Danc­ing the hora at Camp Wel-Met, 1948, Pho­to by Heinz H. Weissenstein

Nation­al Jew­ish Wel­fare Board Records 

I was twen­ty-four years old when I start­ed doing research for what, ten years lat­er, became my book, The Jews of Sum­mer: Sum­mer Camp and Jew­ish Cul­ture in Post­war Amer­i­ca. As a young woman in the ear­ly stages of her aca­d­e­m­ic career, I learned quick­ly that I’d have to fight hard­er than my male col­leagues to be con­sid­ered seri­ous” about my work. From the old­er pro­fes­sor who asked me if I was com­mit­ted to hav­ing an aca­d­e­m­ic career or just doing a PhD to kill time until mar­riage, to the advice women shared among them­selves about tamp­ing down one’s fem­i­nin­i­ty in pro­fes­sion­al set­tings, the mes­sage was clear: being young and female was, and still is, a lia­bil­i­ty, if you wish to be tak­en seri­ous­ly in the world of academia.

This is an issue for all young women and it was not just my pref­er­ence for bright, pat­terned cloth­ing that proved a hur­dle in my case. It was the very sub­ject I want­ed to write about: a his­to­ry of the Amer­i­can Jew­ish sum­mer camp through the expe­ri­ences of the young. The his­to­ry of child­hood and youth, and the use of age as a cat­e­go­ry of analy­sis, have received recog­ni­tion as legit­i­mate forms of social his­to­ry, the study of youth in Jew­ish his­to­ry is less estab­lished. And while study­ing the his­to­ry of Jew­ish edu­ca­tion was not new, a focus on the lives of chil­dren and teenagers has been much rar­er in the field. 

I was warned by sev­er­al senior schol­ars that such an approach might not be tak­en seri­ous­ly. How to con­vince them and oth­ers that the expe­ri­ences of Jew­ish chil­dren and teenagers at sum­mer camps could say some­thing sig­nif­i­cant, maybe even vital, about Amer­i­can Jew­ish his­to­ry more broad­ly, was the assign­ment at hand.

It took me years of research­ing and writ­ing to fig­ure out how to make that case con­vinc­ing­ly, and those years includ­ed a great deal of time in which I repressed some of the things I found most inter­est­ing about the sub­ject. Indeed, as I explored camps’ archival col­lec­tions, I found hilar­i­ous doc­u­ments near­ly every­day – things that left me chuck­ling to myself in read­ing rooms across the coun­try. Some were writ­ten by chil­dren while oth­ers were writ­ten by adults about chil­dren. I loved these pieces of archival gold, but could seri­ous schol­ars” write about children’s crush­es, raids, and camp news­pa­pers’ humor columns? Where would I put salty camper eval­u­a­tions or the let­ters campers wrote home to par­ents that par­ents then sent back to the camp ask­ing why their kid was so dis­grun­tled? I didn’t know exactly. 

I loved these pieces of archival gold, but could seri­ous schol­ars” write about children’s crush­es, raids, and camp news­pa­pers’ humor columns?

All I knew was that I did not want to lose track of these pre­cious win­dows into camper cul­ture. So when I found some­thing that made me gig­gle, I put it some­where I could share with friends–a Tum­blr that I called PS I lost my blue hat,” after an excel­lent let­ter a child wrote to his moth­er that end­ed with that post­script. I pur­pose­ly kept my name off of it, how­ev­er. In the safe­ty of anonymi­ty, I let those archival scraps of joy live exter­nal to the pages of my then-dis­ser­ta­tion, and let my sense of humor shine in my com­men­tary around the images and quotes.

By the time I was a post­doc writ­ing what would become The Jews of Sum­mer, both my research and I had matured. With the con­fi­dence of years of hav­ing giv­en pre­sen­ta­tions, receiv­ing peer reviews, and affirm­ing men­tor­ship rela­tion­ships, helped by just the fact of enter­ing my thir­ties, I had got­ten both the exter­nal and inter­nal val­i­da­tion I need­ed to feel that I no longer had to prove my research inter­ests were wor­thy of study. 

With a new sense of con­fi­dence, I looked back at the pho­tos of the fun­ny lit­tle scraps of paper I saved and real­ized that they weren’t besides the point: they were, iron­i­cal­ly, the entire point. They encap­su­lat­ed the Jew­ish camp: an edu­ca­tion­al and ide­o­log­i­cal project fueled by adult anx­i­eties about the future, spliced with every­day expe­ri­ences of silli­ness, joy, home­sick­ness, humor, and chaos. The things I saved for my and my friends’ enjoy­ment end­ed up even­tu­al­ly being some of the most impor­tant sources in the entire book, enabling me to write about sub­jects oth­er his­to­ri­ans of Jew­ish edu­ca­tion had not writ­ten about, like sex and rela­tion­ships at camp, pow­er dynam­ics between teens and adults, and how youth cul­ture entered and shaped camp life. Such sources also led me towards fig­ur­ing out one of the book’s major con­tri­bu­tions: that inter­gen­er­a­tional nego­ti­a­tion, and mak­ing campers feel free with­in sum­mer camps, are cru­cial parts of camps’ trans­for­ma­tive prop­er­ties. Camps can only suc­ceed edu­ca­tion­al­ly if campers feel they’ve tak­en on their camps’ ide­olo­gies will­ing­ly, as free agents rather than sub­jects of an adult-con­trolled environment. 

Seri­ous” and unse­ri­ous” are fab­ri­cat­ed cat­e­gories. As I get fur­ther and fur­ther away from my own youth, it gets eas­i­er to shake off these pres­sures, and sim­ply let my research and writ­ing be guid­ed by my own instincts for what mat­ters. The Jews of Sum­mer is a thor­ough aca­d­e­m­ic his­to­ry of Amer­i­can Jew­ry and the sum­mer camp writ­ten by a schol­ar who takes her research seri­ous­ly.” It is also filled with rel­e­vant-but-fun­ny anec­dotes, writ­ten by a per­son who likes a good laugh. Because why, at the end of the day, not be both?

San­dra Fox is vis­it­ing assis­tant pro­fes­sor of Hebrew Juda­ic Stud­ies and Direc­tor of the Archive of the Jew­ish Left Project at New York Uni­ver­si­ty, and founder and exec­u­tive pro­duc­er of the Yid­dish-lan­guage pod­cast Vay­ber­taytsh: A Fem­i­nist Pod­cast in Yid­dish.