(short story, play, foundation for a film)
It was getting towards lunchtime and the various activities around the 300 acre Summer Camp were trying to close up to make the hike back to the canteen. A Jewish star, the Star of David, in differing craftsman’s modes were always interesting to compare on the way up the hill from the pond where canoes were still being lifted onto the planks. One six pointed star was made with branches and could have been a wreath if you had not known what to look for. Another was a rusty iron configuration not quite uniform as the angles and bars had been taken from parts off cast away machines, old engines, and the like, so the corners weren’t exactly true. A third, bundled with daisies, looked so bright and elegant against the grey, rustic, cabin screen door.
If someone had been filming a movie from above, the scene would look like ants coming towards a hill. Aside from the pond area where there were volleyball grounds, pedal boats, a swimming area, canoes, and three large brick stone grills, there was a shooting range for 22s, an area for bow and arrow with 8 circular target boards with bails of hey behind, another open pasture for kickball or football, 4 full length basketball courts, side by side, some 7 trails that started and finished around the circumference of the camp. Trails were color coded by spray paint with orange, blue, red, white, etc. with arrows on tree trunks. A picnic area with dozens of benches also used for arts and crafts, were near the pavilion where each night, some story, recital, or lesson would be presented.
The makeshift synagogue was a trailer of sorts like the kind you might find in the back of a farmhouse. Tin roofed and sided with interior stained wood as insulator, the nondescript building was surprisingly not the focal point of the Camp. The dining hall with its unconventional plexi-glassed windows all around the building with pull up, pull down screens and cement floor, was often, at least three times a day, buzzing with activity. Even in the down times, one had to enter through the large screen double doors, walk across the length of the chamber just to get a bag of chips, ice cream, or soda. A person, a couple, or odd numbered group always seemed to be conversing at a some table regardless of the hour.
Johnny was trying to gather his 12 year olds into a group, count off the 13 students and head up the dirt path for lunch. Seth, Todd, Ron, Dan, Alan, Steve, were there. Stacy, Rhea, Matty, Erin, Sarah, and Kay were also there too, though the boys were already heading up in more or less of a line across the windy path, whereas the girls were huddled together walking in a group along the trail.
Johnny in looking at the cabins also noticed the handful of Hasidic Jews standing in front of the synagogue, getting books back into boxes. A bevy of children, elementary school aged, were stumbling on one another out of the building, as the three gentlemen with long curly sidelocks of hair by their ears, and with scraggily beards, neatly stacked books. He had become accustomed to their black circular, velvet rimmed, topped hats.
He wondered if Clair would be near his table, or maybe Robin.
“Hey do you guys need any help?” he asked the three.
They looked up very quietly and meticulously, and nodded “no” and then two added a smile. Some students of varying ages wore yarmulkes often pronounced “yamacas” or small rounded caps on the top of their heads. He continued to be surprised at mauve, pearl, mustard, brown, purple and utter variety of colors children would wear for their skull caps.
He noticed the children were studying “The Talmud,” a book which he was beginning to better understand for his group of counselors also received a few lessons now and again from the Camp Director who was also a Rabbi or teacher. He hadn’t been used to seeing church people without robes of some sort or doing menial or pedestrian jobs so it was a bit of a breadth of fresh air to see the Director in jeans, Converse high tops, and a red, bluish plaid shirt.
The Talmud, as he understood it, dictated the doctrine and laws from tradition of the Jews as is the Old and New Testament for the Christians though it differed from The Torah, which was more of their Bible. The word meant “study” for the book is intended to compare the oral and written laws and doctrines set forth in the Torah. Written and collected by teachers or Rabbis, the book was handed down as the teachings by the Elders. John had thought of a new single idea that had been so enlightening to him. Here, he was, the only non-Jew in the entire Camp of some 600 children and teachers, and here was a study of a book written by teachers, codified into doctrines and laws, for the sake of its own community. Teachers mattered to this civilization. It wasn’t a book written by one voice or two which stemmed from out of the universe; it was a text, written by men, experienced by men through time and culture, and set forth as a standard. Now whether that standard was right or wrong or appropriate didn’t matter for the time being, but the fact that a community cared enough about its own people to live a certain way, look towards a stable and prosperous family and communal life, and provide a means to sustain that community for generations was a marvelous notion. Although his Christian background could be said to be similar, the dogma and the evolution of the Son as a Prophet made him begin to try to understand the world in a different light. The world was beginning to take on such marvelous, vibrant colors like looking through a kaleidoscope. He felt there was such a difference in “follow me” versus “talk with me.”
The clamber of the trays and high pitched voices echoed throughout the rafters of the canteen. The tables were segregated by age groups and you could see the height of the children go from the front of the room where 8 year olds sat to back where 14 year old’s chatted about. The Counselors, typically, two to a table took turns each day to monitor. The others sat at a series of side tables.
