Friday, June 22, 2012

A Letter Home, A Voyage Out

The following was written for and featured in the URJ Jacobs Camp Blog. My daughters and I are in the midst of our annual Jacobs Camp experience. Wish you were here!
First Letter from Camp

Today I received my first-ever camp letter.

Written by my oldest child, it is unmailable. It bears no address beyond “I miss you Dear Ima” printed in pencil on the back of the envelope. It is stamped, on the upper left corner of the back of the envelope. It also sports a 3-D foam sticker on the outside of the envelope. I’m not sure how the Postmaster General feels about 3-D adornments on the outside of envelopes sent through the U.S. Postal Service, but I’m guessing it’s not good.  Fortunately, I’m at camp, so I received this (by some measures deficient) missive during lunch at the staff table without any trouble.

(Note to first-time camper parents, especially younger first-time camper parents: don’t just provide the address labels and stamps when you send your child to camp. Put them on the envelopes. Or, at the very least, provide your child with a template showing where the address and stamp should go. And drill your child in its correct use in advance of the first day of camp. The image you have of an orderly cabin-wide letter-writing session, concluding in the children addressing and stamping their envelopes under the direct supervision of a counselor, doesn’t happen.  With deep appreciation and respect for the wonderful counselors: I’m not sure exactly what does happen, but it’s not that.)

Everything about this short, sweet, incompetently posted note warms my heart. I’ll be keeping this one forever.

I know I’m lucky. As a rabbi on faculty at Henry S. JacobsCamp, I get to spend a week here each year, and each year, my kids come with me. Previously, they’ve roamed camp with a babysitter while I worked and played with the campers. This year, my daughters are campers, too: one in Olim, the other enjoying her first spin with K’tanim, Jacobs’ week-long day camp for 4- to 6-year-olds.

True, I have a lot more access to my kids than other camp parents do. Still, I don’t really know what they’re up to for the most part, outside of what they or their counselors might tell me in letters, in hurriedly brief verbal reports, or after the whole thing’s over next week. I’m busy teaching older students, or planning a service, or angling for a chance to climb the Tower when it won’t interfere with the campers’ scheduled activities.  Not to mention, when it comes to my Olim camper (as opposed to anyone else’s!), extensive interaction is not encouraged. A quick hug at mealtimes, often just a wave, is about all I hope for.

Also true, this gap in my knowledge of my children’s experience is not unprecedented. Since each of them was only a very few months old, I’ve left them in the care of others for significant periods of time each day while I worked.

And yet, this is the first time either has been away from me most of the day and all night, not for one or two nights at a friend’s or with Bubbe and Poppy, but for ten nights. It’s the first time my oldest child is having an extended, significant, potentially life-changing experience without me.

As a parent of very young children, this milestone is, admittedly, bittersweet.

Letting go of the all-encompassing nature of the early parent-child relationship means letting go a bit of the euphoria and intense intimacy of this phase of parenting.

But I don’t mind the idea of letting go some of the physical exhaustion and intensely irrational exchanges of this stage of the relationship (I know, I know, the irrational part will be back in a few years….) And how proud are we parents of our first-time sleep-away campers for their newly discovered and expanding repertoire of emotional, physical, and social skills; their growing independence?

As a rabbi, all of this—my oldest daughter’s camp experience, its impact on her development and our relationship—reminds me of Torah. Of course.

The stories of our matriarchs and patriarchs, of Moses and the exodus from Egypt, of the years of wandering in the wilderness—these stories are terse, elliptical, with many details of time, space, characterization, and other narrative elements left blank. This might have frustrated our ancestors; we may have been driven away from this confounding tradition before it properly began. Instead, our sages, and Jews to this day, have filled in those gaps with wonderful and wondrous works of midrash, a genre of classical rabbinic and contemporary literature that answers the questions these blanks suggest.

The phenomenon of midrash, both the body of work and the act of creating it, has infinitely enriched, complicated, and nuanced our relationship with Torah. Were all the answers already provided, every detail known, would the text have drawn us as powerfully and as eternally as it does? Would we be tempted into hours, years, of study, reflection, argument, and discussion about what it means? Our knowledge of such a Torah might be more complete, but almost certainly more superficial.

My daughters have always had to come up with their own midrash on my life. They’ve asked and imagined stories to fill in the blanks of their knowledge of me, both the years before they were born and the times since, when I’ve left them in another’s care, certain of where to find them when I returned, while I went gallivanting off, from their perspective, who-knows-where to do who-knows-what.

In one incremental way, this summer, my relationship with my daughters grows a tiny bit more balanced, anticipating the day when we will relate to one another as adults, as equals. It grows a little deeper as they begin to collect their own private stories and mysteries, ideas and opinions, fuel for a lifetime of study, reflection, argument, and discussion.  I can’t wait to see where it all leads.

Sylvia’s letter from camp is the perfect beginning to this journey.