I was twenty-four years old when I started doing research for what, ten years later, became my book, The Jews of Summer: Summer Camp and Jewish Culture in Postwar America. As a young woman in the early stages of her academic career, I learned quickly that I’d have to fight harder than my male colleagues to be considered “serious” about my work. From the older professor who asked me if I was committed to having an academic career or just doing a PhD to kill time until marriage, to the advice women shared among themselves about tamping down one’s femininity in professional settings, the message was clear: being young and female was, and still is, a liability, if you wish to be taken seriously in the world of academia.
This is an issue for all young women and it was not just my preference for bright, patterned clothing that proved a hurdle in my case. It was the very subject I wanted to write about: a history of the American Jewish summer camp through the experiences of the young. The history of childhood and youth, and the use of age as a category of analysis, have received recognition as legitimate forms of social history, the study of youth in Jewish history is less established. And while studying the history of Jewish education was not new, a focus on the lives of children and teenagers has been much rarer in the field.
I was warned by several senior scholars that such an approach might not be taken seriously. How to convince them and others that the experiences of Jewish children and teenagers at summer camps could say something significant, maybe even vital, about American Jewish history more broadly, was the assignment at hand.
It took me years of researching and writing to figure out how to make that case convincingly, and those years included a great deal of time in which I repressed some of the things I found most interesting about the subject. Indeed, as I explored camps’ archival collections, I found hilarious documents nearly everyday – things that left me chuckling to myself in reading rooms across the country. Some were written by children while others were written by adults about children. I loved these pieces of archival gold, but could “serious scholars” write about children’s crushes, raids, and camp newspapers’ humor columns? Where would I put salty camper evaluations or the letters campers wrote home to parents that parents then sent back to the camp asking why their kid was so disgruntled? I didn’t know exactly.
I loved these pieces of archival gold, but could “serious scholars” write about children’s crushes, raids, and camp newspapers’ humor columns?
All I knew was that I did not want to lose track of these precious windows into camper culture. So when I found something that made me giggle, I put it somewhere I could share with friends–a Tumblr that I called “PS I lost my blue hat,” after an excellent letter a child wrote to his mother that ended with that postscript. I purposely kept my name off of it, however. In the safety of anonymity, I let those archival scraps of joy live external to the pages of my then-dissertation, and let my sense of humor shine in my commentary around the images and quotes.
By the time I was a postdoc writing what would become The Jews of Summer, both my research and I had matured. With the confidence of years of having given presentations, receiving peer reviews, and affirming mentorship relationships, helped by just the fact of entering my thirties, I had gotten both the external and internal validation I needed to feel that I no longer had to prove my research interests were worthy of study.
With a new sense of confidence, I looked back at the photos of the funny little scraps of paper I saved and realized that they weren’t besides the point: they were, ironically, the entire point. They encapsulated the Jewish camp: an educational and ideological project fueled by adult anxieties about the future, spliced with everyday experiences of silliness, joy, homesickness, humor, and chaos. The things I saved for my and my friends’ enjoyment ended up eventually being some of the most important sources in the entire book, enabling me to write about subjects other historians of Jewish education had not written about, like sex and relationships at camp, power dynamics between teens and adults, and how youth culture entered and shaped camp life. Such sources also led me towards figuring out one of the book’s major contributions: that intergenerational negotiation, and making campers feel free within summer camps, are crucial parts of camps’ transformative properties. Camps can only succeed educationally if campers feel they’ve taken on their camps’ ideologies willingly, as free agents rather than subjects of an adult-controlled environment.
“Serious” and “unserious” are fabricated categories. As I get further and further away from my own youth, it gets easier to shake off these pressures, and simply let my research and writing be guided by my own instincts for what matters. The Jews of Summer is a thorough academic history of American Jewry and the summer camp written by a scholar who takes her research “seriously.” It is also filled with relevant-but-funny anecdotes, written by a person who likes a good laugh. Because why, at the end of the day, not be both?
Sandra Fox is visiting assistant professor of Hebrew Judaic Studies and Director of the Archive of the Jewish Left Project at New York University, and founder and executive producer of the Yiddish-language podcast Vaybertaytsh: A Feminist Podcast in Yiddish.