• Review
By – October 22, 2020

Based on sev­en years of research and per­son­al obser­va­tion, Hebrew Infu­sion explores the many ways in which sum­mer camps have adopt­ed Hebrew to serve a vari­ety of goals, ulti­mate­ly draw­ing a par­al­lel to the larg­er impact of Hebrew on iden­ti­ty with­in the Jew­ish Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty. Camps present a dis­tinct oppor­tu­ni­ty to pro­mote val­ues and com­mu­ni­ty atti­tudes. Away from home and every­day respon­si­bil­i­ties, campers form a dis­tinc­tive cul­ture, enriched by activ­i­ties, rit­u­als, songs, and cheers. The authors of Hebrew Infu­sion—all pro­fes­sors of lin­guis­tics and Jew­ish edu­ca­tion — view lan­guage as an effec­tive vehi­cle for com­mu­ni­ty-build­ing. It is social, they write, open to cre­ative prac­tices, can be writ­ten or spo­ken, and is part of everyone’s iden­ti­ty. Is Hebrew, then, a vital part of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty? Hebrew Infu­sion explores how so-called sum­mer camp Hebrew,” from lan­guage immer­sion to what the authors call camp Hebraized Eng­lish (CHE),” meets the chal­lenge of fash­ion­ing a dias­poric identity.”

The book begins with a brief intro­duc­tion to the his­to­ry of Jew­ish sum­mer camps. The first Jew­ish sum­mer camps, found­ed around 1900, were intend­ed to pro­mote Amer­i­can­iza­tion. Many had Native Amer­i­can – inspired names, with Jew­ish con­tent, if any, restrict­ed to Sab­bath ser­vices. It was only after World War I that Jew­ish pro­gram­ming became more cen­tral, as edu­ca­tors rec­og­nized camp as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to build Jew­ish life in Amer­i­ca. Mod­ern Hebrew was first infused into camp life through Zion­ist youth move­ments in the 1930s and ear­ly 1940s, with an eye towards pos­si­ble immi­gra­tion to Palestine.

After World War II, how­ev­er, Jew­ish sur­vival became a pri­ma­ry motive for edu­cat­ing and inspir­ing Jew­ish chil­dren. The grow­ing pride in America’s eth­nic diver­si­ty, marked in the Amer­i­can Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty by con­nec­tion to the state of Israel and the use of Hebrew, was reflect­ed in the Reform move­ment, the most accul­tur­at­ed denom­i­na­tion in Amer­i­ca. They began using Hebrew more inten­sive­ly, most notably in songs, rit­u­als, and dai­ly sum­mer camp life. Mas­sad and Ramah, Hebrew immer­sion camps, blos­somed in the 1960s only to fade away or change course in the 1980s, when it became pos­si­ble to have an authen­tic Israeli expe­ri­ence in the state of Israel itself, rather than at a sum­mer camp.

After this brief his­tor­i­cal intro­duc­tion, the authors turn to con­tem­po­rary prac­tices and the con­flict­ing ide­olo­gies behind the ways Hebrew is inte­grat­ed into camp pro­grams today. The dis­cus­sion cen­ters around dif­fer­ent approach­es to teach­ing and the pos­si­ble out­comes of these approach­es. The dif­fer­ence between Amer­i­can Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and Israeli iden­ti­ty is also insight­ful­ly com­ment­ed on through the explo­ration of lan­guage at camp.

Over­all, this well-doc­u­ment­ed study pro­vides exten­sive infor­ma­tion for stu­dents of Jew­ish edu­ca­tion, lin­guis­tics, and Amer­i­can Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. While sum­mer camps do not, for the most part, pro­duce Hebrew flu­en­cy, they have and con­tin­ue to forge con­nec­tions to Judaism and Israel, help­ing the next gen­er­a­tion define what it means to be Jew­ish in America.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

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