It wasn’t primarily a religious camp. It was more of a…
Lincoln set the Negro free
Why is he still in sla-ver-y…
kind of a place.
Social justice was the “Specialty of the House.” But we were also Jewish, meaning at least a minimum of religiosity had to be embedded into the camp routine. And so, Friday Night – Shabbat Eve – Dinner was dutifully celebrated.
(The confusing or inconsistent thing was that Saturday – Shabbat Day itself – was a typical day at our camp, featuring the regular activities of any other day. The only standout element was that on Saturday mornings, they would serve freshly baked cinnamon buns, to commemorate our People’s wandering in the desert for forty years without…pastries. Apparently, Friday Night Dinner completed the camp’s obligation to Judiosity.)
The Friday Night Dinner routine played out with uncharacteristic decorum. There was a before-the-meal roundup at the flagpole outside the Mess Hall, and, when your unit was called, you would quietly proceed inside.
No mad dash. No pushing or screaming. There was some surreptitious “fast walking”, in order to secure the coveted end seat at the table, providing expansive “elbow room”, rather than the elbow-rammed-into-your-ribs room you received shoehorned in along the bench.
The mood was comparatively mellow. A sweet-voiced, choir greeted us with soothing Hebraic melodies. We found the Mess Hall, festively decorated with crepe paper Jewish stars, serving as hubs for spoking blue and white (the Israeli flag colors) streamers. At each table, a stubby Shabbat candle stood in the center of a square glass ashtray, colorfully garnished with the leaf of a fern.
Once seated, you became immediately aware that the usual ear-splitting din was absent, replaced by a respectful, buzzing Friday Night hum. For one night a week, you could actually hear what the person beside you was saying. Whether you wanted to or not.
The breadbasket brimmed with the traditional (though here sliced) challah (egg bread), rather than the gummy Wonder Bread served at all the other meals. You could easily tell the difference. The challah’s crust was dotted with sesame seeds, and its constituency was an appetizing yellow. I am not being facetious. The yellow bread tasted significantly better.
Friday Night Dinner included a mandatory Dress Code. The instruction was prescribed in our “Packing list.” A complete wardrobe included Friday Night “whites.”
White t-shirt or blouse, white long pants or shorts, white buck shoes, if you had them (though no pink carnation; it was Shabbat Dinner, not the prom), or just white sneakers. Also, of course, white socks. Though, in fact, only the serious fashionistas had sneaker socks of any other color. Usually, the American campers.
(One counselor, an agnostic, refused to wear “whites” to Shabbat Dinner, making a conspicuous statement by wearing gray.)
My mother never bought me white, long pants. Where else was I going to wear them? Lawn bowling? What I wore instead to Shabbat Dinner – which were quite popular at the time – was a pair of “clam diggers”, tapering white, calf-length trousers, fastened by a red-and-white, braided rope-belt. So attired, I was equally ready for Friday Night Dinner or a limbo contest.
After the traditional blessing over the wine, and the (which we said before every meal) blessing over the bread, the waiters wheeled out our dinner on rolling metal carts. It started with some oleaginous chicken soup, followed roast chicken swimming in fat, a kind of Mazola-dusted fried rice, and some seriously overcooked green beans. The refreshment of the evening was the sacramental wine “stand-in” – purple grape juice.
Okay, you’re a gambler, assessing probabilities. What kind of odds would you give against a hungry, young camper, dressed entirely in white, completing the Friday Night Dinner without sustaining some disfiguring blemish on his or her clothing as a result of consuming greasy soup, greasy chicken, greasy fried rice, slithery green beans and precariously spilly grape juice?
Nobody got out clean.
In the extreme unlikelihood that you did emerge unsullied, afterwards, during the Shabbat-appropriate “Sing-Song”, where the campers threw their arms around each other and swayed to melodies of brotherhood and peace, especially if you were not popular, your pals would release their slick-fingered grasp, leaving a lingering memento on the back of your t-shirt.
Since there was no “Free Play” on Friday night, and hence nowhere to race off to, the Dining Hall egress was generally orderly and calm. Though there were a few miscreants who would bolt out regardless. Maybe they were doing it for practice.
The “Evening Activity” involved Friday Night “Services”, though there was no actual praying involved. Instead, age-appropriate presentations were mounted for the various units. Though their plotlines involved international incidents such as the Hungarian Revolution, or passive resistance in India, in all cases, the “Services’” underlying message boiled down to,
“If you get a salami from home, you have to share it.”
Afterwards, the younger campers went straight to bed. Older campers would move on to a debate on the issue, though, in reality, there is no defensible “other side” to salami-sharing.
There was a warming quality to the Friday Night Dinner tradition, a comforting end-of-the-week distinction. Still, the event was not without its element of tension:
“Will the laundry get the food stains out of my “whites” before Friday? If not, what am I going to wear?”
The Lord forgives many things. But you can’t wear a plaid shirt to Shabbat Dinner.
Even if it’s your nicest one.