My Instagram biography says, “In high school, I went to Jewish book camp.” This statement, while poking fun at my tendency to engage with activities that might be considered strange for a teenager, is entirely true. The summer before my senior year of high school, I spent a week at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., as a participant in the Great Jewish Books Summer Program.
The 34 other teens in the program each came from unique Jewish backgrounds. Some were very traditional in their practice, davening each morning and evening. Others had attended Jewish summer camp and cherished memories of songs and friendship. We all loved to read. Each night we spent time reading for the next day, poems and short stories by Jewish writers, some of whom we met and learned from.
In the mornings we attended class – discussions that centered around the text and what we could gain from the various characters and settings that made them distinctive. One could say that we were able to connect and grow as Jews and individuals from these discussions in spite of our differences. In truth, it was because of these differences in Jewish upbringing that allowed us to learn and connect.
There is a communal, Jewish cultural memory that connected us to each other and to the characters, but it was our differences that brought to light each perspective. The stories we read opened our eyes to realms of Jewish experience that none of us had previously known. Still, there was a connection to these characters: “crypto-Jews” in the southwestern United States, immigrants from Eastern Europe after the Holocaust, Yiddish-speaking Jews in shtetls in Russia. Because of our differences, each of us found a personal bond to the stories, and through sharing those ideas, I began to see the words as three-dimensional, full-bodied and complex, each one expanding and deepening my understanding of the Jewish world.
On my own, I might have missed the nuance of these layers of Judaism. In the setting of Great Jewish Books, we were given a space to question and ponder how they related to each other and to ourselves. It has been over a year since the time I spent in the building designed to look like an Eastern European shtetl, but what I learned there is still sharp in my memory.
Hannah, raised in Newton, is now a freshman in college. She spent a week exploring the richness and diversity of modern Jewish literature at the Great Jewish Books Summer Program at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst.