Mastering Hebrew and Ḥutzpah at Camp Massad

Memories of my 1950s summers at America’s first all-Hebrew sleepaway camp.

Jewish youth dancing the hora at Camp Wel-Met, October 1948. Heinz H. Weissenstein/Center for Jewish History/Flickr.

Jewish youth dancing the hora at Camp Wel-Met, October 1948. Heinz H. Weissenstein/Center for Jewish History/Flickr.

Oct. 13 2015
About the author

Josiah Lee Auspitz, an independent scholar, lives and works in Somerville, Massachusetts.

“The man just lacks hoozpoh.” That’s how I heard a Boston dowager explain why she wouldn’t support an otherwise qualified candidate for political office. Her charmingly mangled rendition of ḥutzpah was thoroughly in tune with Anglo-American usage, accented on the first syllable (ḥutzpah) in the Yiddish/Ashkenazi manner and carrying the positive connotation of an endearing audacity, a disarming brashness. Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish (1968) offers the apocryphal example of this character trait: the young man convicted of murdering his parents who petitions for leniency on the grounds that he’s an orphan.

In my youthful experience, however, the word did not amuse. In the purist precincts of Massad, the Hebrew-speaking summer camp I attended for five seasons in the 1950s, it was accented, as in standard modern Hebrew, on the second syllable—ḥutzpahand the “pah” was spat out accusatorily, condemning some instance of unmitigated gall or intolerable effrontery.

Founded in the early 1940s under the aegis of the Histadrut Ivrit of America, an organization devoted to encouraging knowledge of Hebrew language and culture, Massad was the first “sleepaway” camp of its kind in North America. Located in Tannersville, Pennsylvania, it was conceived and run by Shlomo Shulsinger, an ardent Hebraist. It became Massad Alef (1) when Massad Bet (2) was added in 1948.

The camps aimed at total immersion: no radio, television, or English-language newspapers were allowed to pollute the Hebrew-speaking atmosphere. At the end of each day, campers were bound by honor code to grade their fidelity to the language. A passing grade was recorded on a chart with the letter ayin for Ivrit; at season’s end, a sufficiency of daily ayins would earn a lapel pin.

Massad published its own English-Hebrew dictionary, covering topics not dreamed of in Scripture or Talmud. The final arbiter of the camp’s Hebrew usage was the philologist, editor, and essayist Daniel Persky, a pillar of the Hebrew revival movement in America. The vocabulary he approved for baseball was an object of especially intense study, since failure to use the prescribed Hebrew terms during play could result in a called strike or ball against the offending team.

The preferred Hebrew pronunciation was of course the “Sephardi” one used in Israel: hence ḥutzpah, not ḥutzpah. But Massad’s word bank was more pristine.  What Israelis called a sveter (sweater) was rendered in the Massad lexicon as tsimriah, adapted from the biblical word for wool; what Jerusalem waiters of that era called puddink (sweet dessert) was in Massad-speak parperet, a sweet-sounding word from the Mishnah; and while Israelis might refer to the American national pastime as beizbol, Massad insisted on kadur basisse. Massad campers also wrote for a monthly newsletter, Alim (Leaves), with occasional guest pieces by distinguished visitors like Ze’ev (William) Chomsky, an eminent Hebrew educator and grammarian.

Massad had no formal denominational affiliation—campers and staff came from across the spectrum—but a halakhic regime permeated camp life, guided by modern Orthodoxy as practiced in the camp’s main New York feeder schools, Ramaz and Yeshiva of Flatbush. Though the sexes were separated at prayer services, and only males above bar-mitzvah age could lead, a young woman might deliver the commentary on the Torah portion of the week.

In addition to daily prayers, ritual observances were devoted to the weekly Sabbath, the two summertime fast days (in, respectively, the Hebrew months of Tammuz and Av), and anniversaries of Massad itself. At morning raisings of the American and Israeli flags, campers and counselors wore the camp uniform: dark blue shorts and a light blue short-sleeved shirt with a date palm, the Massad insignia, sewn on the sleeve or breast pocket. The ceremony concluded with the stirring anthem Teḥezaknah (“Strengthen”), from the Bialik poem “Blessing of the Nation.” The fourth verse had supplied the camp with its name and its mission: “If you have not yet raised the rafters, at least you have laid the foundation [massad].

