Shabbat Letter from the Director #4

Thank you to

  • Rabbi Harold Kravitz from Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minnetonka, MN, and his family
  • Hazzan David Lipp from Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Louisville, KY, and his wife
  • Leah Nash from Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in Overland Park, KS, and her family
  • Julie Finkelstein of the Foundation for Jewish Camp

for joining us for a visit this week!

How is a story like a river? How is a river like a story? From the start, you cannot see the end.  And the end may not be clear, or definitive, or satisfying.  It may open up into another story, or fizzle into nothing.  And the beginning may not be clear … because it is likely the end of a different story.  But we have to start the telling somewhere.  Our “map-maker” selves have to decide where the river begins and ends.  The river begins.  The river forms over time.  It lives and grows day by day.  The river cannot make decisions.  A river cannot stand still.  A river cannot flow backwards.  Except when it can.  Hmmm.  You never hear the same river twice.  Every time you hear a river you hear something new.  Just like you never step in the same story twice.  It is constantly changing and what was once familiar is different because you are different.  There are stories that we tell ourselves, like memories, and like memories, they are fluid.  A story has a life with each person it touches.  And with each person whom it touches, it changes a bit as they pass the story along.  A story starts at a single source and from there it grows to those it is shared with.  Rivers flow – so do stories.  Rivers can be barriers or unifiers – so can stories.  Rivers can change and stay the same – so do stories.    Rivers have unknown depths – so do stories.  Rivers empty out into oceans.  Stories empty out into our collective unconscious, our culture, our souls.  We sit beside our rivers and imagine where they’ll take us.  We sit beside our stories and imagine where they’ll take us.  (The Underwater Palace, adapted by the Northwoods Ramah Theatre Company, 2015)

This beautiful meditation on rivers and stories is the prologue to a provocative and gripping play seen on Wednesday by over two-hundred fifty members of our Ramah community.  In its 11th residency, the Northwoods Ramah Theatre Company, our in-house professional theatre troupe, returned to an adaptation it created in its first summer, 2005, of a short story called “The Underwater Palace.”  In re-imagining it for 2015, our actors and director explored the fairy tale with fresh eyes, challenging its assumptions and modernizing it for a similar population viewing it a decade later.  In doing so, they helped highlight the unmistakably Jewish veins in the story, however subtly they may have been presented, like the comparison in the prologue.  One of Rabbinic literature’s favorite tropes is the comparison of water to Jewish learning (especially Torah) and “living waters” to our lives.  The language here is consciously evocative of our lives as flowing in directions we cannot predict, and of the stories we tell ourselves, including those ritualized and sacred, as evolving as we evolve, whether we like it or not.

Since I first heard this prologue in its entirety earlier this week, performed by four actors in dialogue with each other, I have not been able to stop thinking about stories:  my stories, Camp Ramah in Wisconsin’s stories, friends’ stories, and the many, many stories created during this densely-packed and enormously generative week of the summer.  Years ago, at the end of their final summer as campers, I would explicitly welcome our oldest campers, the Nivonim, into the amateur guild of storytellers that make up Ramah alumni.  What are the stories we tell?  How do they shape who we are?  How does our retelling change over time?  How do others who were there remember them differently?  Does it all matter?  How do we retell the stories our grandparents, parents, and counselors told us?  Do we choose to make the storytelling process conscious in the stories we tell?

This week, stories abound.  As Kochavim B and Garinim end their time in camp, they will return home on Monday filled with stories they are still processing and sorting out.  One camper has a story of an unbelievable diving catch during a softball game, which his team ultimately lost.  Others have stories of their underdog win over the older aidah(division).  A new generation of Sebastians, Ariels, Prince Eric, Flounder, Scuttle, Ursula, and French chefs joined four previous incarnations of The Little Mermaid in camp lore.  The entire Shoafim (8th grade) aidah opened our theatre season with amazing poise, energy, and talent, from the energetic chorus members to the aforementioned leads.  On Wednesday evening we began Yom Sport (Color War), with new stories written nearly every minute, from basketball to dodgeball, home run derbies to log rolling, banner-painting to dancing, capture the flag to the classic final stages of the climactic relay race:  one camper kayaking out to the island, a second camper swimming back, and then the five Nivonim captains for each team building a fire to burn a rope.

