Review of Sandra Fox’s The Jews of Summer

Justine Orlovsky-Schnitzler

San­dra Fox. The Jews of Sum­mer: Sum­mer Camp and Jew­ish Cul­ture in Post­war Amer­i­ca. Stan­ford, CA: Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2023. 304 pp. $28.00.

One Sunday in April during my first (and only) year teaching Hebrew school, I was tasked by the higher-ups with showing a promotional video for a network of Reform-affiliated summer camps, offering my sixth graders a chance to spend eight weeks immersed in “a safe, welcoming, Jewish environment.” Some had already signed up; many had older siblings who had been attending for years. Some whispered loud enough for their peers to hear: “this costs a lot of money.” When the friendly campers depicted on screen beckoned the audience to metaphorically “hop on a train to the Jewish camp of your dreams,” one student who frequently made quips that would not have been out of place on the 1959 Borscht Belt circuit turned to me and deadpanned, “I hope that train’s not going to Poland.” Despite never attending a Jewish summer camp myself, I was acutely aware I had just encountered some of the most common archetypes and anxieties surrounding a summer spent in kehillah, kehile, or Jewish community of another kind in upstate New York.

Sandra Fox’s excellent new book, The Jews of Summer, is the first academic text to tackle the often strange, frequently wonderful, and inevitably formative experiences created and afforded by Jewish summer camps. There are the more obvious elements to dissect: what spurred a massive boom in Jewish camps, and when; the liminal space that sleepaway camps create more generally (and how easily Jewish ritualized time observances fit into the unique rhythm of weeks spent outside of campers’ “real” lives); whether or not Jewish summer camps have succeeded in articulating or preserving a kind of “authentic” Jewish experience, and by what metrics. But The Jews of Summer is also concerned in equal parts with documenting the both the charming idiosyncrasies of Jewish summer camps (morning tefillot, pseudo-Israeli versions of dodgeball) and the uniquely burdened (the long shadow of the Holocaust, the pervasive sense that these camps were tasked with ensuring the survival of the Jewish people overall). “There are joys to be had in this camp,” one former counselor at Hemshekh (a Bundist camp founded in 1959) wrote in the camp newspaper in 1973. “But no culture can survive solely in the smiling minds of people remembering their summer vacations” (144).

Jewish summer camps emerged in earnest during what Fox and many other scholars identify as the “golden age” of American Judaism: “a time marked by social mobility, affluence, and suburbanization, and the development of what Herbet Gains coined as ‘child-centered Judaism’” (3). Fox chooses to focus on four types of camps that took root between the 1940s and 1960s: Zionist, Yiddishist, Reform, and Conservative, in light of their outsized influence on American Jewish youth culture built on their “religious, political, and linguistic ideologies” (5). There were—and remain—other kinds of Jewish summer camps (Orthodox-affiliated summer camps in particular have only grown over the last few decades), but these four spheres of camp form the bulk of Fox’s analysis. Ultimately, the argument is likely to be a familiar one: that summer camps not only “had the power to produce healthy young Jews in body in spirit, but to transform them, ensuring the next generation would carry Jewishness into the future” (204). What kind of Jewishness, of course, remains up for debate. As with any conversation about continuity in the Jewish community, you are likely to find three or more distinct opinions for every two people you encounter.

Fox’s keenest observations come from her areas of specialty: as a fluent and passionate Yiddishist, she navigates and narrates the tension between Yiddish-focused camps (almost entirely socialist, with a distinctly Bundist flair) and camps that favored Hebraic language skills (over time, primarily Zionist in thrust, seeking to build a language bridge between Jews in the fledgling state of Israel and those in the Diaspora). Yiddish camps, as Fox observes, articulated their goals as a continuation of Yiddish culture ahead of or in place of the more vague concept of “Jewish continuity” (232). Many Yiddish camps considered themselves to be sitting on the “margins”—and yet, as she outlines, they still displayed overwhelming similarities to Jewish leaders of other denominations and political leanings. “Postwar Jewish camping ran on a shared understanding of cultural decline, an anxious line of thinking that linked Jews who agreed on little else” (232). Indeed, the languages that anchored respective camps ultimately proved to be more useful as symbols, more accessible as a lens through which campers could understand what kind of Jew they were versus a learned second tongue. “Perhaps fluency has always been beside the point,” Fox writes. “Camps’ uses of language would not save Yiddish from its decline in speakers, nor would camps bring spoken Hebrew into the everyday lives of most American Jews…postwar Jewish camps transitioned Hebrew and Yiddish from European linguistic nationalisms into American Jewish identity-building tools” (147).

