us: a landscape washed in golden sunlight; a languor of long lazy afternoons; flocks of birds and clouds of butterflies; nights cool and fragrant; mornings miraculous with dew. And a sudden dazzling explosion of color: from the dull browns and grays of winter to the exhilarating kaleidoscopes of flowering fields and dense woods and grassy meadows and piney hills and a vast visible cerulean sky.

Summertime. And summer camp

During the first two decades of my life, the thirties and forties, poliomyelitis was a frightful scourge made all the more horrifying in that most of the afflicted were children. Summertime the disease would run rampant through urban populations, striking randomly, at times paralyzing the legs and the respiratory system of its victims. Parents sought desperately to send their sons and daughters out of cities--to summer camp.

I grew up in New York, where the fear of that illness was so overwhelming that my father, a deeply religious man brought to ruin by the Great Depression, would send me to non-kosher Jewish overnight camps sponsored by local community centers, the only free camps available to us. Breathe the fresh air, he would say. Have a good time. He did not say what I read on his face and in his eyes: I am sending you Out of the city so you will be far away from this sickness that is crippling children....And so, as I grew up, chief among the uses of summer camp was the saving of young lives.

...We fled the city to save our lives and breathe fresh air and have fun; we did not know we were being educated. Summer then had its own special uses, and it played them upon us like a wind through the strings of a harp.

* * *

Let it be noted that mine was a religious Zionist family deep in the ranks of the rightwing Revisionist party, zealous followers of Zetev Jabotinsky. The youth movement of the Revisionist party was, and still is, known as Betar, named after the last Jewish stronghold to fall to the Romans in the 67-70 C.E. revolt. Because the Second World War depleted the pool of people available for camping staffs, my new summer home, as a novice fifteen-year old junior counselor, became Camp Betar

There I quickly discovered some rather unusual uses of summer.

Sports, swimming, boating, campfires, cookouts-all the normal uses of summer were to be found in that camp. But for staff and older campers there were other activities as well: military drill, rifle practice, ideological discussions. How those Revisionist ideologues loathed the centrist and left-wing Socialist Zionists! The place was an odd mix of fun and ferocity, relaxation and tension, democracy and fanaticism.

I learned too that summer about the ravages of forest fires when I joined a crow to engage a mountain fire rampaging too near the camp and was suddenly beneath a ceiling of flames leaping across the crowns of trees and rushing downward to form a surrounding wall of burning wood and air which abruptly parted and let us plunge through to safety. I became from then on rather respectful of fire: another use of summer.

Nights free after the campers were put to bed; hanging out with truck drivers and townspeople in the diner on the highway outside the camp; girl friends; hitch hiking on days off. There seemed more civility then; hitch-hiking was an acceptable way of getting around. I discovered the lure of the road that wartime summer, an indispensable beguilement to a future writer.

Three summers later, a senior counselor now in Camp Betar, I hitch-hiked to Hyde Park and stood reverently before the grave of Franklin D. Roosevelt, in silent homage to the man who had been a sort of deity to those of us who grew up in the terrible years of the Great Depression and the Second World War. What we know now about Roosevelt we didn't know then. Perhaps it was better that we didn't know it: we needed faith in powerful gods to steer us through those awful times.

Weary of overheated and melodramatic right-wing ideology, I moved on to a privately owned camp in the Catskill Mountains of New York State, where the ideology was: Fun, Frolic, and Frivolity...

...Gone is the terrible need to flee from the horrors of polio epidemics-that first use of summer in my life. Drs. Sabin and Salk saw to that. Now we have fears of a different sort. Ponder the serious summer talk presently taking place in Jewish camps: intermarriage; assimilation; the general shallowness of Jewish knowledge among Jews; the probability of the vanishing of American Jewry as a uniquely creative culture participating openly in contemporary American life-and what we must do to counteract that troubling vision of the future.

The season of long days of sunlight and warmth offers us so much. Rest of all it offers us a worthy use of summer.

Thanks to Chuck Waxman and Ellen Llinas.

P.S.  If he spent three summers at Camp Betar, then two years at a private camp and he came to Camp Ramah Poconos in its second year, and it opened in 1950, he was at Camp Betar 1945-1947.


1 comment:

Batya said...

This post is included in Shiloh Musings: Keeping Cool Blog Carnival, Summer 5779, 2019. Take a look. What do you think?