Each of these moments and each emerging story pull me back to my own stories with their different layers.  As a young camper, watching in awe as the older campers led the camp; then being one of those older campers (and captaining the Red team in 1997 that finished in fourth place); then watching my own campers go through the process as counselor; then, differently, experiencing similar pride as a Rosh Eidah (division head); before moving out of direct service roles into those of an administrator.  And still, the stories grow, and are retold, flowing and evolving.

Last night before the whole camp new stories were written, during the camp-wide talent show that is perhaps the greatest testament to the community we build at Ramah.  For ninety-plus minutes, our entire camp – rising 4th-graders through AARP members – sit silently, enraptured, as members of each age group perform.  Nearly every act is quite similar to the outside observer – a mixture of song, dance, and instrumental performance; and yet, this seeming repetition does nothing to dull the experience.  A twelve-year old boy stands up in front of 500+ people, casually explains he is about to perform an operatic song in Latin, translates the Latin into English, and then sings gorgeously.  Two ten-year old girls perform a flawless dance they choreographed themselves, dedicating it to a third girl who had come down with a cold and couldn’t perform.  Large groups of rising 8th-grade girls and 9th-, 10th-, and 11th-grade boys choreographed elaborate routines they performed enthusiastically with no self-consciousness – and each of them volunteered to make it happen, put in the time beforehand to make their performances great, and will remember them for the rest of their lives.  The show was framed by one of our Tikvah campers performing, on electric guitar, the Star-Spangled Banner in a manner that would have fit in at Woodstock, and another Tikvah camper singing a medley of songs as two of her Machon (10th grade)chaverim (buddies) danced back-up behind her.

After the talent show, ever-moved by each individual story on stage, stories that I appreciate more and more each year, I had the pleasure of joining a cabin of 5th-grade boys (2B!) for an ice cream party they won for having the cleanest cabin in camp last week.  Sitting with the boys as they gobbled up chocolate syrup, crushed Oreos, and sprinkles (with an occasional bite of ice cream), I started hearing the very earliest versions of their stories, including the two boys in the cabin who were part of the winning team for Yom Sport.

The stories we tell are sometimes about the highlight moments, the stuff the Camp Director might write about in a weekly newsletter.  More often they are about subtle events, one-on-one conversations with a friend or a counselor that, in all likelihood, we would not notice if we saw it happen before our own eyes.  These stories accrete over time, some sloughing off for all sorts of reasons, others sticking incessantly in our minds and repertoires, try as we might to dismiss them.  Their creation is part of the engine of camp, and their re-telling (and re-telling, and re-telling) is perhaps the essential magic that helps reinforce the powerful friendships and identity-shaping moments at camp.

Thanks to the Northwoods Ramah Theatre Company for inspiring me this week to reflect on my own stories, and to our campers and staff for giving me so many obvious stories for me to start telling, before they can arrive home and start telling their own.  Next time we see each other, feel free to ask me about one of these stories, or one of my own.  Just be prepared to take a long journey down an unpredictable river.

Like the one about the song and dance routine from the four girls from Omaha during the talent show … or the camper, the executive chef, two years, and composting … or the myriad events of next week:  The Tikvah Arts Festival (with Machon buddies), Kochavim B and Garinim end-of-session activities, Garinim/Halutzim intersession, Ruach Ramah, the Solelim play – Peter Pan, Shoafim yetziah (outing), Nivonim girls’ canoe trip, Nivonim boys’ special programming, camping trips, softball games, basketball games, island swim, and more!

Shabbat Shalom,
Jacob

Suggested questions to ask your camper early next week via e-mail:

What team were you on for Yom Sport?  What were the highlights of the day?
What was your favorite act in the Talent Show?  Who from your aidah performed?

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