July 2, 1998
Crossing the Line
In addition to the usual bathing suits, socks and shorts, as suggested by Camp Hess Kramer on its inventory list, my daughter, Samantha, needed an orange sweat shirt with blue (preferably royal) lettering spelling out the words "Leadership '97" on the front and her name on the back. Right away, I could foresee trouble.
Leadership is a big deal at Wilshire Boulevard Temple camps, which, after 45 years and 50,000 campers, are a big part of Los Angeles Jewish life. For those 1,100 campers who will attend either Hess Kramer or its sister, Gindling Hilltop, this summer, Leadership walks on hallowed ground. Coming a stage before CIT, two steps below counselor, Leadership is the crowning achievement of camper life; part in-crowd, part initiation into real authority.
"We sit with Administration!!!" Samantha reminded me, nervously. Or, as Howard Kaplan, camp director, wrote Samantha last February in his letter of congratulations: "You become the bearer of a tradition at Camp Hess Kramer, and you become a role model for hundreds of younger campers who look up to you."
Mostly, it's a lot of fun, marked by a three-day hike, lots of singing, cheering and in-jokes, and, of course, the distinguishing sweat shirt, a form of group of cohesion. It all adds up to what most Leadership alumni still recognize as "the time of their lives."
"It comes at exactly the right moment, when they're most idealistic," Steve Breuer, executive director of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, told me. He created the Leadership program when he was camp director a generation ago. "But because campers expect it to be wonderful, it is."
As a parent, I say it's wonderful for me too. Jewish summer camp is a 20th-century American innovation, and not enough can be said in its favor. Through camp life, we see contemporary Judaism in its three eternal verities: Zionism, spiritual effusion, American idealism. Camp builds all three into our children, hora and all, and, if this is indoctrination, it works. There's a suggestion that Jewish camps begin an Israel component, taking high school juniors to visit the Jewish state. Let me lobby strongly for this worthwhile idea. In addition to locking in Jewish values, camp may provide the only positive Jewish experience, and the only Jewish community, a child ever knows. Camp administrators would be more than great tour guides; they'd know how to make the Zionistic link explicit.
Certainly, if they could bottle camp, and the feelings of purpose and joy a happy camper brings into my family life, I'd be the first to buy.
As for Leadership '97, my daughter has been looking forward to this special summer since her first 10- day session at Hess Kramer seven years ago. From the very beginning, camp has been the True North; its songs, rituals and values provide the markers of real life, making much of what we do at home seem like filling time.
That is to say, if Howard Kaplan and Craig Marantz, God's surrogate as Leadership Unit Leader, want orange-and-blue sweat shirts this summer, well, who are we to judge?
A week before camp's opening day, we began the search. Let me tell you, sweat shirts come in 3,000 shades of gold, yellow, peach and red. Likewise, there are 12 brands of orange T-shirts -- long sleeves, short sleeves, T-shirts with blue logos (Nike, Russell Athletic, Ralph Lauren). We've gone from Oshman's to Macy's to Sportmart: In all Los Angeles, not one sweat shirt in naranja.
We were dismayed but resolute. Having failed at finding the perfect orange sweat shirt, we would make one ourselves. What could there be to it?
"We'll dye a white one," I said, as if coloring apparel is an everyday affair in my home. But after visiting a dozen stores, and finding dyes mostly in black and brown, I was turning pale.
"Do you think we can use food coloring?" I asked the checkout clerk at Vons. I described my plan to mix 12 drops of red with 24 drops of yellow. An elderly gentleman shook his head.
"A sweat shirt is not a hard-boiled egg," he said.
And, so, we kept searching store to store until, the day before she was to leave for camp, we came upon a bottle of RIT labeled "Tangerine" in a market close to home.
"That's it!" said Samantha.
"It's Tangerine," I said.
"It will be orange enough for me."
We still had to acquire the letters, royal blue. The House of Fabrics had a white iron- on cut-out alphabet, or large pieces of blue iron-on felt -- no pre-cut letters in blue.
So we bought white letters and royal blue paint and stayed up all night, coloring every single character of "Leadership '97."
In a wild, manic way, it turned out to be fun. The camp officials, in their wisdom, had not sent us on a wild-goose chase after all. The sweat shirt was simply a form of karma yoga, forging spirit and responsibility in campers by purposely making them (and their parents) create the sweat shirts themselves.
Then the big day was upon us, and we packed the orange/tangerine sweat shirt, bathing suits and all into the car.
I drove my daughter up to camp; Samantha ran to Craig Marantz as if he were a long-lost cousin. I could only stand and stare.
"Your sweat shirt!" I said to Craig. "Why is your sweat shirt red?" Moreover, why was his lettering in white?
"Didn't anyone tell you?" he asked benignly. "The parents all complained, so they changed the color to red."
My face, in the car mirror, was a perfect orange.
Marlene Adler Marks is editor-at-large of The Jewish Journal. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.
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Read a previous week's column by Marlene Adler Marks:
July 18, 1997 -- News of Our Own
July 11, 1997 -- Celluloid Heroes
July 4, 1997 -- Meet the Seekowitzes
June 27, 1997 -- The Facts of Life
June 20, 1997 -- Reality Bites
June 13, 1997 -- The Family Man