I was 12 when my parents sent me away from the wet-velvet heat of New Orleans to the cool green woods of the Northeast. The camp was a Conservative Jewish utopia, an eight-week retreat for suburban synagogue youth. There was canoeing and swimming and archery; there were Hebrew lessons and Jewish culture classes, kosher food, Israeli dancing, Shabbat services on benches by the lake. Everything had a Hebrew name. We didn't have counselors, we had madrichim; we ate at the hadar ochel, and we lived in tzrifim. We groused about having to pray every morning and say the Birkat Hamazon after meals. We complained to our counselors about not being able to use our radios or write letters or take showers on Shabbat.
But mostly we had a good time. By the end of the summer, I believed I would be one of those campers who came back every year until they were too old to attend.
As it turned out, I wouldn't return until the summer after my sophomore year at Cornell, when circumstances conspired to land me a job I didn't want. That year, I'd been seeing a 31-year-old grad student named Paul. I suppose he seemed like the antidote to my parents' comfortable, suburban way of thinking. He was opposed to organized religion and didn't believe in "exclusive relationships." Under his influence, I changed from premed to an English major and took my first writing workshop. The professor offered me a summer job as a research assistant, and Paul invited me to move in with him. But when I told my parents about how I intended to spend the summer, they responded with stunned silence. When they recovered, they suggested that if I wanted them to continue sending me to college, I might consider a summer job at the Jewish camp instead.
I was 19 years old, still dependent upon my parents for many things. Mostly, I didn't want to upset my mother -- she'd had breast cancer for nearly a decade, and things had recently taken a turn for the worse. I knew it wasn't a good time to make trouble. So I applied for the job at camp, and, to my dismay, I was hired.
I would be one of five counselors for 20 kids with learning disabilities. And because I'd been in lots of plays in high school, I would be in charge of directing the musical. I liked being in charge of things, but I knew nothing about adapting the dramatic arts for kids with learning disabilities and developmental disorders. I'd studied autism, Down syndrome, dyslexia and ADD in my premed classes, but none of that had left me feeling prepared. I didn't know how the campers would learn songs and memorize lines, or how to teach them their blocking. Nor did I know what play we could do. Robyn, my supervisor, had told me that the musical had to have a Jewish theme but that it couldn't be "Fiddler on the Roof"; the kids had done that play for three years running.
The week I got home from school, I scoured the public library for an appropriate play. But as far as I could tell, the only Jewish-themed musical in existence was "Fiddler on the Roof." There was only one way out of this problem: I would have to write a piece of Jewish musical theater. After all, I had just changed my major to English and declared myself a writer; here was a chance to prove what I was worth.
My mother collected musicals on vinyl. "Oliver" and "The Sound of Music" and "A Chorus Line" were the companions of my rainy childhood afternoons. I'd also studied violin for 10 years. So, without fear, I gathered my materials: the fiddle, a sheaf of staff paper and a fresh notebook. I began with a preliminary sketch: Setting: 1992, a deli in Brooklyn. The proprietor is Hal Golden, 65 years old, born in 1927 to Hungarian immigrants. It's the recession, and business is slow; Hal worries about having to close the deli down.
It was a start, at least. I'd never actually been to Brooklyn, nor did I know anything about the deli business -- much less about the minds of 65-year-old men. But what did that matter? This was theater. To compensate for my ignorance, I threw in a couple of problems I knew something about: Hal's wife had died of breast cancer, and Hal and his son disagreed about religion, relationships and work.
In the opening scene, we see Hal wiping the deli counter, grumbling to himself about his problems. Some of his friends come in and ask why he looks so down in the mouth, which provides an opportunity for that staple of musical theater, the First Act Expositional Song.
Of course, I didn't know how to write song lyrics, either, and so I sat for a long time staring at the blank page. Then an idea came, and I put pen to paper.
Song 1: "The Way It Used to Be" (Hal, espressivo)
"When I was a younger man
With my wife, Marney, at my side, and Miriam in diapers,
I worked with my father here, and life was grand.
We made the best egg salad sandwiches in Brooklyn.
We made a fruit plate in the shape of the Sefer Torah!
The kosher wonders that made all those people ooh and ahh and mmm
Came from this very kitchen that you see before ya.
We try to do our best, but times are changing now.
The boys who used to come in here have long since grown.
And now their sons don't want my
They want Big Macs and french fries.
It's just not the same old Brooklyn
that I've known.
