Responsibility; or, My Brother and I (and Leonard Cohen) Go to Summer Camp

And come to differing conclusions about the obligations of collective living.

A shaving cream fight at Camp Shwayder, one of the oldest Jewish summer camps in the United States. RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images.

A shaving cream fight at Camp Shwayder, one of the oldest Jewish summer camps in the United States. RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images.

Observation
Aug. 2 2018
About the author

Ruth R. Wisse is a research professor at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. Her most recent book is No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (2013).


We present here the third chapter from the memoirs-in-progress of the renowned scholar and author Ruth R. Wisse. Earlier chapters can be found hereFurther installments will appear over the next months.

The hero of my childhood was my brother Benjamin, five years my senior. When I first came upon the term “parentification,” I did not have to look up its meaning. Children in immigrant families tend to acclimatize much faster than their elders, and Ben may have begun to function as a co-caretaker for our family even before the summer of 1940 when we left Romania for Canada. In one of our passport pictures taken in Bucharest, he stands, nine years old, leaning protectively over Mother and me—the same position he would assume in other photographs over the years.

Ben’s bar mitzvah in May 1944 is the first day of my life that I remember almost in its entirety. In the way our family marked the passage of time, the ceremony took place after the liquidations of the ghettos of Vilna, Bialystok, and Kovno and a year after the Russians fought off the Germans at Stalingrad. Anxieties must have been running high that morning because Mother, who had brought me by the hand to the synagogue, forgot about me after the service. I hadn’t been told about the congregational kiddush, and with no one to ask when the synagogue emptied, I walked back home alone. It turned out that no one had noticed my absence, but being so suddenly on my own may account for why the rest of the day stayed sharp in my memory.

Whenever Mother herself referred to Ben’s bar mitzvah, she would bring up the incident that ruined it for her. One of father’s three brothers had been unable to bring his family to Canada before the war. His wife and daughters remained in Poland until it was too late to help them escape. Although they would ultimately manage to survive, that spring their fate was still uncertain. This uncle skipped the synagogue service and that afternoon, as mother would recount it, arrived late at the more intimate gathering in our home to berate her for celebrating while his family was in Nazi hands. His accusation may have felt more brutal than he had intended because of what she already knew of the fate of her extended family. Call ours the Guilted Age.

It was at this afternoon gathering of family and friends that Ben gave his bar-mitzvah speech, parts of which—having heard him practice—I once could have quoted by heart. He spoke about The Forgotten Ally, a 1943 book by the Dutch-Canadian journalist Pierre Van Paassen that no one else in the room was likely to have read. Van Paassen had begun reporting from Palestine under the British Mandate in the mid-1920s, and he covered the large-scale Arab anti-Jewish riots of 1929. Impressed by the Jews and by the righteousness of their cause, he could not fathom why the British favored Arab marauders over proven Jewish allies. His disquiet only increased after the outbreak of the war when the massive help to Britain being supplied by the yishuv made a vivid contrast to the pro-Axis treachery of most Arab leaders.

In his speech Ben praised this feisty Gentile who spoke up for Jews not out of sympathy for Hitler’s victims but in appreciation of their contribution to the common cause. How bravely this journalist wrote in defense of the battling Jewish community of Palestine! How sharper than a serpent’s tooth was British injustice!

Here is what I knew: although Ben had learned English only after we’d left Romania four years earlier, no one in the room (with the possible exception of the principal of our school, Shloime Wiseman) spoke it so well. He had conceived and written the talk without adult supervision, having learned more about the political situation from his shortwave radio than our parents or teachers did from their newspapers. Imagining our home as a lighthouse, I can see him rotating its beam from Europe to the Middle East, shifting our attention from the past to the future, from the war we hoped would soon end to the work that lay ahead of us. By age thirteen his responsibilities extended beyond the family to the Jewish people.

 

II

 

My own rite of passage four years later at age twelve was spectacularly different. By then the war was over, but bat mitzvahs for girls were then still unknown and it would not have occurred to me to want one. Not that we girls were neglected. Following the example of prosperous local Jewish families, I would have been entitled to a Sweet Sixteen, a home party like a miniature debutante ball. But at twelve I had no expectation of a formal rite of passage.

