Rabbi Steven J. Lebow,
Marietta, Atlanta Georgia
“I always take a nap, just before I go to sleep…”
I am dreaming and here I am.
I am 8 years old and my parents, Doc and Rita, have driven 12 hours from South Florida to Cleveland, Georgia.
(I had driven to Georgia only once before this and that is a story for a different memoir. The story of my first trip to Atlanta, in 1963, is a sad tale, full of sand and tears. That story will simmer on the stove for some other time.)
We pull into Camp Coleman and there is no sign at the entrance. In 1965 the Klan was still bombing synagogues and churches. There is no UAHC Camp Coleman sign and there are no Jewish stars. No visible signs at all, except for the mile markers my father instructs me to count.
We drive down a dirt road and there it is. Just the Ad Building- what is now called the Misrad. The Administration Building (Misrad) of the camp sits by a lake. I had never seen a summer camp before.
If truth be told, I had never seen a lake, either.
As a child I was fascinated by that lake. I sat by it, dreaming and daydreaming, for hours. Only years later did I discover it had a name, “Lake Shalom”.
And then, it was many years later, when I looked down at the lake from the Ulam Gadol (Elishva), that I realized that the lake was shaped, vaguely, like the state of Israel.
I was only 8 years old the first time I sat by that lake. It could have been shaped like Rhode Island for all I knew.
But that lake was not shaped like Rhode Island. The lake was signified, like so many other things at Coleman, Jewishly.
Everything at that camp, outside Cleveland, Georgia, was signified as Jewish. I see that looking back, awakening from the dream of the middle of my middle age.
The food at Coleman was Jewishly significant. It was blessed in Hebrew. I had never heard Hebrew songs before. In fact, I had never heard the Motzi, the blessing over the bread, either.
I had been the only Jewish 3rd grader at Sunset Elementary School, in Ft. Lauderdale. No one at the school cafeteria in 1965 blessed their lunch room meals. And no one, I am sure, sang the Motzi at my gentile school.
But that first summer at Coleman everyone in the dining hall was Jewish. As I looked up and down the lunch room bench, at Coleman, it suddenly occurred to me that everyone was Jewish. And everyone that first summer I spent at camp sang the motzi.
Looking back, I guess that hearing that Motzi must have changed my life, in ways germane, but ineluctable and inchoate to me then.
Looking back, I see that 8 year old who returned home from that first summer at camp. I see him, small for his age- in fact, small for any age. I see that young boy, now in the fourth grade, singing the Motzi at every lunchtime, for many years to come. Singing Jewishly wherever he went.
Jew-less in Gaza, as the poet sings.
That young child sang the Hebrew blessings out loud and unashamedly during the final years of elementary school. He sang off key, but at least with gusto.
For fifty years, that little boy has sung the same Hebrew melodies that he learned fifty years ago. Now he is 58, but yen he was only 8 years old.
And now, both late at night and early in the morning, dreaming and awake, the melody of those Hebrew songs come back to him.
I know those Jewish melodies still sound on and on and on. I know, because I hear them still.
No matter whether I am dreaming, or awake.