Monday, April 02, 2007

Letters From Camp – The Prequel

My parents sent me to Camp Ramah in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania for five summers in a row, starting when I was nine. I’m convinced they had no idea where they were sending me. We were conservative Jews from the Atlantic City area, and my parents’ idea of being observant meant lowering the blinds so the neighbors couldn’t see that we were watching television on the high holidays. The only thing my parents were certain of was that they thought Camp was a good idea. I don’t know what they considered in reaching that conclusion, but here’s what they didn’t know, and should have known before they sent me:

1. Ramah was a theological seminary run by Orthodox Jews so extreme in their religious beliefs that they probably belonged on a “watch list.”

2. English was optional. Hebrew was the spoken language.

3. Most of the counselors, teachers, and instructors were from Israel, and when they weren’t disciplining kids in the Poconos, they were hunting and killing terrorists in the Middle East. Sometimes they forgot who was who.

4. These Jews prayed after waking, for 45 minutes. They prayed before and after every meal, and not just “God is great God is good, let us thank him for our food,” I’m talking about, passing out phone book sized prayer books and turning to the chapter on sauce. They prayed before they took a dump. They prayed after they took a dump (I soon found out why). They made us attend Hebrew school five days a week from 10:00 AM until Noon and the whole damn thing was in Hebrew (everything was in Hebrew!) Saturday was spent in prayer the entire day! They prayed if a leaf fell off a tree, if they farted, if you thised if you thated, if you almost . . . . We prayed before we went to sleep. We prayed if we did something for the first time. We prayed after we did something for the first time. We had another prayer if it wasn’t the first time. We prayed if we wanted something. We prayed if we didn’t want something. And our heads were covered at all times unless we were showering or sleeping. It’s a wonder these people are able to procreate given the number of prayers they’d have to say, before, during, after, if it’s the first time, if they’re facing east, if it’s the first time on all fours, if he finishes first, if she finishes first, if she doesn’t finish . . .

5. Being Jewish to these people wasn’t like being Catholic to Catholics or Protestant to Protestants. In America, Catholics are Americans who happen to be Catholic and remember to do Catholic things at a minimum once or twice a week (and if you’re a good Catholic, every day). These Jews were Jews, like Arabs are Arabs. They were Jews first and above all else. In fact, they were Jews stuck in this God-forsaken country, which didn’t have their foods, their music, Jerusalem or enough other Jews just like them. They didn’t want to be here. They cried all the time because they weren’t in their beloved Israel.

6. These people kept kosher as if their lives depended on it. You had as much chance of getting a little tref (non-kosher food) into that camp as you did getting a gun onto an El Al flight. Care packages from home were torn apart and inspected for contraband. If there had been such a thing as a tref-sniffing dog, they’d have used them. Every ingredient listed on the packages of food was scrutinized for any signs of non-conformity. And if the inspectors weren’t sure, it went in the trash just to be safe. Your food was safe it had a little “K” with a circle around it on the package somewhere. That meant that some serious Jew somewhere gave it the nod. An “AU” was also ok, but I don’t know what the hell that meant. My mom didn’t know from kosher food purchased in a store, and most of the stuff she sent me went right into the trash. The looks on the faces of the inspectors could kill.

(The following was screamed at me in Hebrew every time a package arrived from mom.)

Ehud: Your mother sent you THIS!? [spitting sound PTEW!] Are you crazy?! You would even think to eat this garbage? What are you nuts?! Goddamn for your mother! She should be like dead dog on side of road for sending this to you!

Me: Ok then, I’ll just take the Mad-Libs and the underwear and I’ll see you at the next prayer session. When’s that start? In about five minutes?

7. Many kids who went to Ramah had to be “deprogrammed” after they came home. That’s right. The intensity of the religious experience and strictness of the Ramah culture was transformative. Many kids had difficulty adjusting back to life at home as they knew it, upon returning. The effect was as if you had been captured by a cult for two months and brainwashed. I’m not saying this was a particularly bad thing. In a lot of ways I found my life enriched and supplemented in ways sorely lacking at home. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t difficult for these kids when they got home – especially for the ones, like me, who experienced Camp Ramah as the opposite end of the spectrum of normal.

