Memories of Camp Swig come rushing back while sitting on the ‘bimah lawn,’ gazing up at the redwoods

Friday, September 15, 2000 | by

ALEXANDRA J. WALL



I had been living in New York City for about a month when I bumped into this guy on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Christopher Street.

It was 1991 and I was straight out of college. He was quite a few years older than me, and I had no recollection of what his name was. But you don't easily forget the people who had a hand in shaping your Jewish identity.

"Camp Swig," I said. He smiled at the reference, evoking the California redwoods on a Greenwich Village sidewalk more than 10 years later. He told me his name and identified himself as a former program director. That part I had remembered.

I feel like I remember almost everything about that place—even though the last summer I spent there was in 1985. So it didn't matter that I hadn't been there in nine years. As I drove along Big Basin Way in Saratoga on a recent afternoon, I could sense when the entrance was around the next bend, right before I reached it. Some things are forever ingrained in your memory, no matter how much time has passed.

I spent five summers as a camper there and one on staff, as a babysitter for the "staff brats." And while my time on staff was marked by an unpleasant incident or two, it is easy for me to separate that experience from the five almost-perfect summers that came before.

Camp Swig was a haven for me, since I was used to being the only Jewish kid in my class in Riverside. I'll never forget that initial feeling my first summer as a 10-year-old, amazed that everyone around me was Jewish. No one here was going to make fun of me for something they didn't understand.

While many of the specifics have faded, certain memories I will carry with me forever. When I sat on the lawn this time—which we referred to as the "bimah lawn" because of the stage at the end of it—grass-free in patches from a summer's worth of trampling, I remembered our Friday afternoon lunches. The week's leftovers and peanut butter and jelly were the choices, and we ate on the lawn so the chadarochel (dining hall) could be properly cleaned for Shabbat. After lunch, we'd form a line by the stage, and walk slowly toward the office, picking up every bit of trash that we passed.

I remembered the lawn as being kind of the nerve center of camp, where we'd play Frisbee games during breirah (free time), or just hang out.

I could also picture us gathering on the lawn in our Shabbat whites, collecting Shabbat kisses. Then we'd go to eat in the newly scrubbed chadarochel, and sing to Gordon's guitar, swaying with our arms wrapped around each others' shoulders.

We'd end the evening by dancing like maniacs to "Pota Pota," "Ramaya," and the one that made you feel like the folk-dancing guru when you mastered it, "Yo-Ya." I know I could do each one, still, in my sleep. And each year as we got older, we'd get to stay later and later, as the dances progressed in level of difficulty.

Of course it seemed like a terrible injustice when I was young, but as I got older, it seemed fair that the younger kids had to go to bed first while the older kids got to stay up later.

I remembered our simulation games, in which we participated in such historical events as re-enacting the Jews' flight from Europe; how we had to sneak around camp, evading the British to reach a ship that would take us to pre-Israel Palestine. Leaders like David Ben-Gurion and Theodor Herzl rose from the dead to lecture us about the necessity for Jewish self-determination and a Jewish state. We'd listen carefully and then say something like, "Mr. Herzl, you look an awful lot like this counselor we know named Gary," lest he think we didn't recognize him beneath the phony beard.

I remembered the nights we'd sing our session songs after dinner. The staff wrote them for us, with original words set to well-known tunes, usually TV theme songs. One year, my Maccabiah song was sung to the tune of the theme from "Hawaii 5-0." The object was to sing your song the loudest, trying to beat the others. Of course whichever group I was in was always sure we'd won.

I remembered director Steve Makoff taking the microphone after dinner to say, "To-da-ay-ay," bestowing four syllables to a word that usually has two. "Is a very special day" was the reply we'd give, but if there was more than one birthday, he'd say no, and repeat "To-day-ay-ay-ay," to which we'd answer "is a very, very special day," until we reached the right number of birthdays. I wished I had a summer birthday, so I too could be put in a chair and thrown into the air.

I remembered how odd it was that certain melodies and simply being outside could make me enjoy morning prayer so much, every day, when going to services at home was something I hardly looked forward to.

I remembered spending most of one session liking a guy named Jeff, who went out with a girl named Joanna, for about six days—an eternity in camp time. Then she broke up with him and he asked me out a few days later. I was so happy. Then I broke up with him after three days.

I remembered sneaking off by myself into that cluster of redwood trees on the lawn, just to look up and feel that tiny in comparison.

I remembered my cabin mates talking late into the night, with angry counselors on shmira (guard duty) storming into our cabin again and again, threatening to tell our counselors and take away our free time.

I remembered the program done every year marking Tisha B'Av, in which different scenes from Jewish history were re-enacted around camp. We walked from place to place, seeing the First and Second Temples and then a German synagogue in 1938 destroyed, and also the Jews' banishment from Spain.

Then the year I was on staff, because of my blond hair, I was recruited to be a Nazi. I remember the counselor who played my fellow Nazi saying how scary I looked with my hair slicked back, dressed in all black with a swastika armband, as we waited for the campers to come watch us bash in a synagogue on Kristallnacht.

And I remembered thinking how ironic it was that I of all people—the granddaughter of survivors, the daughter of a child who was hidden from the Nazis—was asked to play the Nazi, and what my grandparents would think if they saw me dressed like that.

I remembered final-night slide shows, and the last Havdallah service being practically inaudible because of loud sobbing.

Just as Havdallah separates the uniqueness of Shabbat from the rest of the week, that last Havdallah service seemed to separate the sweetness of camp from the rest of the year.

I remembered the last-minute shuffle to ensure we were standing next to our favorite people, and then crying and clinging to our friends we knew we wouldn't see for a whole year, promising to send photos and write and call at every opportunity.

It's probably a good thing this was in the days before America Online conquered the teen world; I can only imagine having my camp friends on my "buddy list" and never wanting to leave the computer.

Camp seemed so much smaller and run-down on my recent visit. It was hard to believe that up to 450 people could live there at any given time.

Growing up where I did, in Riverside, it would have been so much easier to forget this whole Judaism thing—it just made me stand out at that age when it was ever so important to fit in. But somehow, great memories of what had taken place in an intense three weeks were enough to sustain me the rest of the year.

Next to my family's background, it was camp more than anything else that taught me that Judaism was something to cherish and take pride in, rather than something from which I should distance myself.

Whatever magic spell those counselors and program directors cast on us out there in Saratoga among the redwood trees, it sure worked.