Over the course of the next three weeks, the musical took shape. I built in a deli drama: Would the Rosenbergs, Hal's longtime clients, use him to cater their son Jason's bar mitzvah, or would they use the fancy new caterer down the block? Then there was the romantic subplot: Margot Silverberg, a lovely and spry 65-year-old, had long been sending hints in Hal's direction. But Hal was a widower; could he learn to love again? For Hal and Margot, I wrote a love song called "In the Beginning":
In the beginning, five years ago, you walked in through the deli door, and then I knew . . .
Then there was "The Finger Sandwich Song":
We're gonna take some bread and mayo,
We're gonna take some turkey, too.
We're gonna put it all together --
We're making finger sandwiches for you.
Okay, so I was no Stephen Sondheim, but at least we'd have a play.
In early June, when I arrived for staff week, there was frost on the ground; a chill wind roared through the tops of the pine trees, and the cabin pipes froze and broke in the night. It was the beginning of the coldest summer in 100 years. We met for staff training in the cavernous gymnasium, where birds huddled in the rafters and gusts of arctic wind blew from one end to the other. As we shivered in our shorts and T-shirts, Robyn taught us about our campers' challenges. Our kids would all be "high-functioning," which meant they didn't have severe developmental disorders; they could all dress themselves and wash themselves and use the restroom on their own. They loved gardening. They loved field trips. And they loved drama. But they required constant sharp attention, and they had to get their medications on time.
Then, suddenly, staff week was over, and the campers arrived in long chartered buses, in their parents' cars, in vans, in airport shuttles. Our first task was to take them to the mirpa'ah, the infirmary, to drop off their meds. In my group, a quick-eyed 13-year-old named Sarah took daily injections of growth hormone, fierce-looking darts that had to be jabbed into her thigh. Placid, sensitive Emunah took pills for a heart condition. Paula, russet-haired and deep-voiced, took powerful mood stabilizers. We had to do meds before breakfast, at lunch, after dinner, before bed. Soon I understood why they'd put us in the cabin next door to the mirpa'ah.
Each morning we met in our group clubhouse, a fiberboard cabin equipped with benches, tables, art supplies, prayer books and a Holy Ark with its own Sefer Torah. Morning prayers took an hour, longer if it happened to be a Torah-reading day. But the kids in our group had less patience for the shacharit service than I'd had in my own camper days. Few of these campers had studied Hebrew, but they weren't allowed to pray in English, either. When I asked Robyn why this was, she said the camp administration felt it was more important for the campers to preserve the tradition of Hebrew prayer than to know what the prayers meant. That seemed wrong to me, and I said so.
"You were a camper here," Robyn said. "You know the rules."
"But can't we change them?" I asked. "Can't we make an adaptation for our campers?"
"At this camp, we pray in Hebrew," she said. "That's just the way it is."
But one morning, in the slowest section of the service, the tall, tanned, 14-year-old Israeli twins started a scuffle. Yedidya knocked his brother's prayer phylactery off his forehead; Itamar retaliated in kind. There were a few giggles among the campers; the girls were wild for Itamar and Yedidya. Robyn gave them a warning, but the lure of the girls' attention was too strong: As soon as the prayers resumed, Yedidya knocked Itamar's tefillin off again.
That was it. Robyn separated the twins and gave them their punishment: That afternoon they would have to study the story of Cain and Abel.
Torah study as punishment: Of course, I'd had to do it, too, when I was a camper, but it seemed wrong now. What message were we trying to send, anyway? Was Torah study supposed to be a good thing or not? At other times, the camp tried to portray it as a privilege. With this kind of punishment, weren't we just acknowledging the odiousness of having to sit inside and study on a summer day? When I raised the point to Robyn, she fixed me in her dark gaze and crossed her arms.
"This is not about Torah," she said. "It's about teaching kids to accept the consequences of their actions." Her tone was threatening, as if she thought I might need to learn a lesson about consequences, too.
In the first week of camp, I held auditions for "Hal's Deli." I wrote the song lyrics on big sheets of poster board; I had my violin on hand so I could play the songs for the kids. At rehearsal time, they filed into the clubhouse and sat down on a circle of benches. When they saw the violin, they all groaned.
"Oh, no," Paula said, lowering her head into her hands. "Not 'Fiddler on the Roof' again."
"No," I said. "This is different. It's called 'Hal's Deli.' " I passed around the scripts, and there was a flurry of rustling pages as the kids looked them over.