John, sat amidst Bradford, Joel, Aton, and Barry, four snarky characters of like-minded sets of humor. Robin was on her way with a drink which he was excited about and motioned to her to sit next to him which she responded with a glowing smile. Karin, Ben, Clair, and Celia were coming round. Having been there two weeks, he felt he was beginning to fit in and make friends. Most of them were from the East: New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Virginia, Mass., and Connecticut. All were in colleges, most of which he had never heard of for they were smaller Liberal Arts Schools. Being at a large public institution with over 25,000 students had been his only track and consideration. Where were Randolph, Tufts, Williams, and Barnard Colleges?
An elderly, women walked over with a full lunch tray of food to place on the table for everyone. John got excited for he was starving.
“Egg Rolls, that’s excellent!” he shouted.
The group got hysterical, and all kinds of laughter was coming from nearby tables.
“Blintzes, you fool!” said Aton.
“He doesn’t know, be easy on him now!” said Karin who was still laughing.
John took a second look and laughed a bit himself. They still looked like egg rolls or uncooked manicotti shells.
“Try one, you’ll love it,” said Ben as everyone was reaching with a fork to place one on their plate.
“Quiet down, Rabbi Cohen is about to do the prayer,” said Joel.
He stood up to the microphone and the place quickly quieted down without any prodding from the adults.
“I hope you’ve had a good morning…Baruch atah, Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech haolam, hamotzi lechem min haaretz. (Our praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.)”
The Hebrew language had such melancholy yet heartfelt stirring in it-as if every song was one of mourning though this may have been because the various Rabbis had deeper and more solemn voices. Rabbis were singing their prayers, they were not hymns, and the teachings made the practice seem so much more joyful than the severity of “A Reading from The Gospel according to…” He had also heard and found it odd that he had been told by his great aunt once who had been a nurse in an old-aged home, that very old people often sing for seemingly no reason at all hours day or night. She didn’t know why and nobody in the hospital ever knew why this phenomena occurred but the human soul she said longed to soar with angels and singing gave them wings.
They began to eat heartily. The blintzes, with a pancake like outer shell, were fried, and had a cheese filling. Salad came round, boiled eggs, and then a plate of salmon pieces. He thought it best not to try to eat a handful of them to not be rude. But the mix of offerings filled him better than any two cheeseburgers, fries, and Coke.
“So what does it feel like to be the only Goy in town?” said Bradford.
John looked hesitantly and didn’t know how to respond.
“That’s not very nice,” said Celia.
“I’m just playing with ya, Johnny boy,” said Bradford.
“What’s a Goy?” he asked.
“Gentile, non-Jew,” said Barry.
“Well, not any different than five minutes ago,” said Johnny, “though glad to have a new nickname. Johnny the Goy, sounds a little more Italian.”
“You could be our Shabbat Goy, too” said Aton.
“Oh, shut up,” said Celia.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“Shabbat is our time of resting. It is the day in Genesis, the seventh day. So, you know, God created on six days and rested on the seventh, so we rest, too–not allowed to do any work whatsoever. Traditionally, it starts Friday afternoon with a lighting of candles by women or girls,” said Bradford.
“Fat chance, Brad,” said Robin.
“And then we rest… we eat a lot, talk a lot, and have a lot of prayers in between.” He continued.
“It’s a spiritual time, time to reflect, and we’re not allowed to do any work, so meals are done ahead of time, no technology, industry, or crafts, just family, reflection, food, and learning” added Ben.
“Well, you could still be our Shabbat Goy—you can turn the lights on and off,” said Aton.
“You can turn my lights on anytime,” said Clair who turned to him gleefully.
Johnny laughed it off and dug in.
“You like the blintzes?” said Clair.
“Yea, pretty darn good and I like this lettuce thing, too. It’s growing on me.”
The Rabbi came around the table, patted a few shoulders and shared with us that our group would be in the synagogue just after lunch for about 20 minutes.
As the groups of children dispersed after disposing of their trays and recyclables in their various cans, Clair, Robin, and Celia walked beside John out the double doors.
“So how’s Maryland. What’s your major?” said Robin.
“Not so sure yet, but leaning towards English Lit. possibly,” said John.
“Not much of a job market for Lit. majors, you gonna go to law school? be a teacher?” she replied.
“Not so sure just really like it,” he replied.
“I took this Shakespeare class, which was pretty remarkable. You’d think going line by line throughout a play would be boring but it was super cool.”
“Hope you didn’t do the Merchant of Venice. Shylock is not a very good reference now for the Jewish people,” said Clair.
“No, I guess he isn’t, not everybody wants a pound of flesh as interest instead of cash,” he said.
“You know the Dutch in Europe are supposed to be the stingy ones and the Scottish in Great Britain,” said Robin.
“Cultures, aye! But that speech on mercy is pretty remarkable. We, Catholics take a lot of stock in mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. I get the forgiveness from St. Augustine where he said hatred was like a double edged sword that every time you put a “dagger” in someone with hatred, you’re also stabbing yourself. But the mercy thing is pretty hard.”
“Agree, easier said than done” said Clair.