Throughout The Jews of Summer, I was repeatedly struck by a sense that despite the usual litany of difficulties faced by catering to an ultimately small population, you could argue—and Fox does, to a certain degree—that American Jews were spoiled for choice for decades in terms of summer camp offerings. It is nothing short of remarkable to read one former camper’s recollections of a Sabbath observance at Boiberik, a secular Yiddish camp. Mara Sokolsky remembers dressing in white, and singing “haunting, lilting melodies about the sun setting and the Sabbath peace descending. There was no mention of God…but it was quite an ushering in of the Sabbath for secular socialists” (74). Though this observance of the Sabbath was deemed antithetical to the camp’s stated secular Yiddish identity by some incredulous parents, the fact that there were multiple camps for a secular Yiddishist to choose from, send a child off to, and ultimately disagree with is its own kind of miracle. Though Camps Kinder Ring and Kinderland still offer twenty-first century red-diaper babies a chance to experience Yiddishkayt, Hemshekh and Boiberik have long since shuttered their doors.

As I moved through the chapter detailing role playing, sociodrama, and color wars, I was reminded of Rebecca Brill’s cover essay for Lilith’s winter 2017 issue, “Holocaust Games at Summer Camp”:

A popular joke at camp: to feign frustration with someone and loudly announce, “I’ve told you once, I’ve told you six million times, I’ve had it up to HERE with you!” embellishing the word “here” with an over-the-top heil. My older brother picked up this habit during his first summer at camp. At home, we practiced the routine, each time making our heils higher and sharper…

In camp, we joked that the infirmary doctor was Mengele, the dining hall food our rations. Every authority figure with a stick up his ass was a Nazi, every unpleasant setting a labor camp, every tiring activity a death march, every shower a gas chamber.

Fox’s oral histories bear these recollections out: Camp Hemshekh ran a yearly Warsaw ghetto uprising melodrama, resulting not in its intended “practice in solving problems” but rather “a moment of collective catharsis by proxy” (85). “At other Jewish camps,” she writes, “the term sociodrama specifically described ‘surprise’ activities…with a unit head at one camp telling campers that ‘he had just received a phone-mail telling him that a group of neo-Nazis was an hour away driving towards the camp,’ prompting an ‘hour-long discussion of how to respond’” (85). It’s nearly impossible to imagine a Jewish summer camp in 2023 putting campers through a simulated approach by neo-Nazis—and yet, there has yet to be a generation of Jewish children ignorant to the antisemitism that underpins much of their movement through Jewish spaces.

These scenes move the reader fluidly into the subsequent chapter—one of the most striking—aptly titled “A Little Suffering Goes a Long Way.” Fox focuses on camp rituals associated with Tisha B’av, the Warsaw ghetto uprising, and echoes of the Holocaust, particularly in the immediate postwar years. Tisha B’Av, a significant fast day that holds little sway in modern American Jewish observance outside of traditionally observant spaces, became an opportunity to walk campers through structured engagement with Jewish practice, particularly around holidays of remembrance and solemnity. Put another way: “Punctuating the recreational highs of camp life with scheduled emotional lows, Tisha B’Av and its alternatives—such as Camp Hemshekh’s Ghetto Day—emerged as some of the most highly anticipated and invested-in programs of the entire summer, essential in leaders’ struggle for ‘cultural survival’” (105).

Reform summer camps used Tisha B’Av “to teach about Jewish suffering throughout history” and to foster “identification with fellow Jews everywhere.” As Fox suggests, “without summer camps…Tisha B’Av would have likely disappeared from the Reform movement completely” (111). A recent semi-viral TikTok video from Israeli creator Michal Greenspan details the hyper-specific cultural shock of realizing your parents—and, indeed, your synagogue—are likely to take Tisha B’Av far less seriously than your Jewish summer camp did. “Where’s the ashes?” she asks her imaginary mother off-screen. “The ashes? That you dip in the egg? To set the sad mood?”