At every opportunity, Massad strove to inject educational content. The cabins, for example, were named for pioneering kibbutzim or historical sites in Israel. From year to year the names shifted so that each bunk could participate in its own naming, but the one constant was Degania, the three-room lakeside cottage for the older boys, named for the first Israeli kibbutz.

The camp’s most memorable innovation consisted in the weaving of lessons from Jewish history and culture into the color wars common in American summer camps. Instead of designating rival athletic teams by the camp colors, Massad’s athletic-cultural Maccabiah was organized thematically, pitting, to cite one year’s example, Zionist Pioneers against Temple Rebuilders. Sports contests were balanced by cultural competitions in art, crafts, music, drama, historical knowledge, and Hebrew composition. The competitive frenzy culminated in a sing-off; in the grand finale, team hymns, written by counselors in their evening hours, redolent with phrases from the Bible and liturgy and set to symphonic motifs or operatic melodies, were rated by a panel of judges for both musical performance and poetic content.

The “himnon” competition I remember best brought tears to the eyes of conductors and choruses alike. We of the Temple Rebuilders poured our hearts into the words “Verily shall we guard the Divine Torah in our rebuilt land,” sung to the Triumphal March from Verdi’s Aida, while the opposing team intoned with equal fervor a paean to the early Zionist pioneers set to the stirring theme of Brahms’ First Symphony. I don’t recall who won, but whenever I hear these pieces performed, I still mouth the Maccabiah lyrics.


Overall, Massad ran smoothly on its three sets of rules: halakhic, Hebraic, and administrative. The Hebraic-halakhic regime gave the camp its distinctive character, while the administration insured a closely monitored routine. Yet unrest comes to even the best-ordered autocracy—especially one drawing inspiration from the egalitarian kibbutz movement. A veritable time of tribulations for Shlomo Shulsinger began after a female counselor from a prominent Orthodox family eloped with the non-Jewish college student responsible for the camp’s maintenance tasks. Her parents directed their fury at Massad’s management.

Shlomo, as everyone called him, reacted at first with a crackdown on all fronts, decreeing, among other things, that the opposite sexes of all ages could not consort after sunset and suspending off-campus day-leaves for counselors. By the end of July the crackdown was mostly exhausted, but there remained an undercurrent of restiveness that persisted for two seasons. Subversive use of English nicknames proliferated: “Lee” for Eliezer, “Hackie” for Yeḥezkel, “Terry” for Tirtzah. In the dining hall, the older girls started breaking out into English chants; at flag-raising ceremonies, a boys’ bunk took to shouting instead of singing the word “massad.” One Sabbath, the irreverent music director raised and kissed his prayer shawl in salute to Shlomo rather than to the Torah being paraded down the aisle.

In late August of my final year, a platoon of senior boys from the Degania cabin mounted a Friday-night raid on the girls’ section. The full enormity of this act was not revealed until the discussion period on the following afternoon.

Sabbaths were truly spiritual times at Massad. By Friday evening, cabins were spotless and all campers, freshly showered, were clad in white. Prayers occupied the evening and morning, meals were accompanied by joyous singing, and the afternoon was devoted to open-air discussion groups on edifying topics.

On that particular Sabbath afternoon, Shlomo joined the Degania campers assembled on the grass for their mandatory discussion. Although he often audited group sessions during his Sabbath rounds, sitting silently on the outskirts, this time he intended to address us. He stood in his familiar pose, jacket over his shoulders and one hand behind his back, gesturing with the other in sweeping oratorical style. His Hebrew was so grandiloquent that none of us could follow all of it, but clearly he was building up to something dramatic.

At last he held forth his hidden hand. In it was a camp-issued alarm clock with a broken face. The clock had been thrown to the floor during the previous night’s raid and damaged beyond repair. (It being the Sabbath, the raiders had not used flashlights.) After a moment of pregnant silence, he called out: “President of the Council, President of the Council!” This was the position to which I had been elected early in the season, and he was now demanding that I divulge the names of the perpetrators.

