Learning Hebrew in summer camp?

Book review: The evolution, range of ways Americans use Hebrew in Jewish summer experiences

Campers playing on the water at Camp Modin. The camp is perhaps the first Jewish camp in the country to announce, in detail, how it plans to open.  (photo credit: COURTESY OF CAMP MODIN)
Campers playing on the water at Camp Modin. The camp is perhaps the first Jewish camp in the country to announce, in detail, how it plans to open.
(photo credit: COURTESY OF CAMP MODIN)
Could American kids learn Hebrew at summer camp?
Let’s face it: Learning a new language is a lot of work. So, the idea that it was possible to teach youngsters to speak Hebrew in Jewish American summer camps – when studying is the furthest thing from their minds – was far-fetched bordering on preposterous.
For money reasons as well, making campers fluent in Hebrew was a nonstarter. As one camp leader told the scholars who researched and wrote this book, inserting a few Hebrew words into camp activities may be popular, but forcing campers to learn Hebrew may drive them to other summer venues.
To paraphrase 1980s pop singer Cyndi Lauper, “Campers just want to have fun.”
In addition, some campers have a hard time understanding what’s going on if too much Hebrew is used. As one parent said, “They say if you hear it, you’ll understand the context, but not every body does.” (Many camps translate Hebrew words used in activities or announcements into English, especially at the start of the summer.) Despite all that, Hebrew is part of the experience at most American Jewish camps. Speaking the language, however, is not the goal of inserting Hebrew words into the dialogue between counselors and their charges.
So, campers at American Jewish summer camps don’t learn Hebrew; they learn “camp Hebraized English” (CHE). CHE is “Jewish American English that includes Hebrew words: Jewish life words” like Shabbat Shalom (Good Sabbath, a greeting) and “camp words” like hadar ohel (dining hall).
“CHE is one aspect of a broader phenomenon we call ‘Hebrew infusion,’ the process in which camp staff members incorporate elements of Hebrew into the primarily English-speaking environment through songs, signs, games and words,” the authors write.
The idea is to strengthen campers’ relationship with the language, rather than teach them to speak it. Hebrew infusion is employed to foster “emotional attachment to Hebrew, which is intended to strengthen campers’ connection to the Jewish state, Jewish religion and Jewish people.” Therefore, it is seen as “a force for social cohesion,” according to the authors.
Even in the few camps that strive for proficiency in the language, leaders understand that their main purpose is not fluency but to promote a desire for further Hebrew study among the campers.
Hebrew began in summer camps after 1900 in the form of prayers, but most early camps were more interested in Americanization of the campers. “Only gradually did camp leaders conclude that healthy acculturation was facilitated rather than stymied by ethnic and religious awareness and pride,” Benor et al. write.
In the Zionist camps that began after World War I, Hebrew played a large role. The camps, sponsored by the Zionist youth movements and designed to encourage aliyah, “were the first to systematically infuse Hebrew” into camp life in the 1930s and 40s.
Some camps negated the Diaspora and prepared people for life in the Jewish state; others saw the use of Hebrew as helping to instill a cultural rebirth in the American Jewish community. There were some camps that worked toward Hebrew proficiency. They were based on the “Tarbut Ivrit” (Hebrew Culture) movement, which viewed the Hebrew language as the basis for Jewish culture. That culture was seen as essential for Jewish survival.
However, the consolidation of the Jewish state and the development of its culture doomed the movement. Israel’s existence “normalized Hebrew as a national language, not simply a language of Zionist cultural revival,” according to the authors. “Thus Hebrew cultural Zionism in North America … was rendered unnecessary.” There is a great range of Hebrew use in camps. There are camps in which Hebrew use is limited to a few words and phrases, like Shabbat Shalom and sheket b’vakasha (please be quiet). At the other end of the spectrum in the most Hebrew-rich camps, announcements, activities, games and stage performances are often in that language.
How they use Hebrew is often an indication of how they relate to Israel and religiosity, the authors note.
Camp Galil, part of the Habonim Dror Labor Zionist youth movement, for instance, employs Hebrew infusion to help meet its goals: “enhancing personal Jewish identity, strengthening connection to the Jewish people, and strengthening connection to the state of Israel.” At Camp Sternberg, an Orthodox all-girls camp in the Catskills, Yiddish or Ashkenaz Hebrew is used in prayers or connected to other activities familiar to the girls at home (davening [praying], Shabbos [Sabbath]). But most locations in the camp – bunk, infirmary, dining hall – have English, rather than Hebrew, names.
The authors of this book have mastered the classical technique of giving speeches: tell them what you are going to say, tell them, tell them what you have told them. That may be fine for a speech; repetition is less desirable in a book.
And, of course, there’s the gibberish, the jargon – “postvernacularity,” “metalinguistic community.” “ethnolinguistic infusion,” “translanguaging” and “linguistic hybridity” are a few of the more jarring examples – that befoul most academic works.
If you ignore repetitions and the academese, there are a few interesting moments in this book.
The writer is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His memoir, Figs and Alligators: An American Immigrant’s Life in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s, is slated to be published by Chickadee Prince Books early next year.
Hebrew Infusion
By Sarah Bunin Benor, Jonathan Krasner and Sharon Avni
Rutgers University Press
251 pages; $27.95