On ethnicity, community, and the preservation and revision of tradition.
In the nine first-year writing courses I taught as an adjunct at both Boston University and UMass Boston, I focused on one aspect or another of immigration and American identity; as a result, I found that the conversations and work in those courses circled around again and again to some key topics and themes. Many were what you would expect: the old and new worlds; assimilation and acculturation; hyphens and hybridity; multi-generational continuities and changes. But nearly as frequent were our discussions of ethnic communities and neighborhoods in the U.S., the areas early scholars of immigration dubbed ethnic enclaves—we talked a good deal about the limitations and strengths of such enclaves, the ways in which they can on the one hand foster isolation and separation (and even ghetto-ization), sub-standard living conditions and inequal schools, prejudice and ignorance toward immigrant groups, and other issues; but at the same time can preserve specific cultural identities and customs and languages, build community and support across generations, become potent new world homes for immigrant communities.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, following the era’s sizeable waves of Jewish immigration to the United States, many of those arrivals settled in such ethnic enclaves, most famously in the tenements of the Lower East Side of Manhattan (as described at great length in early 20th century literary works such as Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky  and Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers ). While some of those neighborhoods and communities persist to a lesser degree, they have mostly dissipated over the subsequent century, as Jewish Americans have spread out across the country. Yet like members of most ethnic and cultural, as well as most religious, communities, many Jewish Americans have worked for continuity despite these historical and social changes, particularly by passing along customs and beliefs, traditions and ideals, to their younger generations. Education and activities, schools and community and cultural centers, have provided vehicles for such preservation of culture—but another, complex, and I believe more easily overlooked, such vehicle has been the Jewish summer camp.
For more than half a century, Jewish schoolchildren (and of course some non-Jewish schoolchildren) have spent portions of their summers at sites such as Wisconsin’s Camp Ramah, Camp Woodmere in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, and New Hampshire’s Camp Tevya, among many others. In many ways these camps have facilitated and continue to facilitate a preservation of Jewish culture and community across the generations: with Hebrew and Talmud instruction, historical and social lessons, and other communal activities and connections. Yet at the same time, if we parallel such camps with those attended by American schoolchildren from all cultures and communities (and it seems clear that these camps have also featured all of the stereotypical camp activities: boating and hiking, capture the flag and campfires, and so on), we could argue the opposite: that they have offered another avenue through which Jewish American kids have connected to a broader, non-denominational American society and experience, one shared by all their peers. A tension between ethnicity and acculturation, tradition and revision, the Talmud and campfire sing-alongs—what could be more American than such dualities?
Next camp connection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Stories and camps you’d share?
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