Monday, August 21, 2023

Q&A with Sandra Fox




Sandra Fox is the author of the new book The Jews of Summer: Summer Camp and Jewish Culture in Postwar America. She is the Goldstein-Goren Visiting Assistant Professor of American Jewish History at New York University.


Q: What inspired you to write this book about Jewish summer camp?


A: I’ve long been interested in subjects that sit at the intersection of American Jewish history and the history of childhood and youth.


As a former camper and staff member myself, my closeness to the subject made me a little hesitant at first to dig into it. Over time, though, my years at camp got further and further away from me; 12 years passed between my last summer working at camp as a unit head and this book seeing the light of day.


I also realized that studying an era that predates your birth creates quite a deal of distance. I was born in 1988, and besides the epilogue-style chapter at the end, the book only goes to the end of the 1970s.


Once I admitted to myself that this was the project for me, I came to see my intimate knowledge of how camp works and feels to campers and staff as mostly a boon.


And in the end, I don’t think I wrote either a “pro-camp” or “anti-camp” history. My connection to it made me very intentional about not tipping my hat in terms of what I personally feel about Jewish camps past or present.


There’s no thing as full objectivity, and I’m not going to say that my politics or perspective doesn’t come out at all. It does. But I was committed to trying to be as objective as possible.


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: The book came out of years of deep archival research and about 30 oral history interviews with former campers.


What surprised me time and time again as I explored the archival collections of camps was how blunt postwar Jewish educators were about their reasons for seeing camps as solutions to communal problems -- the fact that camps offered them 24/7 control over the life of children, giving them unprecedented sway.


Jewish communal leaders still talk about camp being “powerful” and “transformative,” but the idea of camp as a form of social or ideological control evokes impressions of brainwashing, which leaves a bad taste from today’s perspective. You’d be hard pressed to find camp leaders who would be so explicit about camp as a form of social control now.


As teenage campers, though, we joked about being brainwashed all the time by our camp’s intensely Zionist program. In a way, maybe camp leaders of the past were just being more honest!


Q: The writer and scholar Lila Corwin Berman said of the book, "Rare is the book that is scholarly and entertaining, but The Jews of Summer is just that." What do you think of that description, and were you trying to balance the two as you wrote the book?


A: That’s an accurate description of what I was trying to do and I really appreciated her saying it. It is a scholarly account, to be sure, but I knew the book would have a significant readership outside of academia, and I wanted to show my voice wherever it made sense to.


Knowing that Jews are kind of obsessed with camp, I convinced the publisher that it would sell and promised them that I would hustle to get the word out. That led to them setting the price lower than $30, a relative rarity in academic publishing, and I was so pleased that they decided to publish it immediately in paperback and Kindle.


I don’t have sales data yet, but I sense from what I’m hearing and reading out there that most of my readers are not academics, but rather former campers and current communal leaders.


I’ve also heard through the grapevine that my book is being passed around amongst groups of Jewish teens and college students who are using it to process their experiences at camp both individually and in discussion groups. Nothing makes me happier!


That being said, what’s “entertaining” to one reader is dense to another. I have seen Amazon and Goodreads reviews that say my writing and the subject are too academic for their tastes. Fair enough. I think people see the cover and title and expect a lighter read, but I wasn’t trying to trick anyone! That’s why it’s important to read the back.


Q: Did you find many changes from the post-WWII period to today, and what do you see looking ahead for Jewish summer camps?


A: Jewish camps are still seen as solutions to all of the Jewish community’s issues. Their everyday schedules and big events and rituals seem fairly consistent, at least on paper, in part because camps thrive on the idea of “camp tradition.”


But there have been major changes too.


Camp leaders are changing their tune on hookup culture, from once encouraging it to being a bit more careful about how they let their desires to encourage Jewish coupling create an atmosphere of pressure for teens; while once LGBTQ+ campers were nearly all closeted, now they are embraced, and are even changing the Hebrew language at camp to be more gender inclusive; at a time in which Zionism only gets more complicated, camps are starting to grapple with how to broach Israel differently.


I’m not great at predicting the future, but I think looking ahead I’ll be interested in seeing if the role of Israel as an educational and transformative tool wanes, and how Jewish camps deal with the downwardly mobile economic profile of my generation.


I think inflation and rising college tuition makes it harder for Jewish families to afford camp. It certainly seems that sessions are shortening in part to face that reality.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on building a digital archive of the American Jewish Left since Occupy Wall Street at NYU, and am beginning research on a book about the Jewish left since the 1960s. It’s going to be a very different kind of book than The Jews of Summer, but also has some overlap: youth culture and generational tension in the Jewish community will be central to how I tell that story, too.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’m making a concerted effort to get people to buy my book from independent bookstores. My friends own an amazing store in Cold Spring, New York, called Split Rock Books, and they’ll ship it to anyone nationwide! Or, if you’re in NYC and want to pick it up in-person, you can get it from a number of local stores, like Community Bookstore, Books Are Magic, Book Culture, and McNally Jackson.


I’m also interested in finding indie bookstores beyond New York that have significant Jewish populations nearby. If that sounds like your favorite store, send me a message to let me know. I can give them an indie bookseller’s discount that will make it more possible for them to make some profit on it!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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