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You thought you learned Hebrew at Jewish summer camp? Think again

New book by multidisciplinary team examines the historical shift from Hebrew immersion to ‘Hebrew infusion’ as camps aim to strengthen American Jewish identity in 21st century

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

  • Campers at Camp Young Judaea Texas hold a Hebrew sign that translates as 'We love you.' (Courtesy of authors)
    Campers at Camp Young Judaea Texas hold a Hebrew sign that translates as 'We love you.' (Courtesy of authors)
  • Massad campers and staff consult a placard with Hebrew waterfront vocabulary. (Courtesy of Camp Massad Alumni Association and Elena Neuman Lefkowitz)
    Massad campers and staff consult a placard with Hebrew waterfront vocabulary. (Courtesy of Camp Massad Alumni Association and Elena Neuman Lefkowitz)
  • Hebrew was the public language of Camp Ramah in the 1950s, with many words borrowed from the Massad lexicon, including the term 'Chanutiya' (canteen) above the take-out window in this image. Note that the menu item are described with drawings rather than translated into English. (National Ramah Commission)
    Hebrew was the public language of Camp Ramah in the 1950s, with many words borrowed from the Massad lexicon, including the term 'Chanutiya' (canteen) above the take-out window in this image. Note that the menu item are described with drawings rather than translated into English. (National Ramah Commission)
  • Vocabulary terms were routinely posted at Camp Massad for activities like baseball and swimming. (Courtesy of Camp Massad Alumni Association and Elena Neuman Lefkowitz)
    Vocabulary terms were routinely posted at Camp Massad for activities like baseball and swimming. (Courtesy of Camp Massad Alumni Association and Elena Neuman Lefkowitz)
  • Campers have a snack at 'Ke'arat Peirot' (Fruit Bowl) at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. (Courtesy of authors)
    Campers have a snack at 'Ke'arat Peirot' (Fruit Bowl) at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. (Courtesy of authors)

Kids in the Diaspora missed many things by not being able to attend Jewish sleep away camps this summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s been a rough couple of months not eating in the chadar ochel (dining hall), doing rikud (dance) and swimming in the breicha (pool). And of course, they missed polishing up their Hebrew.

However, a fascinating new book by a historian and two sociolinguists explodes the notion that campers and staff speak Hebrew at American Jewish camps. Instead, they become conversant in what Jonathan Krasner, Sarah Bunin Benor and Sharon Avni have coined “camp Hebraized English” (CHE), which is actually a rich register of Jewish American English. CHE  includes both Jewish life words (such as Shabbat Shalom) and camp words (such as chadar ochel) — but it is not Hebrew.

To illustrate their point from the outset, the authors begin “Hebrew Infusion: Language and Community at American Jewish Summer Camps” by quoting a humorous bit performed by American-Israeli comedian and educator Benji Lovitt, who attended Young Judaea camps for many years. Lovitt, who made aliyah to Israel from Texas 14 years ago, jokes that the Hebrew he learned at Jewish summer camp consisted solely of nouns and set phrases, and as a result he couldn’t even string together a sentence.

Lovitt, who improved his Hebrew fluency by studying at an ulpan (intensive language course) after settling in Tel Aviv, told The Times of Israel that the bit was not meant as a rant against Jewish summer camp.

“I loved camp, and the people who laugh at the joke also do. The inconsistencies between what we thought we knew [of Hebrew] and what we really knew stand out, and this is what makes the subject ripe for jokes. Things that are true are funny,” Lovitt explained.

According to Lovitt, 45, his love for Israel and Israelis goes hand in hand with his exposure to Hebrew over many camp summers. He did not come away with fluent, sophisticated Hebrew, but he did develop a strong Jewish and Zionist identity.

Jonathan Krasner (Heratch Ekmekjian/ Brandeis University)

This precisely is the point made by the authors of “Hebrew Infusion.” Aside from a small number of hardcore Hebrew-language Zionist camps that operated in early- to mid-20th century, such as Camp Massad, established in 1941 in the Pocono Mountains, the vast majority of Jewish camps never intended to teach their campers to speak, read or write fluent Hebrew. In some cases, this was an ideological choice. In others, it was due to cultural, political, and economic exigencies.

From the mid-20th century onward, fewer and fewer Jewish American leaders — let alone lay people — were fluent Hebrew speakers, and camps  reflected this reality. In order to attract staff and campers and keep their doors open, camps couldn’t restrict admissions to only those with strong Hebrew backgrounds.

Over time, almost all attempts at Hebrew immersion were replaced what Benor, Avni and Krasner term “Hebrew infusion.”

