Thursday, February 18, 2010

Brainwashed at a Young Age

My parents shipped me (and my older brother and sister) off to eight weeks of sleepaway summer camp just four months passed my seventh birthday.

I just found out it was all part of a wide ranging plot by Jewish parents and the directors of Camp Massad to turn unsuspecting children into raging Zionists.

To be sure, anyone with half a brain (your faithful correspondent included, despite what you may personally believe) could figure out we were being indoctrinated into a society 5,700 miles away as we sat under the summer skies singing Israeli songs and speaking Hebrew even as we played softball, soccer, punchball and dodgeball.

The tail end of the winter normally would not be a time to reminisce about summer camp, but by a serendipitous turn of events (I told you a few days ago that I believed in serendipity), I found myself in Los Angeles this week just when the University of Southern California’s Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life was sponsoring a lecture by professor Dan Lanier-Vos. His topic: “Making a Mini-Israel in the Poconos: Constructing National Identity Among Strangers in a Jewish-American Summer Camp.”

I won’t burden you with details of his 45-minute talk Wednesday evening. The main thrust was that during Massad’s 40 years, from 1941 to 1981, the 20,000 or so campers who summered in Massad Aleph and Bet lived a simulated Israeli experience and developed a shared relationship, even a mutual identity, with the residents of the Israeli state.

It was a subtle brainwashing. My siblings and I went to Massad for five years beginning in 1956. We would not admit to brainwashing. Speaking Hebrew was the main differentiator between Massad and other camps (Dellwood, Columbia, HiLi, Kfar Masada) we subsequently attended. Hebrew speaking, while a burden, helped us during the academic year at our Jewish day schools.

Nor could I ascribe our parents’ decision to Zionistic motives, though they were supporters of Israel. They chose Massad because several of their friends sent their children to the camp. Our parents were enthusiastic about being empty nesters for July and August, but as they told us of their plans one day as we were riding in the back seat of our 1955 Buick, we shrieked disapproval. No way were we going to leave them for eight weeks. No way we were going to a camp where we had to speak Hebrew all the time. Aside from threatening to pull over and stop the car if we didn’t start behaving immediately, our parents just let us stew.

It is approaching 54 years since I got on the bus in Manhattan, scrawny and scared, knowing no one but my sister and brother and not being sure I would see them all too often at camp. They, after all, had boarded different buses with their respective bunkmates. I remember sitting far back, on the right hand side of the bus, fighting nausea during the two-hour ride to Tannersville, Pa., to the base of Mount Pocono where the camp lay.

From 1956 through 1971, I spent each summer (except for 1966 when I went to Israel, Italy and France) as either a camper or counselor. Those collective 30 months contributed most of the memorable moments of my formative years. I learned how to play different sports (though never learned to swim). I learned how to be competitive but always show good sportsmanship. I learned leadership skills. I learned how to be independent. I learned about young love. And yes, I probably learned to care more about Israel and Zionism.