To people who have never been, sleepaway camp is either a horror story or a cult. My dad took pleasure in describing his rural Pennsylvanian sleepaway camp where excessive time was spent playing sports, which my dad, never being very athletic, loathed. My mom and her siblings attended a different camp each year. But the sleepaway camp my cousins always spoke of was the one I remembered. I would hang onto their stories when they would come back, observing the light freckling of grime that covered their skin, the numerous friendship bracelets layered like rock sediment in a canyon, and their eagerness to return the next year.
The summer after kindergarten was the first time I would come into contact with the concept of ‘camp’. My mom, also new to the concept and late to sign me up, signed me up for a nature preservation day camp at the Audubon society. She dropped me off that first morning, a brand new bandana tied around my forehead, clutching my backpack, keen to see this magical place. But when she picked me up later that afternoon, my face had significantly drooped.
“I spent the whole day picking up trash,” I told her confused, “is that what my cousins were so excited about?”
As it turned out, my mom hadn’t realized that this particular week was dedicated to cleaning the beaches.
But my first experience with sleepaway camp occurred the summer going into fifth grade. Camp Tawonga: the same place my mom and her siblings went to camp, where my grandfather served as camp doctor, the place my cousins adored. Camp Tawonga is a Jewish sleepaway camp located in Yosemite.
It was the first time I had ever been in a place where the majority of kids were Jewish, aside from synagogue. We all had the same history. They knew all my Yiddishisms. We celebrated the same holidays. The emphasis was never on God, but on our shared traditions. Each Shabbat we were given two hours to prepare, and gussy up, then the song leaders led us in a parade around camp, collecting people from each cabin as they proceeded, leading up to our Shabbat dinner. Shabbat was sanctified at camp by breakfast being served an hour later a.k.a. we got to sleep in, and the possibility of sugary cereals. Judaism became something to savor, something to relish.
At Tawonga, I bunked with Israelis, Russians, a championship Chess player, and activists. One friend’s father, in China, heard about Tawonga online. They weren’t Jewish or American, but they sent her anyway. She arrived with bags of clothes from Target and a desire to learn English better. Alice was enveloped into our community as easily as anyone else.
Everyday, twice a day, we would have a raucous song session. Each time, you could find me on the dance floor with my best friend Claire. Both of us singing the songs, half in English, half in Hebrew, zealously, while dancing and/or swaying in a large circle. Were you really a Tawongan if you didn’t have the songs memorized by heart?
Getting gnarly is a classic Tawonga tradition. It teaches us to ditch the societal expectations of cleanliness in the only way possible: getting as dirty as possible. We start by dumping paint and glitter on each other with abandon, smearing paint onto our cheeks, then a belly-first mudslide, rolling in the sand of the Gaga pit, slipping through the sprinklers, jumping up on tables, dragging other people in with us, then a final jump into the lake filled with lily pads and frogs all the while screaming “Gnarly! Gnarly!” at the top of our lungs.
One year, our counselors scheduled this block called The Red Tent, drawing all twelve girls in the midst of puberty, to sit under a makeshift red blanket, propped up under a canopy of trees. The counselors started by telling us the story of the original Red Tent: how Jewish women would gather together when they were menstruating, long before the advent of feminine hygiene products. I had never discussed my period openly before, considering it a secret not brought up with company, but perhaps it was the shaded light, muted through the blanket, the purple pastel pillows we were sitting on, our tattooed and pierced counselors, and the circle of girls from different backgrounds, different families, but it occured to me that I had nothing to be ashamed of. My body was not taboo.
Another tradition only starts once you reach a certain age. It’s aptly called the Schvitz (Yiddish for sweat). One or two cabins gather after dinner in the woods by the river. We strip into bathing suits, clutching water bottles, as our counselors speak in hushed voices. They tell us of the history of the sweat lodge, how Native Americans in this area would gather in them, and how today, we would follow in their footsteps. Then, we would line up single file, and enter a cavity built into the Earth. Then sit in a circle, a fire topped with hot stones at our feet. To be in the Schvitz you have to accept the heavy heat as it slinks into your lungs; you have to accept the sweaty shoulders to your left and right, and, what was for me was the worst part, the unknown bugs crawling around you. We would sing and chant: mainly old spirituals about mother nature. Then exit the sweat lodge silently, again single file, our bare feet squishing against the dirt, sliding precariously down the root lined bank into the river. Small shrieks would sound at the arctic quality of the river, submerging ourselves up to our shoulders, all holding each other's hands tightly. When everyone was shivering in the river water, we would count to three, and dunk. Once. Twice. Three times. The cold water was always sweet upon my lips. After the last dunk, we would rise up triumphantly out of the water, and howl wildly at the moon peering down at us.