Vocabulary terms were routinely posted at Camp Massad for activities like baseball and swimming. (Courtesy of Camp Massad Alumni Association and Elena Neuman Lefkowitz)

“We were trying to think of the right metaphor to convey how Hebrew is used. We thought about chocolate chips in a cookie, where you recognize the distinctiveness of the Hebrew words just as you taste each chocolate chip in the cookie,” explained Krasner, the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Associate Professor of Jewish Education Research at Brandeis University.

“But we ended up settling on the infusion metaphor. It’s like the citrus you squeeze into your drink. The flavor becomes completely infused, just as the CHE used at camp is second nature,” he said.

Sarah Bunin Benor (Bill Aron)

The scholarly yet accessible book emerged from initial research Benor, a professor of contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, did at Camp Ramah in California in the summer 2012. She was planning to do a smaller project, but when she observed conflicting ideologies about Hebrew at the camp, she realized that a bigger investigation opportunity was at hand.

In 2013, Krasner and Avni, a professor of academic literacy and linguistics at BMCC at the City University of New York, came on board. Over the next three summers, the trio spent 78 days visiting 36 camps in the US and Canada, representing diversity in religiosity, movement, size, and geography.

Rather than starting with a theory to prove, the authors let themes and ideas bubble up from their observations. Krasner, 53, took the lead on the historical section of the book, which largely focuses on the reasons behind the demise of Hebrew immersive Camp Massad (in Canada, two Hebrew-rich Massad camps are still in operation; they have no formal connection with the American original) and subsequent dominance of Camp Ramah, which skillfully champions Hebrew infusion.

Notably, while Massad in the Poconos eventually closed in 1981, its legacy lives on in part thanks to staff members who moved over to Ramah and other camps, and shared their knowledge and best practices from Massad. (How many of today’s campers know that “marp,” the CHE term for infirmary, is a Massad relic?)

Hebrew was the public language of Camp Ramah in the 1950s, with many words borrowed from the Massad lexicon, including the term ‘Chanutiya’ (canteen) above the take-out window in this image. Note that the menu item are described with drawings rather than translated into English. (National Ramah Commission)

The historical section is also devoted to the way in which music and songwriting was largely responsible for infusing Hebrew into Reform camps. The prolific singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman pioneered this effort, with the torch passed in recent decades to Rick Recht, Craig Taubman and others.

Avni, 50, and Benor, 45, applied their sociolinguistic expertise to contemporary analysis of CHE at Jewish camps. The depth and type of Hebrew infusion varies from camp to camp, fueled by different rationales and motivations for using CHE to “do Jewish” in America. Social and educational goals also come into play. For example, Eden Village Camp, an eco-Judaism camp in New York, uses biblical Hebrew terminology with an emphasis on connections to the land. There, the dining hall is the beit shefa (house of plenty), not the chadar ochel.

Sharon Avni (Courtesy)

The authors make sure to focus not only on spoken language, but also on visual Hebrew (signage, graffiti, artwork, posted schedules). In addition, they investigate the influence of Israeli shlichim (emissaries), who come every summer to share Israeli culture with staff and campers in an effort to strengthen ties between Israel and American Jewry.

“We observed incredible creativity of use of Hebrew at the camps. The wordplay and the rich usage in serious and fun ways is a sign of something that is really alive,” Avni said.

At the same time, not everything is rosy. Benor said she observed tensions among staff members at some camps with regard to the use of Hebrew, and also about the very authenticity of CHE.

Mid-20th century camps like Massad championed Hebrew immersion as a way of ensuring the viability of the Jewish Diaspora and the survival of the nascent Jewish state of Israel. However, times have changed and Hebrew infusion is the current paradigm.

Bilingual signs pointing to destinations at camp and in Israel at Camp Daisy and Harry Stein in Arizona. (Courtesy of Camp Daisy and Harry Stein)

Krasner, Benor and Avni emphasized that their role is not to be prescriptive.

“Our job is not to tell camps what to do, but to put up a mirror and analyze what we see,” Krasner said.

‘Hebrew Infusion: Language and Community at American Jewish Summer Camps’ (Rutgers University Press)

What American Jewish summer camps do with what they learn from “Hebrew Infusion” will be up to them.

At the same time, the authors ventured some guesses as to what we could see in the near future. Benor wondered whether CHE will be brought into other Jewish educational contexts, and Avni thought that the Hebrew immersion programs that have sprung up recently in Jewish day camps might spill over to residential camps.

With the latest headlines in mind, Krasner said it would be interesting to see how the trend of [young] American Jews’ distancing themselves politically from Israel could affect the use of Hebrew at camp.

“And with the COVID situation, camps have been using technology to reach kids at home. This communication will be yearlong, which might be a way to infuse CHE into the kids’ general life beyond summer,” Krasner said.

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