From Pete Seeger to Ben Platt: Hebrew Music at Jewish Summer Camps

By Jonathan B. Krasner

Long before Ben Platt was a Broadway sensation in Dear Evan Hansen, he was wowing audiences in Hebrew language productions at Camp Ramah California. Platt recalled playing Sky Masterson in a Hebrew language production of Guys & Dolls and even sang a few lines of “Luck be a Lady Tonight” (“Hey lady, tni li mazal”) in a November 2016 episode of Late Night with Seth Myers. Ramah was a formative experience for Platt, who credits it with keeping him engaged with Judaism. His memories of the Hebrew show tunes he performed help keep the connection solid all those years later.

One of the takeaways of Hebrew Infusion: Language and Community at American Jewish Summer Camps, the recently-published book that I coauthored with Sarah Bunin Benor and Sharon Avni, is the critical role that music plays in creating a Hebrew atmosphere at many Jewish summer camps. Often, multiple Hebrew music genres comprise a camp’s soundscape, with one form or another coming to the fore, depending on the context.

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Hebrew singing has been heard in some form at Jewish summer camps since their inception at the turn of the twentieth century. Many of the early camps, particularly the philanthropically-funded “fresh air camps,” were charged with Americanizing the children of immigrants, while other privately operated camps attracted a middle-class and wealthy clientele.

The little Hebrew spoken and sung at these camps was in blessings or prayers. Hebrew liturgical music is still heard today at many Jewish summer camps across the religious spectrum.

A second type of Hebrew music, Shirei Eretz Israel (songs of the Land of Israel), was introduced to Jewish camps beginning in the 1920s and ‘30s. After World War I, an assortment of new Zionist camps arose. Virtually all of them used Zionist Hebrew music to forge an emotional link between their campers and staff and the chalutzim. A songster used at Cejwin Camps (est. 1919) in the early 1940s included 56 Hebrew songs from Palestine, including Shmuel Navon’s jaunty “Artza Alinu.” Although “Artza Alinu” was composed in 1928, its portentous lyrics about the chalutzim (pioneers) carried an almost messianic whiff which provided hope to the campers in the wake of Nazi destruction of eastern Europe’s Jewish centers: “We have come to our beloved land, we have plowed and planted, but we have yet to harvest.” Pete Seeger, who frequently performed at Surprise Lake Camp (est. 1902), would lead the campers in rousing renditions of “Tzena, Tzena,” the Issachar Miron song that Seeger and the Weavers popularized in the United States. The growing popularity of Israeli folk dancing at summer camps in the late 1950s and ‘60s also enhanced the ubiquity of Hebrew music.

Israeli Hebrew music continues to be heard at many camps; a song like Mosh Ben Ari’s “Salaam” can take Jewish camps by storm. But by the ‘80s, Israeli Hebrew songs were increasingly overshadowed by songs composed by American Jewish artists, many of them home-grown camp talent. Some of these songs were entirely in Hebrew, often with lyrics taken from the liturgy, while others used a mixture of Hebrew and English. This development was influenced by changes in Israeli musical culture – American camp music directors found the newer fare less melodic and devoid of Zionist messaging. A new genre of neo-Chassidic music inspired by Shlomo Carlebach and popularized through an annual Chasidic Song Festival spoke more directly to the late-twentieth century American Jewish zeitgeist with its inward-facing emphasis on spirituality-seeking. At the same time as neo-Chassidic songs like Carlebach’s “Ve’haer Eneinu” and Nurit Hirsch’s “Oseh Shalom” were introduced to camps, a generation of young American Jewish songwriters, epitomized by Debbie Friedman, who earned her songleading chops at Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (est. 1952), were heavily influenced by the American folk music revival of the 1960s. They began composing their own Hebrew songs and songs that included both Hebrew and English, like Friedman’s “L’chi Lach.” Today, a new generation of songs are popular at American Jewish camps and are circulated in part through programs like Songleader Boot Camp and Hava Nashira.

The tradition of putting on popular musicals in Hebrew began in the 1940s at Camp Massad (est. 1941), the Hebrew-speaking camp in Poconos, with the staging of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. A few years later, in 1951, Ramah Wisconsin (est. 1947) Director Louis Newman lured away Massad’s dramatics counselor, Leah Abrams, by agreeing to pay her to translate Rogers and Hammerstein’s Broadway hit, Oklahoma! Under Abrams’ direction, Oklahoma! in Hebrew was such a sensation that a special performance was arranged for the parents on Visitors’ Day. Abrams followed up in subsequent years with musicals like Annie Get Your Gun and Guys and Dolls. In recent years, Ramah Hebrew productions have included Wicked and Frozen. We can draw a straight line from Abrams’ pioneering efforts in the 1950s to Ben Platt’s star turn over fifty years later.

Platt’s experience is hardly unique. As we discuss in our book, music is a memory enhancer, facilitating long-term connections to camp and camp culture. Long after the summer is over, campers and counselors alike retain the melodies and lyrics that comprise a camp’s soundtrack. Singing or hearing these songs conjures up memories of camp and reinforces a sense of belonging and kinship with cabinmates, friends and other camp personalities. Even years after their last camp experience, hearing a particular song or cheer can transport a former camper back to the campfire. In the course of our interviews for Hebrew Infusion we met scores of individuals who were eager to sing us the Hebrew songs and show tunes they learned at camp decades earlier. Long after other aspects of camp life faded from memory, they could still recall Hebrew lyrics like “Bachur lo tofsim b’roveh” (You can’t get a man with a gun). When Massad Poconos alumni held a reunion a few years ago they joined together in a rousing rendition of Bialik’s Techezakna.

It’s no wonder that when Jewish summer camps developed online summer programming in response to COVID-19, many sought to include music. While the limitations of Zoom technology make communal singing impractical, and full-scale theatrical productions will need to wait until camps reopen in person, a survey of online offerings revealed that camps have been using multiple genres of Hebrew music to entertain and connect to their campers. From song sessions and online concerts with artists like Josh Warshawsky and Elana Arian to virtual Israeli dance parties, and from  musical Kabbalat Shabbat and Havdalah services to “Israel Day” song sessions, Hebrew music continues to be a time-honored way to create Jewish camp memories.

Jonathan B. Krasner is the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Associate Professor of Jewish Education Research at Brandeis University. His book, Hebrew Infusion: Language and Community at American Jewish Summer Camps, co-authored with Sarah Bunin Benor and Sharon Avni, was published this month by Rutgers University Press. He is also the author of The Benderly Boys and American Jewish Education, which won the 2011 American Jewish Book Award in American Jewish Studies.

Learn more about the Mandel Center study behind Hebrew Infusion.