We’re sitting around in a circle. The sunlight comes through the tall windows in the entrance area of the Elementary School. The windows overlook the outside garden area. There are overgrown plants. Encircled by mosaiced stepping stones. Broken ceramics and sparkling marbles pressed into the concrete slabs surrounded by dirt. And they shine off the summer sun. The few trees in the garden create pockets of shadows. That is where the other girls from my bunk stand.
They are the girls that wear long skirts and shirts that cover their elbows. They are the girls that can lead themselves through Davening. Bowing and rocking back and forth. Holding their small Siddurim with one hand, and flipping through the tissue thin pages with familiarity.
Back inside, I watch the girls, pocketed in shadows. Rachel Leah has long brown hair, that she combs through with her finders during Davening time. She leads us, the other girls. The girls that wear shorts, and tank tops to camp. Rachel Leah tells us what page to turn to, and prays louder than we do, since we’re not so familiar with the words. She works her fingers through her wavy brown hair, from the top to the bottom, as she sings, ending with strands left behind in her fingers. She puts the strands in a pile next to her. As we continue Davening, the pile grows.
Something about the way the sunlight hits Rachel Leah from the side, brings a feeling of warmth. Her voice is soothing, but stern. She doesn’t yell, and run like the other counselors. She is poised, and reserved. While the other bunks have water fights, or play kickball, our bunk finds a shady area outside to listen to Rachel Leah tell us stories. Stories about Rabbis that lived a long time ago. A story about a little Jewish boy in Russia, who was taken away from his parents and forced to fight for the KGB. Stories of mothers who didn’t have enough food to feed their families, and prayed every day for a miracle. Her stories are inherently sad. But we don’t mind. When she speaks a haziness surrounds us. We’d rest around her, leaning on each other, or laying with our stomachs in the grass, our heads resting on our arms.
There was a strong feeling of pride, that goes along with my memories of that summer. Our camp songs, looking back on them, were filled with subtle and some less subtle messages on how we, as Jews, were a part of a tradition of separating ourselves from the outside, secular world. There was a feeling of intended isolation, in our world of Camp Gan Israel (Garden of Israel). We were spending our days in a bubble. Our counselors creating stronger and stronger walls around us with every story of Jewish persecution. Every sad camp song. Every narrative the resulted in the message that we are the chosen ones.
I realize that I idolized it all. The girls in my bunk who wore long skirts, and who could Daven on their own. I idolized their ability to fully be a member of the world Camp Gan Israel created for us. They knew the traditions. They spoke with the subtle Yiddish accent our counselors spoke with. They were indistinguishably different then everyone else. When they left the safety of camp, anyone could see their difference. The girls, in their long skirts, and shirts that cover their elbows. The boys wearing Yamakas and Tzitzit.
One day, when it was particularly hot, we venture out to pick up Slurpies at a near by 7-11. We’d call trips like these ‘run aways.’ Stepping off of the school bus, and onto the gas station parking lot, my bunk mates are met with stares. So are our counselors. I wear my Tie Die camp shirt and jean shorts, which leaves nothing to show for the day’s we’ve all spent together, lounging in the sun listening to Rachel Leah’s stories. Leaves nothing to show of my connection to this world I spend my summers in.
Rachel Leah told us, one morning as we sat in our circle by the window overlooking the gardens, ‘it’s important to have others see us in a positive way, so they have good opinions of Jews.’ Rachel Leah smiles at the people at the gas station who stare, and walks with her head up high. I feel the strangers look as we walk from the bus. I reach up to Rachel Leah, and she takes my hand in hers. And the people watching us from their car windows, see me with her. Connected hand in hand. I am a part of their circle, and walk with my head up high.
About the author...
Anna Rose Wolfe is an writer / performer. She is the co founder of Scout & Birdie. Anna is a graduate of Columbia College Chicago, where she earned a BA in Acting and a minor in Gender Studies. She performs regularly with The LIVINGroom, a solo performance ensemble. Anna has been featured in venues and fests around Chicago, such as Life Line Theater’s Fillet of Solo Festival, Greenhouse Theatre Center’s Solo Celebration, Abbie Hoffman Died for Our Sins Festival, National Cool Shorts, Flat Iron Comedy, Greenhouse Theatre Center's SoloPerformance Lab, The Plagiarists Salon, and The Election Monologues.