Nonetheless, I was granted the greatest coming-of-age any Jewish child ever experienced. I turned twelve on May 13, 1948. Given the seven-hour time difference between Montreal and Tel Aviv, my assumption of Jewish responsibility coincided with the fifth day of Iyar 5708, when David Ben-Gurion declared the independence of the Jewish state. Two days later my parents and I were among the estimated 20,000 Jews who poured into the stands of the Montreal Forum for a celebration grander than the one for the Montreal Canadiens when they won the Stanley Cup in 1946. Our principal was among the speakers, and representatives from the newly founded state brought us greetings. When I later saw film clips of the Jews dancing in the streets of Tel Aviv, I thought our excitement had outdone theirs.

My parents had often taken me along to commemorative evenings for the annihilated ghettos of Warsaw and Vilna. They were held early in the spring when the audience in heavy overcoats made the crowded halls feel like communities under siege. This public celebration of Israel’s independence was open and joyous. On our way into the Forum I caught sight of my older brother. All over the lobby, clusters of young people from the various youth organizations were holding large Israeli and Canadian flags the way firemen hold up rescue nets, urging us to throw in money, and there was Ben with his group, lifting the corner of a flag that already seemed heavy enough to assure the Jewish future in Israel. The members of Ben’s Zionist youth group were called Habonim, the Builders, and they intended to join the pioneers of Israel. Whenever they went, Ben would be going with them.

Ben and Ruth with their cousin Ralph Roskies. Ruth Wisse.

As part of our celebration we recited the solemn remembrance prayer for the murdered Jews of Europe. It could not dull the thrill of Hatikvah, the Zionist anthem confirming that “The Hope” had been realized. Even our knowledge that the country was under attack from surrounding Arab armies functioned only to raise the stakes of our involvement: we would now have more, much more, to do in order to secure our Jewish land, raising funds for arms and the absorption of refugees, going to join the fight, adding a new prayer asking God’s blessing for the state of Israel, “the first flowering of our redemption.”

On the eve of World War II, the Canadian Jewish Congress—the representative body of Canadian Jewry—had hired the Montreal poet A.M. Klein to help its president Samuel Bronfman with speechwriting. For two decades the unlikely team of Bronfman & Klein, liquor distiller and poet, rallied Canadian support for Jews in Europe and Palestine. In 1949, with the main locus having moved to Israel, Klein was sent on a fact-finding mission to track the “ingathering of exiles.” He reported, newspaper-style, on his findings and then did what the Hebrew poet Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik had done a half-century earlier after filing the obligatory report of his fact-finding mission to Kishinev in the wake of the 1903 pogrom there. As Bialik had sequestered himself to compose the epic poem B’ir Ha-hareygah, “In the City of Slaughter,” now Klein—who had translated Bialik’s poem into English—set out to follow his example in a novel that exchanged dirge for deliverance.

Klein cast his redemptive story, which he called The Second Scroll, as a latter-day Pentateuch. I especially loved the part where the narrator compares his childhood fantasy about the coming of the messiah with the actual experience of May 14, 1948:

When as a young boy, the consolations and prophecies of Isaiah before me, I dreamed in the dingy Hebrew school the apocalyptic dream of a renewed Zion, always I imagined it as coming to pass thus: first I heard the roar and thunder of the battle of Gog and Magog; then, as silence fell, I saw through my mind’s eye a great black aftermath cloud filling the heavens across the whole length of the humped horizon. The cloud then began to scatter, to be diminished, to subside, until revealed there shone the glory of a burnished dome—Hierosolyma the golden! [Yerushalayim shel zahav!] Then lower it descended and lower, a mere breeze dispersed it, and clear was the horizon and before me there extended an undulating sunlit landscape.

How I wish I could have written like that! Until I came across Klein’s novel in college, I found nothing to match my sense of wonder. The Hebrew songs coming from Israel were understated. The musical ensembles of the Israel Defense Forces did not produce Sousa marches, much less heroic songs like those of the Red Army Chorus whose records we continued to play after the war. Israelis were Jews, reluctant fighters and low-key victors. For grandeur I had to make do with the momentum of Klein’s rhetorical ascent from Gog and Magog to Jerusalem the Golden.

I had known that May 14, 1948 would remain the happiest day of my life and I wanted to share my jubilation. But it took some time to find what I was looking for. Klein voiced for me both the miracle of Israel’s rebirth and the gratitude to those who had performed the miracle. Ben’s and mine was the high honor to be alive at that moment in time.

 

III

 

Everyone knew that the creation of Israel demanded something of us—but what? That winter, members of Habonim’s Canadian contingent gathered at our home to plan their volunteer work on an Israeli kibbutz. Ben let me sit in a corner of the living room on condition that I keep quiet. Listening to their arguments, I found my brother the wisest, the Communist among the company the handsomest, and the easy-going pacifist the most articulate. I paid less attention to the young women except to wonder which of them liked Ben and whether he reciprocated their interest. Barred from the discussion, I tried to figure out what I could from the materials being circulated.

The group intended the summer of 1949 to be the first step of their aliyah, their “ascent” to the homeland, and since the concept of moving to Israel was then still inseparable from the idea of collective settlement, they intended to move there together as the formative kernel of a new (or existing) kibbutz. Their immediate destination was kibbutz Ein Hashofet, named by its American founders for the Zionist leader and U.S. Supreme Court justice Louis D. Brandeis, and chosen for its approximate alignment with the moderate socialism of Habonim.

The few arguments that I was able to follow were sparked by members who did not consider this kibbutz radical enough. They argued as if the rest of their lives were at stake—but much as I admired their dedication, I wondered how they intended to stay together if they were already in such fierce disagreement. I still have in my possession their mimeographed “requirements for admission”:

The purely social compatibility of the ḥaver [comrade or member] will inevitably be influenced to a large degree by his net success in integrating himself into the totality of group activity. We must however guard against the tendency to set up as the social ideal either the versatile and accomplished mingler on the one extreme, or the ultra-efficient worker on the other. In general, compatibility entails not so much the ability to undertake intimate relations with all the [group] (although a degree of this is greatly to be desired), but rather that, having made a few close friends, his temperament be such that it will not continuously clash with that of the majority.

And so forth. Untrustworthy as it may be to speak for the twelve-year-old I was then, I had my doubts about their scheme. Why, for instance, if they intended to settle in Israel, did they plan to return to Canada at the end of the summer? I did not want to lose my brother, but if I were going to help build the country I would take off for good, the way we had left Romania. Besides, every year when Ben and I packed for summer camp, we had a checklist of equipment: where was theirs? And wouldn’t it make more sense to be thinking about what they could bring to the new country, like hoes and shovels, or how they could contribute professionally to its welfare, than to argue over principles of cooperation?

Ben later thought they would have been better off to consider immigrating just as they were—ambitious youngsters looking to replicate the same urban life they enjoyed in Canada—but kibbutzim suited that early phase of pioneering. Indeed, socialism may never have had a better tryout than it did in those Israeli settlements. It was only long after Israel had won its independence that more of its citizens wanted their personal autonomy as well, preferring the risks of a mixed capitalist economy to a central committee’s guarantees of equality, and individual initiative to communal control.

The contribution of the kibbutzim would forever grace the annals of Israeli history even as the settlements themselves evolved into privatized villages and their children’s homes gave way to single-family dwellings. The collective of the nation soon replaced the kibbutz—which happened to be the only part of Israel I disliked.

 

IV

 

No doubt my jaundiced view of collective living was the result of attendance at summer camp from ages five to nineteen, the year before I married. At first I was not given any say in the matter, and then going to camp in the summer became as habitual as attending school the rest of the year.

Pripstein’s Camp was located in the foothills of the Laurentian Mountains 30 miles north of Montreal. The place smelled of fresh cow’s milk and hay and sometimes skunks; the camp’s kitchen, more enticingly, smelled of the onion rolls that Mrs. Pripstein baked for visitors or anyone sick in the infirmary.

Chaim Pripstein had left his job as an elementary-school teacher to run, with his wife Pearl (“the daughter of a rabbi,” my mother would emphasize in speaking of her), a modest country hotel catering to families like ours, she in the kitchen, he handling all the rest. The presence of children gave Chaim the idea of turning the hotel into a camp where he could pursue his educational vocation in healthier surroundings. Eventually, he would move the camp to a handsome lakeside property farther in the mountains. As of this writing, it still runs, taken over by some of its former campers.

