In pursuit of the ‘holy tongue’

A challenging camp experience

Geza age group campers – ages 7 – 10 – and their counselors gather at Camp Massad upon the camp’s fifth anniversary, probably in 1951. Varda Lev, then a counselor at the camp, is in the back row, center. Varda told The Jewish Voice & Herald that many of these campers became well-known and well-respected scholars of Judaic studies.  /Courtesy Varda LevPROVIDENCE – In September of my fifth year, my parents returned to America after living in Jerusalem for seven years. My mother, a Hebrew teacher by profession and a dedicated Hebraist, was anxious that we remember the feel of Hebrew on our tongues.

In order to keep the “holy tongue” alive in our hearts and minds, she decided that we must speak only Hebrew at home in New York, as we had done in Jerusalem.

My mother would chirp Hebrew words at me, which soon became foreign as I refused to answer her in anything but English. When my expression morphed from determined defiance to blatant confusion, we started speaking English at home.

When I began public school, my mother again tried to teach me Hebrew, but my tongue had forgotten the language and was unaccustomed to the foreign movements.

When I began third grade, my mother told me that a camp, which could only accept Hebrew-speaking children, was planned for the next summer. She prepped me for the interview with Shlomo, the camp director, by barking out questions; I was expected to learn the answers – in Hebrew – during mealtimes.

As we rode the subway downtown to the interview, I repeated phrases I had committed to memory and she listened for mistakes. We met Shlomo; the interview proceeded as though he had my mother’s script in his hands. The rehearsed conversation tumbled from my lips and I was accepted to Camp Massad, the country’s first summer camp for Hebrew speakers.

The next summer, after my parents hugged me goodbye, I was given a seat on the bus next to a sallow-faced boy with crossed eyes. He told me that Camp Massad threw out anyone who didn’t speak Hebrew.

I envisioned being tossed out with the camp’s waste bins; suddenly, summer camp became all too serious.

I arrived to chaos, with counselors giving instructions solely in Hebrew. I began mimicking one girl, Yocheved, simply because she seemed to know what to do.

I unpacked, made my bed, went to meals and tried to participate in activities – all without speaking one word – and the first week passed in a haze.

My cover was nearly blown when Rivka, a counselor, made me name, in Hebrew, certain objects at the lunch table. They were, fortunately, part of my limited vocabulary and I successfully stumbled through Rivka’s tests, again and again.

During the second week of camp, we put on a small play with lines and stage directions entirely in Hebrew. Every camper got a part; mine consisted of one phrase: “Hem ba’im, hem ba’im,” meaning, “They are coming, they are coming.”

My cue to speak was painfully obvious; the boy who spoke before me jabbed his elbow into my ribs when it was my time to talk.

Once, before camp came to an end, the counselors gathered us together into one cabin. After a long string of words tumbled from a counselor’s mouth, everyone but me ran from the cabin and scattered in different directions as they searched for something … what, I didn’t know. I kept my eyes trained on Yocheved and blindly followed her.

She grew annoyed when I copied her yet again and snapped at me in English – telling me to stop following her.

With no idea what to do, I returned to the cabin and sulked on a cot. I felt a bulge under the blankets and found a small red ball under the covers.

When campers began straggling into the cabin, they rejoiced when they saw the ball in my lap. By finding the scavenger hunt object – the red ball – I had earned ice cream for my team.

My isolation ended and eventually I began to understand Hebrew again.

That was the first of 10 summers I spent at Camp Massad, where I sang and played and eventually loved in Hebrew.

The language and I never parted again.

VARDA LEV lives in Providence.