The Summers of My Golden Ghetto

by William Levine (Belmont, MA)

A stranger driving through the tree-lined streets of Oak Hill village (AKA “the golden ghetto”) in Newton, MA during the summers of the 1960’s would eventually reach the startling conclusion that all school-age children had vanished. In place of these kids laughing on well-trimmed lawns were the mechanical whooshes of sprinklers. Indeed, most of us were sent out of town by the kosher meal promises of summer camp proprietors amid the standard sports and craft camp activities. My last summer in town was 1959, and I didn’t return until 1969. Only in my teenage summers at Camp Manitou from 1964-1968 was I mature enough to see my camp experience through the prism of my Jewishness.

Manitou was in the Belgrade Lakes region of Maine (Oakland, to be exact). In my ever-discerning teenage mind, I was able to sum up the Manitou experience as just moving with my Jewish enclave of Oak Hill to the Maine woods. The fact was that a majority of the campers lived within a two-mile radius of the owner’s home, myself included.  The camp’s pied-piper spiel to us kids was that all our friends were spending the summer diving into Manitou’s East Lake. My first year in 1964, nine of the ten campers in my bunk were from my junior high school. To get an idea of Manitou’s clannishness, one has to ask the question: How Jewish was Oak Hill?

Well, it was so Jewish that my second-grade class composite of Mrs. Sriberg’s class features 24.5 Jewish faces out of 26 students. The holiday season showed how Jewish the neighborhood was in a most tangible way. All of us Oak Hillers observed the phenomenon of The Festival of No Lights in our extended neighborhoods at Christmas-time.  As passengers in our family sedans, we drove down one street after another with no Christmas lights. It was as if there was a localized power outage in Oak Hill for the whole Christmas season. 

In my tween-age years, my parents explained why we lived in the land of No Christmas Lights. They extolled Oak Hill as being a neighborhood beyond the pale of anti-Semitism and home to a clannishness that we could all value. I realized that we weren’t corralled into Oak Hill village. But it didn’t hurt to build a Jewish fence to insulate us from the goyish world, at least somewhat. Even so, I felt awkward about the “golden ghetto” because we were also very American kids. 

For us Manitou boys, summer camp in the 1960s meant just moving our Oak Hill enclave to Camp Manitou in Oakland, Maine. Despite it’s totally Jewish clientele, the camp was foremost a traditionally competitive all-American athletic camp. Its grounds, bordered by woods, were cleared for sports ranging from archery to volleyball. The waterfront was mostly for instruction, but it also hosted several swim meets. Running these activities was an energetic, middle-aged, Jewish head counselor who had earned twelve letters in college.   

That the Jewishness of the camp was a distant second to sports was fine with me, although for eight weeks of the year my religiosity was stretched even by the low-key camp observances. At home my family was not at all kosher, especially with a dispensation at Chinese restaurants. But, overall, I had no qualms about the food that we dug into after we recited the blessing with makeshift napkin yarmulkas. Fruit punch (jokingly called bug-juice) was okay with meat as a milk substitute.

Friday night services were held in the rec hall that housed most indoor activities, so there was no worshipping in a sylvan clearing. Services were the worst evening activity in my book. There was nothing to look forward to after we finished supper on Friday night. I believe a counselor ran the half-hour Reform service. There was no heavy religious lifting—literally. We used mimeographed sheets rather than bulky prayer books. There were always a couple of prayers, mostly in English, followed by a counselor sermon, and then—the best part—a few Israeli songs, including a rousing Zum Gali Gali with an ear-shattering final ZUM.  While I did feel that I was participating with my bunkmates in a mandatory boring event every Friday, I do think the services ameliorated the sheepishness I’d felt over having no family tradition of Friday night services. My family was just high holiday attendees. Thus, the summer observance squared up religiosity with my cultural and ethnic identity.

Non-religiously, as I mentioned, my summer camp experience was just a cultural, reinforcement of the rest of my year’s existence in Oak Hill. This extra two months of an all-Jewish world honed a sense of clannishness. Camp was a place where, after lights out, we would rehash the highlights from past bar mitzvah seasons and muse on the sexiest girls at our sister camp, Matoaka, across the lake, with identical demographics. On the ball field, any kid who displayed anger was labeled as a “putz” or “schmuck.” No one had to look up the meaning.    

A mitigation against the Jewishness of Manitou was the staff make-up. Maybe half the counselors at camp were gentile. Ironically, while Manitou promised our fathers an extension of Oak Hill, many of the camp’s father-figures were not Jewish. This demographic was not a plus for me, but then there was Dave, a gentile counselor from Maine. Dave always seemed to have a good word for me and we enjoyed each other’s humor. I remember once, while dressing for an inter-camp dance, I had trouble tying a necktie. Dave came over and, without commenting on my woeful dexterity, said, “Here, let me help you.” So, really, though Manitou was essentially a hotbed of Jewishness, I did establish positive glimpses of the other 98%. 

A year after my junior counselor summer at Manitou, I graduated from high school, along with three Silvermans, four Levins, and eight Cohens. After “Zonderman” was called, I had to own-up to the fact that my time in the “bubalah bubble” of Oak Hill and Manitou was over. In a couple of months, I would be, for better or worse, in the non-Jewish real word. The real world would ironically start for me at Colby College, only about five miles from the ethnic cocoon of summers past at Manitou. Colby was my preferred school, small in size and large in academic reputation. But it was Colby’s gentile aura that concerned me almost as much as the rigor of its academics.

I correctly anticipated, though, that the familiarity with ins-and-outs of Central Maine would help with my freshman jitteriness. I came to school familiar with Maine accents, local ice cream hangouts, and the local dive bars. This tinge of townie familiarity, plus the lack of home-sickness immunized by nine years of Jewish overnight camps, ameliorated some of my real-world-launching fears. 

At any rate, when I arrived at Colby’s classic hilltop campus, I was hoping there would be a mini-Oak Hill available in the form of a Jewish-based frat. But I found that there was only one frat that had even a decent minority of Jewish students. After this disappointment, I eventually found warm feelings of assimilation in the frozen tundra of Central Maine. There were a few unsettling moments when offensive Jewish jokes were uttered, and there was some awkwardness when I was wished a merry Christmas.  But I really feel that I had the best of both worlds forging my identity in Jewish Oak Hill and Manitou. I was able to keep my robust Jewishness even as I assimilated into a world where Christmas lights were proudly strung and Hanukah was a holiday that couldn’t hold a candle to Noel’s popularity.

Bill Levine is a retired IT professional and an active freelance writer residing in Belmont  MA.  He attended Jewish Summer camps for nine years and gradually came to prefer fruit punch with meat instead of milk.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, Boston Jewry, Family history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s