The 40 Year Old Bat Mitzvah

Where’s Bill Murray When I Need Him?

Posted in personal growth, philosophizing, rituals by Juliet on June 9, 2010

Shabbat is a serious matter at Camp Ramah. At an event for adults like Family Weekend, nobody overtly says, “Don’t write in that notebook!” or “Don’t get something from you wallet!” (both activities prohibited from before Sunday on Friday night until a bit after sundown on Saturday night), but we always had that awareness in the backs of our minds.

Enter: the Grossmans.

We aren’t shabbat-keepers and never have been.

It didn’t take long after our arrival (with only an hour to spare before the sun went down Friday night) for Scott to discover he’d forgotten to pack any shirts.

It was amusing to debate whether forgetting shirts is worse than what he forgot to pack for our honeymoon on the Big Island of Hawaii – underwear – but the bottom line was, he was hot and sweaty after driving all day through Memorial Weekend traffic, it was in the 80s in Ojai, and the idea of showering and getting back into the same dirty shirt was really unappealing.

At dinner I got to chatting with this one guy who had come to Ramah for years as a kid. I told him we were running into town after dinner or maybe the next morning. “How are you getting out?” he asked.

“Oh, yeah,” I joked. “Sneaking out of camp. Oooh, hope we don’t get in trouble.”

Turns out another couple had the same idea as us. They’d forgotten a few items too and wanted to hit Rite Aid or Vons before bed. As we walked back to the lodge after dinner, the husband of the couple asked me whether we needed him to pick up a shirt or two for Scott, but I thanked him and told him not to worry about it, since we were going out too.

Bright and early the next morning, Scott showered, put on his sweaty shirt, and we climbed into the car. Eva was with her bunkmates doing some probably-pious activity. Jane our co-conspirator, strapped herself into her car seat and we rolled toward the road.

We got about 1/16 of a mile when we reached the gate.

Locked.

Locked!

Locked?

So that’s what that guy meant when he asked, “How are you going to get out?”

Sheepishly, Scott did a three-point turn and we rolled slowly back to our parking space near the lodge.

Scott was not thrilled to stay in the same sweaty clothes, but the worst of it was that the moment the outside world – the world of “melachah,” or work – was forbidden to us, we became obsessed by it.

I am a “power drinker” of tea. Ramah has tea but the water in the jug is lukewarm and the cups are styrofoam. I was dreaming of Starbucks with its McDonalds-lawsuit-hot water and little packets of Sugar in the Raw. I’d given the kids my last piece of gum on the car trip and suddenly I would have given my right arm for a pack of Orbit. There’s no soda at Ramah and while I don’t even drink Diet Coke that often, suddenly all I could think about was how great one would taste while I lounged by the pool. There were trays of cookies and other goodies out, but nothing sounded quite as good as a Hershey’s with almonds, since it was held hostage in the forbidden Rite Aid past the locked gates.

When we next saw the “How are you going to get out?” guy, I ran up to him: “You didn’t tell me! I figured you were just joking around. I didn’t think you literally meant, ‘How are you going to get out?’ like it was a prison escape or something.”

We all laughed over it but he assured me that at Camp Ramah, the counselors get “away” time, but there is no sneaking out at all, and shabbat is taken very seriously (no duh.)

Scott and I waited the whole day, both of us intensely aware of the forbidden-ness of everything we could not do.

After havdallah signaled the end of shabbat, we had a do-over of the Great Escape but this time we got out.

In town, Starbucks had tea. Rite Aid didn’t have anything. Full of Beans (where Scott really wanted to buy a shirt, mainly because of the name, and where I really wanted to buy tea, because it looked like the place where it would be good), was closed. Vons had hydration but no shirts. Our cart looked like this:

(The other couple who had wanted to stock up wasn’t able to leave on shabbat either, though they’d joked that their burly all-wheel-drive could probably have found a back road. We bumped into them at Vons and their cart looked a lot like ours, only they bought chips too.)

The big lesson in this experience is that I need to examine WHY the forbidden became so alluring the moment it was deemed off-limits. As soon as I became aware that I could not go somewhere, suddenly that was the only place on earth I wanted to be. It was hard to force myself to consciously focus on all the things I could do, because I was obsessing about the few that I couldn’t.

I chalk my shabbat experience up to basic human nature. Maybe shabbat is one of those phenomena where the very effort and inner work required is part of its value. Perhaps some answers will be in a book I just started called The Sabbath World by Judith Shulevitz, an in-depth exploration of sabbath observance (a book that, ironically, remained packed in my luggage, unread, during my long stretch of free hours at Camp Ramah.)

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