A fifth-grade girl tapped me on the back and asked me to hold her lip gloss in my pocket. If my memory serves, she had her own pockets but I accepted it anyway. Then she introduced herself. We walked from cabin Judith down to the dining hall amongst other groups of kids, arms locked like old friends, away from home in our own limitless world. I was lucky to meet her there every summer and take that same walk, for ten more years.
If you ask my parents what stands out about our family’s time at Camp Hess Kramer, the conversation could start one of two ways. Way one: I came home after my first summer asking what a dildo was. Way two: my parents met there.
My mom grew up in Mexico City and came to the U.S. at age 17. My dad is Pittsburgian, and later an Angelino. He began his time at CHK at 11 years old. His all-time favorite counselor also grew up in Mexico City, coincidentally my mom’s neighbor. During third session in the summer of 1986, my dad passed my mom a note asking, if they were to get married, could they have a big Jewish Mexican wedding. Five years later they did.
Camp is everything my parents promised it would be, and then it’s everything else. The stuff you can’t put into words, you just have to experience it for yourself. That’s what it was for me. That’s what it still is.
That fifth-grade girl is my best friend to this day, my chosen sister and life partner, Miss Alli Roth. We both fell in love with the same Malibu breeze that moved between Eucalyptus trees bending across the Chapel. We savored our free time walks up to the Menorah, camp’s Inspiration Point, a mighty Jewish symbol overlooking the ocean. Our talks there, and the rocky walks between, turned into landlines from LA to Scottsdale, Arizona, recounting our days and counting the seconds until we could go back to camp. Landlines became cell phones and those became traction on the eight hours of road between our cities. From disposable cameras to digital cameras, to flights and texts and then FaceTimes.
Until finally, we board yellow buses for more summer. Pizza on the first day and something special on the last. Cabin time, dance time, friendship bracelets, rock walls. Beach day and Shabbat. Setting Baruh on fire. Figuratively, but enough to send the fire alarm ringing with radiant heat. A whole year we wished would fly by. And then more summer. More summer.
When people talk about their friends from home, I’m talking about my friends from camp. There, I had a group of people that I really truly loved, valued, and cherished with every fiber of my being. This is my family. We chose each other by serendipitously landing on the same mountaintop, and then all choosing to do it over and over again. To know each other so strangely and perfectly. You are my best friends. I am forever grateful.
Then my sisters came to camp, all four of them. I have two perfect sisters that also came from my parents, and then two other perfect girls who are technically my cousins. We all chose camp. And there, we got to choose each other in a way that is, I’m telling you, almost more special than how we are literally related.
We have a connection that goes even beyond blood - it’s the love in feeling the way that we do about two grassy lawns, little rocks, dust, pavement, and some wood. It’s the admiration we feel as we each take on our own camp adventure. We know each other in a deeper, weirder, more profound way because we share this place. I love you people more than words can say.
To all the camp boys we ever loved: we’re over you but we’ll always love you a little bit but it’s fine.
Camp is where I wanted to have my first kiss, but didn’t. Camp is the first and only time I lied to a boy about how much I had done sexually. Then I lost my virginity to him. (See, “Virginity”). Then I met someone who really turned the world around. My parents always said they’d be sending me back to camp until I found my husband. A traditional thing, if you will. For a long minute I thought I was going to keep that up. Camp is also the first place I have felt completely heartbroken. Yeah, it’s possible to talk about your parents and losing your virginity in the same paragraph.
We’ve all had our own version of that story. The best ones continue to unfold.
Above all, camp taught me to love in a way I still can’t believe is possible. To love a place and the people that make it what it is. To love myself in a really amazing way. To be thoughtful of myself. To make mistakes and to judge myself. To rethink the person I want to be. All of this, by interacting and trying and testing and learning from this community.
Camp is what it feels like to be Jewish. It’s more than Limud - it’s more than just learning. It’s more than words. It’s more than a practice or an old text, it’s a feeling that binds us. It’s the chain dance and the harmonies of the Sabbath Prayer at Havdallah. It’s what inspires us. To think independently, to argue, to struggle, to understand. It’s Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. It’s hugging each other tighter and appreciating the seconds. It’s opening our eyes and giving back.
Camp is the campers. It’s the kids that we were. The bond and the love and the obsession. It’s passing on the traditions, it’s breaking them, it’s making new ones. It’s listening to these brilliant kids who experience the world as it changes. It’s growing up. Learning how to trust each other. Camp is leadership. Becoming counselors. Sitting OD. Never sleeping. Teaching the next generation what it means to lead, not just set an example. Camp is Ruach - spirit. And it’s the kids who bring it. Each new face brings a new wave of magic. Each old face keeps it there.
Camp is music. It’s Modeh Ani every morning, one more time and one more time. It’s appreciating every new day and experiencing every moment of it. It’s Rivers and Roads. It’s the Shemah at the end of every day, starting and ending as a community. It’s every song we learned and the ones we had to make up. It’s dancing in the dining hall, on and off the clock. It’s quesadillas. It’s grilled cheese. It’s mac n’ cheese. Camp is cheese.
Camp is the changes, like the seasons all wrapped in a few months. And then it’s everything else that truly never fades. The everlasting relationships, the exceptional ones that defy all the usual odds of time. Camp is lip gloss. It’s having pockets. And having friends that call on you to fill them.
There’s magic on that ground. Believe it or not, we feel it. And we feel it the most when we’re there together. We grew up there. We keep growing up because we grew up there. We will keep growing there. More summer.
x Dani Pinkus
Photo courtesy of Nicole Pinkus