I responded that I did not know. How was this possible? Shlomo asked. “I was asleep.” A murmur of assent went through the group; I was known to be a rock-sound sleeper, and in fact the raiding party had tried in vain to rouse me. But then, encouraged by the support of my peers, I added four fateful Hebrew words: lu yadati, lo higgad’ti. “If I knew, I would not tell.”

Shlomo repeated my words with a flicker of approval. He liked the ring of the Hebrew: the word higgad’ti recalled the Passover commandment, “and thou shalt recount it,” while the particle lu to introduce a counterfactual conditional was classically idiomatic, having no English equivalent. But then he threw the words back at me, ominously, in the second person: “Had you known, you would not have recounted.” He repeated it again, twice, nostrils flaring and voice rising to a thunderous crescendo:

Lu yadata, lo higgad’ta!!! Such ḥutzPAH never have I beheld! Nor will I suffer it.”

Summarily, Shlomo removed me as council president and in my stead installed Yehoshua, known also as Josh, who had been my runner-up for the post. As it happened, Josh was the person who had knocked over the counselor’s bed table and broken the clock. A bunkmate of ours later reported this to Shlomo, who promptly installed the snitch as council president for the final weeks of the season. This would not enhance the authority of the council or of Shlomo. Moreover, some yeshiva boys complained that Shlomo should not have brought a profane object like a clock to a Sabbath discussion. Since there was an eruv around the camp, carrying of objects was permissible, but the consensus among the more observant was that a broken clock was still a clock.

Such questions were obliterated the very next afternoon when a small plane hired from the local airfield dropped leaflets proclaiming that the Maccabiah had begun. The camp was swept up in color-war hysteria, intensifying right up to the final sing-off on Thursday night. The alarm-clock incident seemed to have been forgotten.

But no. When the time came to distribute merit badges, Josh and I were passed over for the diamond patch reserved for “perfect campers.” Josh at least was awarded the sports patch, on the heels of his game-winning performance in the Maccabiah baseball tourney. I was stuck with the goody-goody gardening badge, bestowed on the snitch as well. Oh, the shame!

On the last day of camp, as cars and buses lined up for the return trip to New York and Philadelphia, “Hackie,” the head counselor, took Josh and me aside. Very gently, very privately, he extracted from the papers on his clipboard two diamond-shaped felt patches in blue and white with the Hebrew word “Massad” in the center. “These are for you,” he said. “You deserve them.”

Even at Camp Massad, however discreetly and retroactively, ḥutzPAH could be forgivingly transmuted into ḥutzpah—or “hoozpoh” in the high-Boston dialect.



Like the Roman Republic, Massad dated events from the year of its founding; the 2015 season would have been its 75th year (ayin-heh l’Massad). Most of the foregoing recollections come from years 15 and 16 (1955-56). In year 17, Shlomo issued a handbook for counselors spelling out overarching principles and addressing in minute detail the specific issues that had roiled the camps in the previous two years.

There followed a period of healthy growth. After year 26, with the opening of Massad Gimel (3), the Poconos population under Shlomo’s supervision exceeded 900 annually. In year 37, Shlomo, then aged sixty-five, retired to Jerusalem, the city of his birth. The institution he had built survived his departure by only four years. The camps closed their gates in 1981, sold off their land, and donated their Torah scrolls to appropriate recipients. (The Massad experience continues in Canada under separate management.)

Shlomo was buried on the Mount of Olives in 2002, aged ninety-two. On the camp’s 70th anniversary, his wife Rivkah was the featured speaker at the dedication of a Massad archive at the Center for Jewish History in New York (where a longer version of this memoir will be deposited). The proceedings, attended by an overflow crowd of camp alumni, are partly available on the Internet.  At the end, with the singing of Teḥezaknah, a craggy-faced, gray-haired gentleman in a light blue shirt stands erect in the foreground, as if at a Massad flag raising, and throws himself passionately into the anthem:

Strengthen the hands of all our encamped brethren. . . .
If you have not yet raised the rafters, at least you have laid the foundation.

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