When I was 12 and 13, I spent my summers at a Yiddishist camp in Rhinebeck, NY, called Camp Boiberik. Now, 31 years later, I got to see my old bunkmates, my younger sister's bunkmates, and almost 400 other Boiberikaner at an unprecendented reunion last month. I am still reeling.
People came from California, Israel, St. Louis, Salt Lake City, and Seattle to spend a short weekend on the grounds of our former camp, now transformed into something known as the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies. Call it what you will, it was still our lake, our dining hall and, for 36 hours at least, our spirit.
Going to Boiberik was not an "American camp experience." Although there was lots of swimming and sports, there was an East European, socialist, Yiddish cultural overlay that permeated everything we did. The highlight of each summer was the Felker Yom-Tov, where each bunk was a particular nationality and, dressed in native costume, sang and performed, in Yiddish, about that country. The Felker songs showed the true spirit of the camp: Far yedn folk iz do genug/Tsu lebn gut, tsu lebn klug/O brider, heybt di hent un shvert/Tsu brengen fridn af der erd. (For each nation there is enough/To live well, to live wisely/Oh brothers, lift your hands and swear/To bring peace on earth). The white dove, the symbol of peace, was actually Boiberik's logo.
On Friday nights we filed into the Rec Hall to greet the Sabbath queen. This was the first experience of the Sabbath for me and for many of the other campers. Dressed all in white, we sang haunting, lilting melodies about the sun setting and the Sabbath peace descending. There was no mention of God that I remember. But it was quite an ushering in of the Sabbath for secular socialists.
And now, half a lifetime later, I stood before the Omega registration desk on a Sabbath morning and saw scores of peoples staring at each other's nametags and talking, yelling, hugging. Many of us hadn't seen each other for a quarter of a century. When did my sister's friends get so tall? It is no small feat to show up for a reunion. You walked back into the ambivalent feelings that often make up a summer. You are showing people what's become of you as an adult, and what you have or haven't achieved at this point in your life.
My bunk huddled together at a table over lunch. We were single, married, gay, straight, with and without children. What interested us were the memories of our 13-year-old selves, and how those confused and tentative girls had come to be the 40-something women we were now. Three of us had children the same age as we were when we bunked together. But our children had no bond, and we, sitting in that dining-hall, with hallowed space of Yiddishkeit at least temporarily around us, would always have a small piece of our lives tangled up together.
The only activities planned for the afternoon were volleyball and basketball. The wather was beautiful. People ambled from the volleyball court to the leake to the Omega cafe. Occasionally, I heard someone crying as they discussed a camper or counselor who had died too soon. Down by the boats I saw a feisty-looking woman, a few years older than I am, take a tall man by the hand and lead him over to a quiet, bearded man I soon realized was her husband. "This was my first love," she said, pointing to the tall man.
There was a moment of silence. The man disengaged, walked over to the husband and said in a voice heartfelt and almost pained, "You were very lucky."
For me, the most moving moment came during the Saturday evening program. We had crowded into the Rec Hall for an evening of slides, music, and speeches. Sitting next to me was a guy with long dark hair and intense features who could double as a drummer in a rock band. The last song we sang was Ale Mentshn Zaynen Brider.
The words are "All people are brothers/Red, yellow, black, white/All people are brothers/From one father, from one mother," and the tune is Beethoven's Fifth. The Rec Hall resounded with All mentshn zaynen brider/Roite, gele, shvartse, vayse/Lender, felker un klimatn/S'iz an oysgetrakhte meyse/Shvartse, vayse, royte, gele/Misht di fabn oystsuzamem/Ale mentshn zaynen brider/Fun ayn tatn, fun any mamen!
On the last line, the guy next to me broke into tears and buried his face in the nearest shoulder. I felt the same way. It had been such a long time since I felt any of the hopefulness of those words. I just wanted to hold onto the moment after the singing stopped, because there was so much raw emotion in the room. Tomorrow we'd go back to being Americans. But tonight we were Boiberik's children, dressed in white, singing of a world where everything would be good and just; and in our sweet naivete, ushering in that dove of peace so that she'd fly over our camp, our people, and iber di gantse velt.
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