8. Where is it written in the torah that Jews are supposed to cook with tons of butter, cream and fat? The “enriched” diet I was exposed to landed me in the infirmary for the first week after my arrival. You have to remember. I had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the nervous stomach that went with it. So landing in this rich culinary environment nearly killed me. I did eventually get used to it.

So if you noticed the title to this piece, you’ll understand why I’m telling you all of this. This is the background information – the back story so to speak, that precedes the posting of my letters from camp. There’s some great stories in those old envelopes and they’re really right there at the beginning of my spiritual journey. And I think it’s time to go back and take a look at how I got to where I am.


Robin (Capitulation) said...

Very interesting, Dennis. Look forward to reading more. Religious zealots forcing their views on tender, open minds is cultish activity, if you ask me, no matter what religion (my experience just happened to be Protestant.) I like #4, though, all that praying...God, oh, oh God! :)

Dennis said...

Robin - Yup - I think my parents meant well, but they were so naive. Especially in matters of faith and spirituality. That camp sure screwed me up, I can say that much! I actually thought I wanted to be a Rabbi for a little while. Can you imagine? Me? I've since totally abandoned that faith. I love what I have now so much more. Thanks for reading!

Karen said...

Hi D - Mmm...looking forward to reading more.

Take Care

Brian said...


This is a heavy meal my friend. If I may be so bold, I thank God that my parents refused to push religion on their children. Or camp. What a nightmare.

This post gives me cold shivers. Makes you understand how easy it is to sway children's minds, not to mention souls.

Glad you are in a better place right now.

Dennis said...

Brian - there's all different ways to screw up kids. This is just one of many - In hindsight, I'm actually thankful for the experience because it helped me in as many ways as it hurt. I think I can almost say that about any experience - Life is a lesson.

poet with a day job said...

Dennis - I am looking forward to seeing the letters. This definitely sounds more like cult than camp, but I know a lot of people who went to different kinds of "camps" and ended up getting a lot more than their parents bargained for. Even the 4-H camps can do it sometimes. I think it all depends upon the camp director. It seems like camp is the perfect way to "get to children" if your aim is to brainwash: out of the normal environment, away from familiars, not in contact with's just ripe for it.

I never went to camp. The most I did was horsebackriding day camp, which was more like an extended horseback riding lesson than camp. So I was either lucky or unlucky, depending. I think if my parents ever sent me to camp I would've died of loneliness though, so I am glad. Since I grew up in the woods adn farms, I guess my parents figured I'd find enough to do in the summer. And we sure did: running among the cow pies to tease the bull and swimming in the brook were two top activities.

quick now: post the letters!

Rob Kistner said...


la vie en rose said...

very interesting dennis and i can't wait for more. a couple weekends ago i watched the documentary jesus camp. it's enough to make you cringe. i grew up in a very religious/conservative home but after watching jesus camp i could see that i was lucky....i had it easy...

Dennis said...

Michelle - The Jesus camp sounds familiar. What was so weird about camp Ramah, wasn't that the emphasis was so much on religion (though that was present) the emphasis had to do with being Jewish, and what it meant to be a Jew in the world today (or in the late 1970s then). It was more about what you should do or not do and no so much about what you should believe. I'm looking forward to posting more on this. I'm leaving for vacation Friday and will be back the 13th. I hope to post while I'm away, but it might be after I get back. Thanks for visiting!

Sue said...

Dennis, I also went to camp Ramah in the Poconos. While I am currently not now an observant Jew (I'm more of an agnostic), I am proud of my heritage. I don't know when you went to Ramah, but my experience was extremely different. Everyone spoke English; Hebrew was not foisted on anyone. Nobody I know had to be "deprogrammed". Yes, there was a lot of praying and we did have Hebrew classes for about an hour or so (which I often cut), the bulk of the camp consisted of swimming, sports, crafts, evening activities such as color war, etc.. In short, the usual camp activities. You make it sound like a nightmarish cult retreat with your incredible exaggerations. You come across as a self-hating Jew; perhaps you might want to explore that aspect of yourself, since you sound very circumspect.

Dennis said...

Sue - we had all of those things too, but my memories are not exaggerations. I'm glad you had a better experience. I was there in the early 70s.

Dennis said...

Sue - we had all of those things too, but my memories are not exaggerations. I'm glad you had a better experience. I was there in the early 70s.