Visiting Day — Michael A. Livingston

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When I was a little boy my mother told me I was young for my age. I must admit that I never really understood what this meant. You could be tall for your age, short for your age, maybe even smart for your age, but young for your age didn’t quite add up. It’s like being tall for your height or heavy for your weight, or perhaps—something I was also told—“too clever for your own good.” I suppose it was her way of saying I wasn’t very mature, which I wasn’t, but that’s another story.

Mature or otherwise, I turned eleven in the summer of 1967, and it was decided I would go to sleep-away camp. Not any camp, but Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, which wasn’t really in the Berkshires and few of whose campers could really speak Hebrew, its official language. But it had the advantage of being a Jewish camp and carrying a $150-per-year subsidy from my synagogue, which reduced the cost from $550 to $400 for the summer. This was a small price to pay for having me out of the house, which was vital to my mother’s sanity and perhaps, in the long run, my own. I suppose that my father played some role in the decision, but I’m not entirely sure: like most 1960s fathers, he came home late from work and I really saw him only on Sundays, when he would have a catch with me or review my baseball cards but otherwise leave me more or less to myself. If I had thought about it more, I might have said that he was old for his age, or at least somewhat old-fashioned; but I didn’t.

Going to camp was terrifying, and the trouble started before I even made it to the bus. To give me a nice sendoff, my mother, sister and I stopped at Nathan’s, which had a Jewish owner but wasn’t kosher, for lunch. (My father was a stock broker, and couldn’t take the day off.) The radio was playing “Born Free,” an entirely insipid song about an orphaned lion cub, and I started crying.

“Why are you crying?” my mother asked. “It isn’t even about a human being.”

“I feel sorry for the lion,” I replied.

“But the movie has a happy ending,” she explained.

“I didn’t know that.”

Notwithstanding this shaky start, the first day at Ramah didn’t go too badly. The camp had trees, a lake, and other things I never saw on Long Island, and the Hebrew was thankfully limited to words like shalom (hello) or makhane (camp) which I could handle without much difficulty. Besides it was July 1967, and the Six Day War had ended only three weeks before. This meant that every Israeli staff member, of which the camp had dozens although none seemed to do anything, was an inspiring and even superhuman figure. On the first day I met three Israelis, one of whom had commanded the assault on the Golan Heights, a second the Suez Canal, and a third who had personally liberated the entire Old City of Jerusalem. What more could an eleven-year old ask?

The problems started when we got back to the bunk. I liked to go to sleep early and have a large helping of milk and Sara Lee pound cake before bed, although I later learned that I was both diabetic and lactose intolerant. At camp there was no milk in the evening, since we were kosher and had eaten meat for dinner, and the kids insisted on talking until midnight about sports and girls and other things I didn’t know very much about . Some of them had strange Hebrew names and I was sure they would laugh at me if I didn’t know the titles of the Talmudic tractates or the difference between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. This was before you even got to the organized activities, which included two hours of classes a day and such strange sports as “Israeli football” (soccer) and boating (what happened if the boat tipped over and you didn’t know how to swim)?

So I did the mature, logical, and constructive thing, the thing that two millennia of Jewish history had taught me.

I cried. I kept crying. I want my mommy. I want to go home.

Enter the camp director, Rabbi Abrams, who had made a career as manager of various Jewish institutions. Rabbi Abrams had many unique talents, including the ability to speak Hebrew with such a strong American accent that it actually sounded like English. This distinguished him from the camp’s Israelis, who spoke English with such a strong accent that it actually sounded like Hebrew. He was also a master of human, and especially pre-pubescent, relationships.

Rabbi Abrams, who had clearly seen this situation before, proposed what became known as The Two Week Solution. Visiting Day was at the four week point, with the full season twice that length. A special exemption would be provided, under which my parents could visit me on the second weekend, with the stipulation that— like Moses in the Promised Land—they would not actually enter the camp but merely greet me on the periphery. They could give me pound cake, Pop Tarts, or other snacks provided they did not violate the camp’s rigid, or theoretically rigid, dietary rules. Thus, I would only have to go two weeks—by now, ten days—at a time and I would see that I could handle camp after all.

The ruse was successful, and I returned for my second two weeks in significantly improved condition. The activities weren’t so terrible: I caught a pop fly in softball, more by luck than skill, and learned to float if not exactly swim in water over my head. The other kids didn’t know that much more Hebrew than I did, and those who did couldn’t pronounce it right, anyway. And then there was the matter of feeling up.

It’s hard to convey feeling up today, when kids have smartphones and proceed to intercourse, if movies are any guide, at twelve or thirteen years old. But in 1967, feeling up was as exciting as things got. The concept was simple enough. You approached a (consenting) female, placed your hand under her shirt, and felt around for a while. Fun for you, fun for her, fun for the whole family. I never actually did it, of course, but everyone else did, and talking about it was next best to being there.