Paula read the front cover slowly, then gave me an incredulous look. "You wrote this?" she asked.
"Sure," I said.
"So you wouldn't have to do 'Fiddler on the Roof' again, I guess."
"Oh," she said, with an all-comprehending nod. "Good."
I told them about the deli owner and his problem; I told them about the love interest, and the boy who was having a bar mitzvah, and how culinary tastes had changed in Brooklyn. Finally, I described each of the characters.
"Jeff should be Hal," said Emunah. "He sings better than anyone."
"As long as it's not me," Yedidya said.
"Or me," said his brother.
"Yeah, it's gotta be Jeff," said Paula. "Make him sing."
Jeff was a stocky, tanned 15-year-old with horn-rimmed glasses and serious, heavy-browed eyes. He was mildly autistic; his special talents were perfect pitch and quick memorization. He got up and smoothed his pressed khaki shorts.
"I'll try it," he said. "What should I sing?"
"How about this?" I said, flipping to one of the poster boards I'd made up. It was Hal's love song with Margot.
"Play the melody, and I'll sing it," he said.
I rosined the bow and tuned the violin strings. The campers watched in silence as I played the song all the way through. I expected to play the first verse again slowly, and have Jeff repeat it line by line, but as soon as I'd finished, he sang the song from beginning to end in his deep, round baritone. When he was done, everyone cheered. Jeff took a modest bow and sat down again. Now everyone wanted a part.
After a quick casting, we worked on "The Finger Sandwich Song." The campers were shaky at first, repeating the lines after me, but by the end of rehearsal they had the melody down cold. At lunch that day, I heard them humming it as they passed around the platters of kosher hot dogs and french fries. Just a silly song, I knew, but it gave me a kind of proprietary thrill to hear it making its way into the world.
A few days later, before rehearsal, Robyn called me in for a meeting. She sat down with me in our cluttered group office and said she had some bad news. I swallowed. My vision seemed to contract at the edges. I knew it was about my mother. I held the corner of a desk and waited.
But the news was about the musical. The camp's director and national board had read it and decided it wasn't appropriate for our campers. Rehearsals were to stop immediately. "I'm sorry you had to go through all that trouble," Robyn said, "but there's nothing we can do. The board has made its decision."
I was astounded. What could possibly have been objectionable about "Hal's Deli"? It didn't have any sex or cussing; it came down on the side of tradition. And it was a comedy, after all. The oldest kids at our camp were putting on a Hebrew translation of "The Crucible"; if that was okay, how could "Hal's Deli" be too risque?
There were two problems, Robyn said. One, the bar mitzvah boy and his friends broke the window of the deli in the play; and, two, the board thought that the romantic relationship between Hal and Margot might be confusing for some of the kids.
The blood rushed to my face. It was true that in a moment of anger, young Jason Rosenberg threw a rock and broke the deli window. But there wouldn't be any glass on the stage, I pointed out; it would just be a sound effect. And what was so shocking about a Holocaust survivor and a Brooklyn veteran falling in love in their twilight years?
Robyn was beginning to lose patience. In addition to the window-breaking, she said, the kids in the play talked back to their parents and hung around at a video arcade after school. The song lyrics were often irreverent -- "a fruit plate in the shape of the Sefer Torah," etc. And the rival caterer's building burned to the ground, which was unacceptable, too. Instead, she told me, the board had suggested I might consider adapting "The Rothschilds," a musical about the gradual rise of the international banking family. She handed me a script. The play was set in the early 19th century and featured such musical numbers as "Bonds," "Give England Strength" and "Have You Ever Seen a Prettier Little Congress?"
That evening I had night patrol, and by the time I had a moment alone, it was midnight. I sat on the dock in the wind and looked out over the flat black surface of the lake. I might have laughed at the absurdity of the situation, but the embarrassing fact was that it hurt. This wasn't just the kids' play we were talking about; it was my play. The board had eighty-sixed the first thing I'd produced since I'd declared myself a writer. They'd taken away the one thing here that had belonged to me.
The next day, I sat down to adapt "The Rothschilds" into a two-act musical for teenagers. Grudgingly I made my way into the tangle of that historical drama, and I took some bitter pleasure in the dullness and confusion I found there. I redlined scenes, slashed characters, cut song verses by the dozen; but, try as I might, there was no way I could make it into an intelligible, engaging, 45-minute piece of theater. After a week of midnight writing sessions, I went to Robyn's cabin.