Having met Mr. and Mrs. Pripstein, my parents were justifiably confident that we would be safe under their care. Chaim, affectionately known as C.P., was always nailing down a loose shingle on one of the roofs or checking the cabins after lights out. Once a summer he appeared at the waterfront to beguile an audience of children and counselors by floating on his back while reading a newspaper and smoking a cigarette. Mainly, he encouraged children to get along with each other, and hired counselors for their maturity rather than for any special talents or athletic skills. The camp’s reputation for forbearance attracted parents with children who needed special care, and the ranks of its counselors would produce more psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and educators than many a school of higher learning.

C.P. took some risks in accepting campers. Donny (I have changed his name) was a diagnosed schizophrenic who sometimes roamed the campgrounds in search of freedom. At first I was a little afraid of his erratic behavior, but I grew accustomed to his fitful speech, his swaying back and forth like a devout Jew at prayer, and his unnerving habit of asking you where you lived, by which he meant at what numerical address, which is how he preferred to identify us. He became something of a camp mascot, and thus confirmed C.P. in his expectation that children can learn to respect even someone radically idiosyncratic. Correspondingly, many of us with forceful personalities learned how to make do without the exclusive attention to which we thought ourselves entitled.

The camp was unregimented but disciplined. We were expected to rise and shine, make a swift neat bed with hospital corners, strain to do well at swimming, hiking, sports, arts and crafts, and drama, show consideration to fellow campers and politeness to instructors, and write letters home during rest period. Except for drama, where my eagerness was genuine, I did these things mostly out of a sense of duty. More than anything, I wanted to be alone, to read and daydream and be subject to no one else’s expectations.

No one who knew me at camp would have suspected my reluctance to be there, except possibly C.P. who understood a great deal about each of us. But at one feature I positively rebelled. Blue and White Week, known elsewhere as Color War, divided campers and counselors into competing teams and scored all activities as contests between the two sides. The teams produced competing plays, art projects, and songs, giving no respite from rivalry even at mealtime.

Everyone but me seemed to enjoy the stimulation and the camaraderie of Blue and White Week. But the normal pressure of having to perform at my best, which was more or less how I functioned routinely, was now linked to securing victory for half the camp, and I could neither play at war nor understand why anyone would want to. The year the program was introduced, I demanded to be excused, and every subsequent summer I had my parents submit a letter that exempted me from the competition.

One time, when I was eleven and Ben already a counselor at sixteen, fear turned to panic. Campers and counselors traded places for a day—an inversion I did not enjoy and from which I absented myself so as not to have to participate in any “entertainment” at our counselor’s expense. Suddenly I saw my brother being chased by his whooping campers through the field that bordered one side of the camp property. He was running through high corn and the campers were bound to catch up with him. Of course it was a game, and I must have known it, but at that moment what I knew for a certainty was that Ben would be killed. Whether they captured him or he died trying to escape, his life would be over. I was overcome with terror.

What was this about? Ben, for his part, flourished at Pripstein’s. He hung out with counselors who were all a few years older than he. At the end of one season he took a camping trip with them, which is probably when he lost his virginity (knowledge I gained posthumously from reading his diary). At some point he became the camp bugler who roused us with Reveille in the morning and put us to sleep with Taps in the evening. He also brought his BB gun to camp and was called in when there was a mouse to be shot. Shall I say more about his exploits? He composed the camp hymn and a delightful operetta, Solomon and the Bee, performed at the annual camp concert. Nor was I alone in adoring and admiring him.

Why, then, was I so afraid for him and why does the memory of that chase through the cornfield still alarm me, though Ben is long since dead? Our safety was undoubtedly what our parents had had in mind in sending us to camp for the summer, but I could not trust it to shelter us from evil. Only Ben could do that for me. Though I would have thought it bad form ever to exploit our connection by approaching him for help or advice, I felt protected by his presence. If he was threatened, the world would never be safe.

Whatever sanctuary others may have found in a camp or kibbutz—or, come to think of it, a family—membership in itself never increased my sense of ease, only my sense of duty. Alone, on my own, I would teach myself to be unafraid. Beginning in my early teens I would return home alone on dark winter evenings from afternoon classes or drama rehearsals and walk, not run, repeating “We have nothing to fear but fear itself”—the only English sentence, courtesy of President Roosevelt, that Mother included among her habitual sayings. In my mid-teens I took to hitchhiking, once having to roll out of a car in motion when the driver started reaching for me in the passenger seat.