Although it may seem odd, feeling up also had a cultural component. Any good teacher will tell you that you learn a language better when you associate it with things that you enjoy. So the sentence, “I went to tefillot (prayers) in the bet am (social hall)” might not stay with you for more than, say, a week or two. But the sentence, “I felt up Marsha under the bet am after tefillot” remains with me a half-century later. That no one in Israel has used the words bet am for over a hundred years, and that they probably say “feeling up” in English anyway, is more or less beside the point.

Baseball, swimming, and Hebrew lessons put me in a better mood and made me just a little bit less homesick. But it all depended on the assumption that I had only a week or two left. Four weeks, two plus two, was pretty much my limit. Anything beyond that was too awful to contemplate.

Everything came to a head on Visiting Day, when parents, grandparents, and the spirits of dead ancestors flooded the camp in a real-life equivalent of the dream scene in Fiddler on the Roof. After the usual pastrami and pleasantries, it became clear that my parents had no intention of taking me home with them. Why should they, when the camp was so lovely, and they’d already made plans for a vacation without me (I learned that part later on)? Was anybody else, my mother asked, raising such a ruckus? My father stood uneasily to the side.

I was furious. I pitched a fit, right there in front of everyone. I thought we had a deal, of which I’d fulfilled my part, and they’d reneged on theirs.

Enter Rabbi Abrams, whose day was filled with this kind of crisis, and who appeared no more perturbed than he would be by a broken pipe in the bet am.

“What’s the problem, Michael?” he asked.

I explained that I had a deal to go home at four weeks and my parents were going back on it.

 

Rabbi Abrams scratched his head for a minute. “Well,” he said, “this is a Jewish camp and we always keep our promises. So if you want to go home you can go home. But not today.”

“Why not today?” I asked.

Rabbi Abrams scratched his head again. “Well, Visiting Day is a very busy day at camp, with all the parents here and so on. And it’s very embarrassing to have somebody pack and leave in front of the other campers. Think about it a day or two, and if on Wednesday morning you still want to go home, we’ll send you home.”

This seemed fair, and I readily agreed, kissing my parents goodbye for what I thought would be seventy-two hours.

Wednesday came, and I forgot all about it. And the next Wednesday, and the next Wednesday, until I’d been there eight weeks and it was time to go home, anyway. Not to mention the next three years, the year as a counselor, the combined ten or fifteen years my kids have gone to the same camp, and the years my unborn grandchildren and great-grandchildren will undoubtedly spend there. Or the Visiting Days when Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the ghosts of Golda Meir and Menachem Begin prowl the camp grounds and check the bet am plumbing.

Nothing has changed, of course: they still speak Hebrew like English and English like Hebrew; still use a word for “bedtime” that means “burial” in Israel; still use midnight basketball to trick the kids into sleeping on the counselor’s day off. To compete with other camps, they put in a couple of new sports facilities, which they insist on giving Hebrew names to even though nobody plays roller hockey in Israel, anyway. I assume the kids still feel each other up, although they may have to sign a disclaimer now before doing so.

 

There is a coda to my story, which took place thirty years later in my parents’ living room. By this time, I had my own kids, and my father, who was now almost 90, rarely came downstairs anymore. My mother and I were reminiscing, and we came to 1967.

“Well,” she said in a suddenly serious voice, “you know what really happened.”

“What do you mean, what really happened? Is there something that I don’t know?”

Then she proceeded to relate the back story: that she and my counselor and Rabbi Abrams and everyone else felt so sorry for me that they were ready to send me home after four or even after two weeks of camp. That it was my father, the one who was working when I got on the bus and stood nervously to the side on Visiting Day, who had confronted her in a dingy motel in Wingdale, NY, and insisted that I shouldn’t be allowed to come home. That if I did it would set a precedent of running away from problems that I would never overcome. Which, of course, was entirely true, although I would never have appreciated it at the time.

And the rest of it—the two weeks, the three days, the Rabbi scratching his head–was essentially a ruse concocted to push me toward his preferred outcome.

My father died five years ago, having spent the last decade of his life upstairs, reading philosophy and listening to classical music and taking phone calls from friends who had more serious problems than he did. When I think of him, which is actually pretty often, it always starts with the summer of 1967. I imagine him with my mother and sister in the dingy motel, younger than I am now, taking the stand that changed the course of my life. I think of how casually I misjudged him, and wonder if others misjudge me in the same way.

Then I get a text from my own son, who somehow speaks perfect Hebrew and is never homesick, and I’m off.

I am 55+ years of age and teach law school in Philadelphia. I grew up on Long Island and attended various prestigious universities where I learned relatively little. In my advancing middle age I have begun to do storytelling (five-minute limit) and to write short stories, poetry, and a brief novella. I try to be funny without being hostile, although sometimes it can be rather a fine line. This is my first effort at publication.

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