"I've tried with 'The Rothschilds,' " I said. "It's not going to work."
Robyn squinted at me. "What do you mean?"
"I've been up until three o'clock every night this week," I said. "I've been sitting in that freezing office, wrestling with this thing. But it's never going to be right for our campers. It's three hours long. And it's about 19th-century bankers, for God's sake."
Robyn sighed. Maybe she saw I was millimeters away from quitting, which would have left the problem of the musical in her hands. Maybe she was just tired of arguing with me. In any case, after a moment, she shrugged and said, "Well, I guess there's always 'Fiddler on the Roof.' "
"I am not doing that play again," Paula said at our first rehearsal. "No way."
"Me, either," Yedidya said.
"We can't do 'Fiddler.' We're doing 'Hal's Deli,' " Jeff said, hitching up his wrinkle-free shorts. His tone wasn't one of protest; he was merely stating the facts. "I've already learned my part," he continued. "In the beginning, five years ago, you walked in through the deli door, and then I knew . . ."
"I'm the bar mitzvah boy," Yedidya said. "I have to have my party."
"All right, everyone," I said. "Take a breath. Listen to me. We can't do 'Hal's Deli.' "
"Because we can't. It wasn't my decision. I'd rather not do 'Fiddler,' but that's what we've got to do."
A surge of grumbling rolled through the room. Itamar kicked a bench. "The other kids get to do a different play every year," he said.
"Yeah," said his brother. "Why do we always have to do the same thing?"
"Because we're different," Paula said, spitting out the word as if it were a dose of bitter medicine. "They can do any play they want, as long as it's translated into Hebrew. But our stupid play has to be in English."
"I'm sorry," I said. "I wish I could tell you something different. But sometimes we have to do things we don't want to do." I couldn't believe what I was saying. I knew exactly how I sounded: like my parents. I didn't want to be on the side of the grown-ups here; I wanted the campers to know I was on their side. I had never hated my job more than at that moment.
The campers' displeasure about "Fiddler" was temporary. In fact, they seemed relieved to be back on familiar ground. I didn't have time to feel bad about this, at least not for long; there was too much to do. I cast Jeff as Tevye, and Emunah as Bielke, Tevye's youngest daughter; Yedidya became Motel, the tailor, which suited him just fine: An impending wedding was even more exciting than an impending bar mitzvah.
"And you'll be the fiddler," Jeff said, when I'd finished the casting.
"I'm not anything," I said. "It's your play."
"But you have to," he said. "You're the only one with a fiddle."
There was no real roof in our production, at least not one that anyone could stand on; our sets were painted backdrops, sections of wooden fence and bales of hay. The campers scrounged their costumes from a huge cardboard box in the gym. For the first couple of weeks, I felt oddly detached from the whole thing; as if from a distance, I watched the campers learning their roles and painting the sets and putting together their Russian peasant garb. Then one evening, as I watched Paula and Emunah practicing their lines in a corner of the gym -- becoming animated, gesticulating as they described the kinds of men they hoped to marry -- something shifted inside me. They were taking this seriously. Why wasn't I?
On the night of the performance, as I watched from the wings with my violin in hand, I began to understand what my campers had done. Faced with the distraction of "Hal's Deli" and the frustration of having to do "Fiddler" again, they had still managed to create this complicated, exuberant show. They had done it despite me, not because of me; I may have been their counselor, but they were far more adept than I was at making the best of a bad situation.
When they took their curtain calls that night, I felt something I hadn't experienced all summer -- real, unalloyed happiness. Part of it was the triumph of the performance itself; another part was the awareness that soon this would all be over, that I would leave the summer's frustrations and defeats behind and return to a life where I didn't find myself so tightly bound by other people's rules. But underneath all that, there was the glint of something new, something exciting -- like the edge of some gorgeous garment I had forgotten I owned. It had been there all along, I realized -- when my parents made me alter my summer plans, when Robyn said we couldn't perform "Hal's Deli," and through the campers' final push to make "Fiddler" into a play they could be proud of. Whatever else had happened that summer, I had been gathering the strands of this thing. It was a narrative, I know now -- the shadowy suggestion of a story. I could already feel it taking shape in my mind. It began the summer I was 12, and it would end, someday, when I wrote it.
Julie Orringer is the author of How to Breathe Underwater, published by Knopf in 2003.