Camp Tel Yehuda, the national camp for Young Judaea, the Zionist youth group my father had long worked for as his second job, was located by the Delaware River in Barryville, New York. Who Barry was nobody knew, or even where exactly the town of Barryville was in the late 1960s and early 70s.
There was a German restaurant called Reber’s, a mile of two from the camp, in what we thought of as downtown Barryville, if there had been anything else downtown with it. Across a little metal bridge from Reber’s was Shohola, Pennsylvania. Shohola had a little general store and possibly also a post office. There was probably also a post office in Barryville, beyond Reber’s, and maybe even a store of some kind. But if you needed some little item from a store, you went to Reber’s, hung a left and clanked over the Delaware to Pennsylvania.
We were told that Barryville had once been an epicenter for the German-American Bund. The Bund was an organization for Americans of German ancestry, a group that comprised more than a quarter of the white American population during World War Two. The Bund made its voice heard in large public demonstrations when people, particularly Jews, began defaming Time Magazine’s Man of The Year for 1938. By 1938 Mr. Hitler was very controversial, and taking a lot of shit for things he was doing to make Germany great again. Hitler, for his part, originally had expected that America, with its large, proud Aryan population, and its many Anglo-Saxons, who were almost Aryans, would join Germany in helping end the menace of world Jewry.
Some of the locals who worked at Camp Tel Yehuda displayed an attitude that seemed a bit more what you’d expect in Mississippi than a few hours from Jew York City. While I never directly saw anti-Semitism from any of them, one or two skated close to the line as they did their jobs in the Jewish camp. Stories were told in camp of the local Klan types who drove the dark roads in the heavily wooded area, hunting deer, drinking, hating Jews. Thankfully, I never had any encounters with these types.
My parents spent quite a few summers at the camp, my father as the director, my mother as the registrar. I attended a few sessions there as a camper, made a few lifelong friends, learned rudimentary Hebrew and eventually, since many of my good friends were going and I had little interest in college at the time, flew off for a year in Israel after High School. At the very least, I figured, I’d come home bilingual.
When I returned from the year in Israel, speaking Hebrew to a lying, criminal Israeli cabbie named Sarfati who drove me back from JFK, it was summer and my parents were up at camp. I got a chance to betray and enrage them almost as soon as I touched down, but that is a story for another time. I went up to Barryville not long after I got back and my parents and aunt and uncle took me out to a restaurant several miles from Barryville where this memorable vignette unfolded.
The little town may have been Pond Eddy, I don’t recall, I’m too lazy to look at a map, and what difference does it make anyway? It was a restaurant with a salad bar. We sat at the table, my parents and I, along with my aunt and uncle. My sister may have been there or she may have been a camper at T.Y. that session. I don’t recall any other customers eating there while we had an early dinner. It was full daylight outside, I remember that.
I was at that time skinny as a Whippet. I was a skinny teenager, but also, had just completed a month-long intensive course of dysentery during the end of my time in Israel. It was hubris that brought about my weeks unable to keep any food in my body. I had eaten all the things we were warned not to eat, the fly speckled shish kebab in the Old City, fresh berries that flies also loved, other delicious but allegedly dangerous foods. By the late spring, after several others had been afflicted with stomach troubles, I foolishly thought myself immune. Turned out I was not. This became clear when I woke suddenly in the middle of the night, stomach full of daggers, running down the hall, hunched over, barely making it.
I’d been better for a few weeks by the time I got back and my appetite was in full effect. I finished my salad and went up to the salad bar to get some more salad. The short, stout maitre de smiled at me. She was nursing a drink and she may even have winked at me. Then my mother got up to get some more salad. My mother was quite heavy at the time, as she had been for most of my childhood. She could have by then been considered obese, I suppose. It was not until after her beloved husband died, and what she called The Widow’s Diet, that she lost the weight she’d been unable to for many decades.
When my mother reached the salad bar the maitre de turned mean. “Haven’t you had enough?” she snapped, as my mother was about to put some pickled beets on her plate. My mother recoiled as if she’d been slapped and she fought to hold back tears. Suddenly all this Nazi stuff I’d heard about the area was palpable. I remember thinking “what the fuck?” and having no doubt this snippy maitre de was an anti-Semite. I looked at my father across the table from me, his lips were pressed together and he sat perfectly still.
My uncle jumped up at once, like an angry rooster, and went straight over to the maitre de. “That was a very disrespectful thing to do! You owe my sister-in-law an apology. If you weren’t a woman … I’d take you outside and teach you how to treat your customers!” he snarled, not sparing a bit of sprayed saliva. The maitre de stood her ground, smug, clearly not cowed by this empty threat from a slight, middle-aged Jew.
There was eventually a muttered, almost convincing apology to my mother from the maitre de, but the meal was pretty well ruined. We stayed, and ate there, I’m not sure why, thinking back on it. I remember clearly my father’s silence, and it bothered me that it took my uncle to stand up and take my mother’s part. My father later explained that the bitchy maitre de had been drunk, if not also a little crazy, and, yes, probably an anti-Semite.
The only other thing I recall is the tipsy maitre de, in an attempt to, as my grandmother Yetta would have phrased it, “make nice”, coming up behind me and putting her hand on my shoulder. She asked me sweetly if I was enjoying my food. I answered by roughly shrugging her hand off my shoulder. She took the hint and backed discreetly away, the ice cubes in her glass gently clinking as she went.