Similarly, Fox deftly acknowledges the expected side effects of adolescents away from home, amidst a preoccupation with continuity. Initially, she writes, Jews of the emerging middle class shared many of the same anxieties their WASP peers did about youth culture run amok, most concentrated in the 1950s (37). But as Jewish summer camps evolved, it became clear that camp offered many the freedom to explore romantic and sexual attraction in a contained environment—and potentially be persuaded to marry Jewish, when all was said and done. It goes without saying that this winking encouragement was only of the heterosexual variety; staff members “scheduled moments for heterosexual romance to bloom, educated campers about puberty and sexuality in educational and informal activities, and emphasized Jewish marriage as an ideal through role modeling, education, and simulated wedding ceremonies” (175). A fascinating subsection of the chapter detailing “Summer Flings and Fuzzy Rings” deals with erotic Zionism—that is, impressionistic ideas of emerging Israeli masculinities and social engagements, particularly on kibbutzim—that influenced many campers and counselors at both explicitly Zionist camps, and those sympathetic to Israel as a model for American Jews. This is to say nothing of the throughline anxieties of intermarriage.

I suspect, too, that many of these emergent and lingering ideas about Israeli norms and attitudes around sexuality, communality, and strength have played a role in driving Birthright participation over the last thirty years. Fox doesn’t touch on this directly, but it would be fascinating to expand some of her research and track attendees of Jewish summer camps who also participated in Birthright—an environment that similarly encourages (far more explicitly) coupling up in the hopes of creating Jewish marriages, children, and futures. I would expect, especially given Fox’s charting of the increasingly divergent tracts explicitly Zionist camps (and, later, denominational camps like Ramah) took from Yiddishist camps, that there exists a strong correlation between those who have attended Zionist camps and those who have embarked on Birthright. In this sense, is it fair to point toward Zionist camps as being “more successful” than their Yiddishist counterparts—especially when so many Yiddishist camps have closed over the last four decades? As with other questions of continuity raised by both The Jews of Summer and this review: it depends on what yardstick you are using to measure Jewish persistence.

In Rachel Bloom’s 2013 comedy album Suck It, Christmas, she updates “Santa Baby” to “Hanukkah Honey,” crooning, “Let me make all your dreams come true / Oh, by the way, you went to camp with my friend’s step-cousin—small world!” Jewish summer camps remain a vital artery in the ongoing global game of Jewish geography; a 2006 study cited by Fox suggests forty-three percent of American Jewish teens have attended an overnight camp (notably: the poll does not specify if the camps were specifically Jewish). There is little to suggest that Jewish camping will disappear in the decades to come; if anything, we have reached a point of internet-fueled hyper-nostalgia that has made The Jews of Summer particularly timely. Fox has gifted us an eminently readable and impeccably researched text that pulls apart monumental, interconnected threads without taking itself too seriously. Crucially, she encourages us to remain vigilant against the seductive flattening nostalgia offers. It would be a disservice, she reminds us in the final pages, to imagine that the past seventy years of Jewish camping have been simple. Instead, she asks us to interrogate what expectations these kinds of environments have placed on children, what agency youth have in making their own culture, and what it means to have an authentic Jewish experience. Still, what makes Jewish camps unique, outlined in Fox’s thrumming conclusion, is not the number of them—but rather the “persistent belief Jews have held in their unparalleled power to produce strong cultural identities” (231). If you will it, it is no dream; if you build it, they will come—all the way to the Poconos.

Orlovsky-Schnitzler, Justine. “Review of Sandra Fox's The Jews of Summer.” In geveb, September 2023:
Orlovsky-Schnitzler, Justine. “Review of Sandra Fox's The Jews of Summer.” In geveb (September 2023): Accessed Apr 18, 2024.


Justine Orlovsky-Schnitzler

Justine Orlovsky-Schnitzler is a writer, folklorist, and advocate currently working in reproductive justice.