Monday, August 06, 2007

1972 + 35 = 2007

I recently returned from the 35th reunion of my division at a Jewish camp (what else?) in the wilds of New York State. Well, actually, it wasn't really my division, since I had left camp a couple of years earlier and remembered most of the people, if at all, from an ill-fated years as a counselor (1974) rather than camp days. And it wasn't officially a "reunion," since the camp doesn't really arrange them, or even keep accurate records of alumni, a surprising omission for an ethnic group supposedly bent on world domination. (The work was done by one alumna, from North Carolina via Philadelphia, who seems to embody Southern hospitality despite hear adopted surroundings). Despite, or perhaps because, of this haphazardness I found it one of the most moving experiences I have had in years.

What was particularly fascinating to me was what I remembered. Details of bunks, activities, classes, and so forth were lost in a haze of half-truths and outright inaccuracies. Instead I remembered details of people's, which is to say women's, physical features with uncanny perfection. There was Sandy, with her slightly frizzy hair cut shorter than 30-odd years ago but instantly recognizable just the same; Judith, in an old video, with her trademark pigtails; and most striking of all Sarah, a film producer, whose long, wavy hair was half the length but otherwise indistinguishable from the last time I saw her, when she was seventeen years old and we had to ban her previous summer's boyfriend from talking further about her for fear of a generic mental health crisis. Communism collapses, China reawakens, but Sarah's hair remains the same: a constant in a changing world. No wonder I left reassured.

An interesting question, though beyond my capacity to answer, is what exactly we are remembering in situations like this. Did I really remember that accurately the features of these people, some of whom I had barely talked to, let alone touched, all these years earlier? More likely I was remembering my own thoughts: the hopes, longings, fantasies or an earlier era that had been emblazoned in my consciousness long after the real people had disappeared, at least until this weekend. And yet these thoughts, in their own way, were more real than the events that inspired them.

The reunion also provided an important insight into why camps of this type are so effective. I forgot virtually all the Hebrew I studied at camp and had to relearn it in public schools or trips to Israel. But my association of the really important childhood memories--love, friendship, sheer adolescent terror-- with a Jewish institution virtually ensured that I would marry someone Jewish and raise a (so far) Jewish family. My oldest son is now 16 years old, the precise age of this group in 1972, and in the same division at the Pennsylvania branch of the very same camp right now. I hope it works for him, too.


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