My sister, Sissy, and I were on our way to camp for the first time. I was 7 and she was 10.
“If we don’t like it will you come pick us up?” Sissy asked.
“It’s too far away,” Mom replied. “But you’re going to have a great time!” There was a flash of what I now recognize as “I’m about to be kid-free for a month” elation in that smile.
The drive took forever. Sissy and I slid around the back seat of our 1978 Pontiac Grand Safari station wagon yelling, “She’s touching me!” or “Tell her to stop looking at me!” the entire time.
You had to be at least 8 to go to this camp, but my stepdad, Bill, convinced them to make an exception. He assured them I was mature for my age. He had a way of getting people to make exceptions. It was a Jewish camp — Bill was Jewish, so when he married my mom the year before and adopted Sissy and me, we all converted. Jewish girls go to Jewish camp, naturally, and this was a kosher-keeping, Hebrew-speaking Jewish camp.
At the time, it seemed reasonable that our parents couldn’t come pick us up until camp was over, since it was so far from home — half a day’s drive, at least. Or so I thought: I have since discovered that the ride was only two hours long.
Sissy may have been older than me, but she was more anxious about camp than I was, which made me feel smug and bold. The goodbyes were quick, like preschool drop off — drop ‘em and run, before the kid causes a scene and makes it hard on everybody. My cabin was small, just large enough for three bunk beds and a bathroom. My counselor was a statuesque woman with brown, shoulder-length hair who didn’t wear makeup. Her vibe was more military than maternal.
It turned out, though, that I loved camp. I have fond memories of a clearing in the woods, where we would have talks, sing songs, and perform skits. My favorite part of camp was singing a blessing before every meal. It was in Hebrew, so I had no idea what the words meant, but that didn’t matter. The song was festive and upbeat, and the best part was everyone singing in unison and banging on the tables in synchronized rhythm at the designated times. It was beautiful — one unified and thundering voice! I felt exhilarating joy every single time. I was part of this song. I belonged to this family, in this surrogate home, so I never got homesick. I fell into the routines quickly and felt content and safe.
Until I didn’t.
One night, the girls in my cabin and I were startled awake by adults yelling, “Line up!” and “Walk!” When a girl asked what was going on, they said, “No talking!” We were ushered outside, in the middle of the night, and it was chilly. I could see other campers being marshaled out of their cabins. Men on horseback were dressed in biblical robes. They forced us to walk through the woods in the dark, barefoot, while adults jeered at us from behind. I wondered what we had done wrong to make them hate us so much. Huddled together, arms hooked with our bunk mates, we had no idea what would happen next.
We were split up and shuttled to different locations, each with its own flavor of fear. The enormous men on horseback towered above, mocking us with their powerful voices. They made us wade through the shallow end of the swimming pool — which wasn’t that shallow for me, since I was small for my age — in our clothes. The pool was supposed to be our escape from something, but I didn’t know what. All I knew was that it was dark, and I couldn’t see the bottom.
And then it was over. The whole experience probably lasted a couple of hours. Afterwards we went back to our cabins, and life resumed as usual the next day. But I no longer felt safe or relaxed. Instead, I remained vigilant the rest of the session. Why had our counselors treated us that way? Would they turn on us again?
That was the only summer my sister and I ever went to camp. For years, I’d think back to that night, and I’d always wonder what I was remembering. It was like I kept trying to read a page in my life but the ink was smudged. Why would trusted adults turn on us, and then act like nothing happened? If I couldn’t answer these questions how could I know who to trust? My younger self tugged on my sleeve, looking for answers.
My sister was no help: She has no memory of this event and thinks I may have dreamed it. All she remembers from her month at camp is kissing a blond, Jewish Puerto Rican boy named Danny Tuchman in the pool one day — her first kiss.
But I knew something scary and real had happened. I just didn’t know what it was. So, I decided to find out.
I searched the web and found the camp was still in business, so I called them. I explained to the woman who answered the phone that I was a camper in 1980 and had some holes in my memory that I hoped they could help me fill. After I was connected to the head of alumni relations, I described my partial memories of that creepy night. She said nothing like that happens at camp now, and the only thing she remembered from camp as a child was being awakened in the middle of the night and put through basic training exercises — crab crawls and push ups on the damp grass. The goal of that experience was to give the kids a feel for what it was like to be in the Israeli army, something she didn’t much appreciate as an 8-year-old.
Still, she seemed genuinely concerned that I had such a negative memory from so long ago. She assured me the director, who had been a camper back then, would give me a call. In the meantime, I did more research online using what confused clues I had. I found videos of kids at other camps singing and banging their tables in ear-splitting renditions of the Birkat Hamazon — which is actually sung after meals, and not before, as I remembered. I continued on, hoping to uncover something about what I experienced during that bizarre night.
Then, bingo! I found it: It turns out that scary evening was Tisha B’Av, a holiday that commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem and serves as a day of communal mourning.
Because Tisha B’Av falls in July or August, it’s commonly observed at Jewish summer camps — in fact, in 2015, Tablet ran a piece titled, “How Summer Camps Should — And Shouldn’t — Observe Tisha B’Av.” And while the particular type of torture I endured seems unique, I am not alone when it comes to being traumatized by the way my camp observed that day.
By the time the camp director called me back, I had connected all the dots. Thankfully, too, since the director had not, in fact, been a camper that year, and said he had never heard of anything like that happening. Even so, he was sympathetic, and he assured me nothing like that goes on today. These days, Tisha B’Av is a time of reflection for campers, he said.
My reaction to solving this mystery surprised me — I wasn’t angry or sad. I was elated! Victorious! I could return to that page in my life and the ink was now clear.
The camp’s program that night was bizarre and inappropriate, but at least now I know its name: Tisha B’Av. It’s about sadness, destruction, and remembrance.
Remember, remember, remember — I heard that so often during the years of my Jewish upbringing and I get it; remembering is important. But in my quest to remember I have learned another tactic that can serve me well in situations such as this: forgive and forget.