Summer camp: A non-idyll

Summer camp: A non-idyll

Why, I wondered, did our parents regularly send us to a YMCA summer camp when we were kids?

To get rid of us over the summer, of course. But, as I later learned, the camp was probably cheap. Probably much cheaper than the camp for Jewish kids across the lake, where we were occasionally rowed by a smiling and friendly Jewish counselor for services.

Across the lake, everyone seemed friendly.

Here, they weren’t — because my brother and I were the only Jews among the 100 or so boys at Camp Tamaqua.

These were the World War II years, and even in America Jews were treated as inferior. At camp, Roger and I were ostracized. Well, not quite. Kids had to first find out that we were Jewish, then avoid us.

We would meet new kids, become friendly. Then they would learn that we were Jewish: end of friendliness. There was no talk of our killing Jesus, no nasty words about Jews — just the sense that Roger and I were inferior.

At school in West New York, we sang Christmas carols. We were expected to. Other Jewish kids sometimes told me that they didn’t sing them. I boasted to them that when I sang one particular carol I quietly spelled out the word "h-e-l-l" for "Born is the king of Israel."

On the block where Roger and I lived, we were also in the minority, though rarely were we victims of anti-Semitism. Once, a neighbor named Mr. Gerish angrily told his son to never play with us Jewish kids, and little Ronald Gerish told everyone about it. An Irish-Catholic parent, Mr. Markey, a police detective, then told everyone that what Mr. Gerish had said was wrong.

My parents came to camp for a visit and chatted with a set of other parents; the children of the other parents seemed friendly when all of us were together. When the parents went home, the children went back to avoiding us.

We weren’t completely ignored. Roger and I were occasionally called up to sing together — a song about Dunderbeck and his sausage-meat machine. We were so pleased to be treated as normal, as part of the group. But most of the time, despite these occasional respites, we were personae non gratae.

This enmity manifested most clearly on Friday nights. At Friday night fights. Kids repeatedly challenged me to fights. I referred them to Roger, who was two years older. Roger liked to box. He was proud of his "combinations." And he was strong. And he beat the hell out of all challengers.

It helps to have a tough older brother.

It also helps to be in the majority, not in the minority. A study some years ago found that teenagers who grew up in a community where their ethnicity was dominant had the highest self-esteem.

Among the many mistakes my parents made in raising Roger and me was not sending us to that Jewish camp, despite its higher cost.

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