Alone, I considered myself invulnerable. But I could not bear threats to others and especially not to Ben, who was saddled with responsibility for more than he should have been expected to bear—some of it, unfairly, for me. Perhaps, then, my terror arose from the realization that, rather than expecting my brother always to protect me, I should have protected him.

Those mimeographed Habonim instructions went on to say that the individual should be able “to find his place in the social structure of the group so that his basic social and gregarious needs are satisfied.” Finding no comfort in that social structure, I saw no reason to submit to it any more than I had to. I might have felt differently had I been an only child, or an older brother.

 

Coda

 

Years later, in 1962, Leonard Cohen (about whom I will write more in later chapters) told me that he was about to publish a novel. The news enchanted me because, though I liked his poetry, I preferred fiction to verse and had always looked for novels about people like us. Leonard’s book turned out to be everything, or almost everything, I’d hoped for, along the lines of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man with the budding writer transposed from Dublin to Montreal. I read The Favorite Game from cover to cover on the day I bought it.

Depending on how well and how long you had known Leonard, you could identify the landmarks and people that he was now recasting as fiction. In this novel, the novelist was recognizable in the protagonist Lawrence Breavman, who like him grew up in Westmount, lost his father, experienced young love, wrote poetry, and hung out with his friend Krantz, who was obviously Leonard’s  buddy Morton Rosengarten—the Rosenkrantz to his Guildenstern. I couldn’t distinguish everything in the novel as handily as this, but it ends with the poet Breavman serving briefly as a staff member at a camp—as Leonard actually did at Pripstein’s in the summer of 1957.

That summer I was absent (on my honeymoon in Israel), but I heard all about Leonard’s camp sojourn from friends who had until then been my fellow counselors. In their eagerness to have him join them at camp, they had persuaded C.P. to hire Leonard despite the camp director’s longstanding misgivings about employing “stars” who might be too caught up in their own lives to do the nurturing expected from the staff. Although parts of Leonard’s fictional account may have been based on other summer camps he had once attended, one unmistakable human presence in the novel marked this camp as Pripstein’s:

“What’s your favorite store?” asked Martin.

“What’s yours?”

“Dionne’s. What’s your favorite parking lot?”

“I don’t know. What’s yours?”

“Dionne’s Parking Lot.”

The questions excited Martin because now he asked breathlessly, “How many windows in the building Dionne’s is in?”

Trust Leonard to transcribe such a conversation exactly as it would have transpired, with Donny—whom he calls Martin—getting more and more agitated as the numbers begin to pile up. But for me the precision of the portrait made Leonard’s handling of Donny/Martin’s role in the novel all the more shocking. He casts Breavman as Martin’s protector, with other counselors either indifferent to or critical of the boy’s behavior. To spice up the conclusion, he then has Martin killed—“accidentally run over by a bulldozer which was clearing a marshy area” where Martin was presumably hiding.

In brief, Leonard had the ḥutzpah to make his fictional stand-in the only authentic caregiver in a camp that, in real life, hadn’t wanted to hire him for precisely the reason that an artist would be incapable of seeing himself as part of a supportive and sustaining collective. The fictional Breavman even uses Martin’s death as an excuse to abandon the camp three weeks early, inviting the reader to applaud this selfish quitter for his sensitivity.

No need to remind me of what artistic license permits. By the time I read Leonard’s book, I had completed my formal credits for a doctorate in comparative literature and was well aware that the artist has every right to resolve the tension between the collective and the individual in the latter’s favor. But my sympathies leapt to the defense of the camp that had provided summers of refuge for Donny/Martin and so many more of us. In my own years there as a counselor I had dealt with children who were asthmatic and diabetic, a girl whose parents had just divorced, three teen-aged bedwetters, and other youngsters like myself at their age who just wanted to be left alone. The book disappointed me not in its departure from reality but because the literary outcome of the artist’s celebration of himself was so paltry compared with what C.P. had wrought.

I need not have been overly disheartened by Leonard’s irresponsibility. After just one more novel, he realized that he was meant to be a poet—a form of art that enjoys greater license to bask in the first-person singular. Soon he went all out by turning songwriter and pioneering a new troubadour art.

I wished for Ben that he, too, could have continued composing and singing music while serving as devoted son, husband, father, employee and employer, Jew and Canadian, friend and brother; but that isn’t the way life works.

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More about: History & Ideas, Memoir, The Memoirs of Ruth Wisse