Two summers ago was to be my last year at camp. Most of my friends were a year older than me, and had already aged out. I felt vaguely disoriented to not have them with me, but Tawonga was my home away from home. And this year, my younger sister was coming with me.
But the fires came too. Summer fires raged across California that year. Unfortunately with global warming, this is an ever encroaching reality. Before departing that summer, we knew that a fire was raging in Yosemite, but we were assured that it was too far from camp. So, I began my last year as a camper.
The first day at camp, is mostly just walking around learning about different activities this session. I joined up with my sister again in the Olympic sized pool, but I struggled to make my way across the width of the pool, my breath shorter than usual, but I chalked it up to my lack of fitness.
Later after dinner, they gathered everyone in the two oldest units of camp. “We have some good news and some bad news,” Rebecca, our camp director, started, “First, you will all be coming back to camp, but the fire is much closer than we anticipated, and the fire marshal is recommending that we evacuate camp for a few days.” She fielded questions as campers quietly sobbed to my left and my right. My own throat felt tight. I had just settled in, the dirt hadn’t settled into my skin yet, what do you mean we were going home? This sounded like the worst possible scenario because I dreaded the winding bus ride to camp and the nausea that always accompanied. I only suffered through it because two and a half weeks at Tawonga was worth it.
That afternoon, we packed our duffels we had just finished unpacking. The mood of my cabin was somber. And that night, they held an all-camp campfire, singing all our favorite songs, giving us s’mores as if it could make up for the evacuation. We were leaving...it finally kicked in. It felt in many ways like a farewell, but the counselors were tight lipped about when we were going to come back.
Overnight, the smoke settled over camp. I woke up, eyes burning, the scent of smoke heavy in the air, and my head pounding. They sent us off to the Tawonga version of ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’: ‘Leaving on a Jetbus’. It was a peculiar type of deja vu. The old rituals that accompanied my home coming from camp were missing. Home didn’t feel as alien as it should have. I had no two weeks worth of stories to tell.
I hung out with people from camp as we tried to continue Tawonga in the Bay Area while still evacuated, but it wasn’t, it couldn’t be the same. Each day, we observed how the fire was shifting, the direction of the winds. I think we all became experts on the fires that summer. The question on everyone’s mind: would we go back?
It was a long week in purgatory, until we got the call.
No, we would not be going back to camp this year. Session IV was officially canceled for 2018. My last year ended in a wisp of smoke. The beginning of my school year was impaired. I didn’t get my Tawonga time, no vacation from technology, no submersion in Jewish culture, no oneness with nature. I didn’t get my recharge.
Although we, the eldest campers, were allowed to go the next summer to make up for the previous year, I didn’t want to go. I was angry.
Tawonga was supposed to be my sanctuary and my last year was stolen from right in front of me. I never said goodbye, wandered the grounds touching each tree, ironed nostalgia into each of our traditions, treated each ‘last’ with the preciousness and precociousness of the terminally ill. I never grieved for my home away from home. How dare they take that from me?
This past summer was the first time I had been on the other side. Mixing in with the parents, no longer a camper, I struggled to find purchase on this unfamiliar terrain. My younger sister would be going this year, without me: the exact same age I was when I went to Tawonga for the first time.
I don’t think I’ve ever envied my sister more.
I wanted to convey to her how special a place Tawonga was, but truly it wasn’t the place itself that mattered. It was never the place that mattered. Tawonga taught me how to love my body, how to be proud of being Jewish, how to open up to people, how to coexist with eleven other girls, and how to be myself in a place where nothing was expected of me. Tawonga told me that I should first be strong, intelligent, and kind, before being beautiful. Tawonga told me that sisterhood extends far farther than blood. That family is whom you make it to be. That everyone has a story, a fear, an obstacle to overcome. I didn’t need to go to Tawonga anymore, because Tawonga had taught me everything it needed to.
“Blooma,” I called after my sister as she boarded the bus for camp. The words piled up like stones in my throat, tears touching ground on my cheeks, “You’re going to have such a great time,” but she was already on her way to her seat.