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Culture Kvetch: The Campiness of Summer Camp, A Summer-Long Pageant

For all of her productivity as a writer, critic, and novelist, Susan Sontag’s reputation is closely associated with a few now-iconic essays on photography, the perception of illness, fascism, and other modern concerns. Secure in this small canon is “Notes on Camp,” her 1964 essay about an aesthetic sensibility that has come to be identified with anything from the films of John Waters to drag queens; Liberace to the wildly colorful regalia of gay-pride parades.

From its beginnings more than a century ago (the Oxford English Dictionary traces the term’s first use to 1909), camp has formed an important part of gay culture and, from the 1960s onwards, has helped to make gay culture more accepted by mainstream society. It is both a celebration of the frivolous, and, in its fashion, a subversive attack on the seriousness of the high modernism that it originally grew out of.

Sontag defined “the ultimate Camp statement” as “it’s good because it’s awful”—camp takes pride in failure, particularly in the garish or melodramatic. It’s a deeply visual sensibility, one that privileges extravagance and strives for the extraordinary.

Camp is sentimental, open, and “generous.” As a way of life, it represents “the theatricalization of experience.”

Since this is Camp Week at Jewcy, I thought I’d take a look at the campiness of camp. The two words aren’t just homonyms. In fact, there’s a great deal about Jewish summer camp that is camp. (To distinguish between the two, I’ll use the acronym JSC to refer to Jewish summer camp.)

One might even argue that camp is the defining aesthetic of JSC, at least at the liberal, reform Southern California JSC where I spent a few formative summers.

Life at my JSC was defined by skits, chants, cheesy songs, drama, pageantry, homoerotic humor, cabin cheers filled with elaborate innuendo—all things that are indelibly camp. Moreover, as your goyische friends may jealously testify to, JSC is a place of sexual curiosity, self-questioning, experimentation, even cross-dressing (often for the purposes of a skit or theatrical production).

During this period, it can seem like one’s sexual and gender attitudes are in a continual flux, and indeed, many campers are themselves androgynous, unformed; in Sontag’s view, “the androgyne is certainly one of the great images of Camp sensibility.”

JSC is suffused with an air of constant performance that is unmistakably camp. We cheer loudly for the smallest successes, we over-gel our hair and strut demonstratively for our camp crushes, we write and perform in knowingly silly skits and belt out parodies of the season’s hit pop songs. We invoke film quotes to show our pop culture savvy (The Big Lebowski was the sacred text during my stint at JSC), and we code sexual references and flirtations into our everyday speech.

We are always on, always performing. Sontag wrote that camp “is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.” JSC, then, may be seen as one vast proscenium, where the inherent drama of adolescence is amplified to the nth degree, making dandies of us all.

In “Notes on Camp,” Sontag claimed that “Jews and homosexuals are the outstanding creative minorities in contemporary urban culture. Creative, that is, in the truest sense: they are creators of sensibilities. The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony.” These two forces collide at JSC, where we pray daily and learn how to be custodians of Jewish history while also cajoling a friend to steal and try on a girl’s bra, because it seems strange and daring.

JSC is both Wet Hot American Summer (itself an example and document of camp) and “The Conversion of the Jews.” At Camp Hess Kramer, which I attended, this collision is emblematized by the camp’s six-foot tall Menorah—an object at once intrinsically holy and, because of its exaggerated size, unintentionally absurd. (Sontag would label it an example of “naive camp.”)

Sontag was never wholly in favor of camp. In her original essay, as well as later in her career, she worried that camp’s lack of aesthetic seriousness could also be accompanied by a lack of moral seriousness. Yet that is what makes this sensibility so well suited to JSC. For campers, it is a time to be unserious, free, to loose the shackling anxieties of adolescence, even—or especially—if that means risking embarrassment or failure.

“Camp discloses innocence,” Sontag tells us, “but also, when it can, corrupts it.” This can be interpreted as a comment on camp’s ethics, but I think it’s something less pointed—a description of a tendency, a habit of being. At Jewish summer camp, whether our parents know it or not, we come to shed our innocence, to be complicit in our own corruption and adolescent awakening. And we do it—whether we know it or not—by way of camp, the camp of camp.

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