“’The quality of mercy is not strained…’ We had to memorize parts I chose this one. That line itself, just by itself is remarkable. It is all but ‘strained!’ He continued, ‘It droppeth as a gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed…’ and here is where we have St. Augustine in again, but instead of hate with a sword we have blessings. Shakespeare is always turning ideas on their head, wrapping them around you, bending, breaking molds, toying with our everyday logic. Love it.”
He continued as they walked down the path. He turned his back so that he was walking backwards, and spoke to the three of them as if acting.
“It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
It is mightiest in the mightiest.
It becomes the throned monarch better than his crown.”
He mimicked the placing a fake crown on his head and then pretended to wave a sword in front of them.
“His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
An attribute to awe and majesty.
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings.
And he emphasized the word “mercy” in a slow, deliberate manner and said it twice.
“..is above this sceptred sway,
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself.
And earthly power dost the become likest God’s,
Where mercy seasons justice.
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,”
He had gone too far. In reciting, the words had just come rumbling out without adequate forethought. Clair stopped in her tracks. Robin’s body jerked back a little. Celia’s face turned red and she looked astonished.
“Hey, I didn’t mean anything by that, it was just part of the speech,” said John.
“Yea, we get it,” said Robin who walked on ahead and seemed angry. Celia followed her.
“Clair, I didn’t mean any harm by calling you out like a Jew,” he stammered.
“No, I am a Jew,” she replied with an emphasis on ‘am.’ Hey, seriously, don’t worry about it. I didn’t take any offense. You’re quoting Shakespeare anyway and you were called a ‘Goy’ five minutes ago so I guess we’re all even,” she replied without any malice in her voice.
John felt like an utter idiot and rubbed his forehead. He thought to himself “I am such an absolute fool.” The two were quiet as they walked into the synagogue among the group of counselors and found a place to sit on the floor together.
Rabbi Cohen was getting ready to speak. The thirty plus counselors lounged about but got ready for their lesson by getting into a comfortable position on the floor. Some rested their backs against one another.
“I want to talk to you today about a saying from Hillel from Ethics of the Fathers. It reads, “If I am not for myself, who will be? And when I am for myself, what am ‘I?’ And if not now, when?”
John and the others listened.
“Three simple sentences. Three interrogatives or questions. Three ‘I’s. Three ‘am’s. Three commas. Three questions ‘who, what, when.’ There is not a ‘where’ or a ‘why’ in it just a ‘who, what,’ and ‘when.’ And the ‘and’ provides such a feeling of continuation, and sense of time passing. ‘And.’” he repeated.
He paused to let the group hear the silence and reflect for a moment.
“Three simple sentences. ‘If I am not for myself, who will be?’ You all are at the outset of your life. If you are lucky, you’ve had a family to guide you, perhaps a mother and father, or one or the other, a grandparent of some sort, or even a guardian. Perhaps, you haven’t understood their leading hand in your life. Maybe a teacher has helped along the way. But you, are the ‘I’ now. You are becoming the ‘I’ in the saying. Therefore, if you are not for yourself then who will be? I ask this of you. Who can speak to yourself, your deeds, your heart, better than you? Is there anyone other than you that you would ask to stand for you? And if you can’t be for yourself then….”
He paused again. “The world awaits you. You. I say ‘You’ and he pointed. You are the ‘I.’ Who will be for you I ask? Are you ready for what this means? Do you have the integrity, character, spirit, for what this means?”
He paused again. “And when I am for myself, what am ‘I?’ The word ‘then’ seems to be taken out. ‘And when I am for myself, [then] what am ‘I’?’ What will you be? A ‘what’ is so impersonal isn’t it, like a materialistic thing. Can a human being be a ‘what?’ Will you become like a materialistic object, we see so many people so attached to materialistic things that they almost become the thing itself, the symbol rather, or when you are ready for yourself, an ‘I’ will you be something unique, authentic, and altogether you. Shakespeare writes, ‘To thine own self, be true…’”
Celia darted a look at John who hadn’t noticed.
The Rabbi continued uninterrupted, “Will you discover and know what it means to be ‘True?’ When people hear you say the words ‘Yes’ will they understand that you mean ‘Yes.’ And when you say the word ‘No’ will they understand what you mean by your saying ‘no.’
He paused and walked around a small table, picked up a book and then set it down again.
“’And if not now, when?’ When, when… when. When will you begin your journey? When will you make your way? When will you decide? ‘When’ demands an answer, doesn’t it? I am asking you when? ‘If not now?’…” and he paused for the last time.
“We will see you back here tomorrow. Have a great day, and go and take care of those children.”
The crowd got up slowly. Some lent a hand to pull others up from the ground. John looked at Robin who turned away to another counselor. Clair stood by him and nodded with a friendly smile as if he hadn’t hurt her or her friend’s feelings at all. Aton grabbed him and pulled him out the door to pull him towards the basketball courts where they had hoped of a quick pick up game before two and the afternoon activities would start.
Image from Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/451556300108514029/?lp=true.