My chance to go to overnight camp arrived when the Hebrew School principal notified my parents that my grades had earned me free tuition to attend a ten-week overnight camp in the Pocono Mountains. Ten weeks? I was terrified on one hand, but excited on the other. Terrified, because Camp Ramah required all campers to speak only Hebrew by the end of the summer. I did pretty well reading Hebrew in school. But speaking it as a first language was a bit daunting. Excited, though, because this would be my first experience going to an overnight camp.
I boarded the chartered bus at 6 o’clock in the morning with all the other students for the trip. I had a large duffel bag for my clothes. And my trumpet, only because my Dad told me I might need it. I was the youngest camper on the bus, but the high school girls watched over me like mother hens. That sure wasn’t too much to handle! Late in the day, we arrived at a large, crystal-clear lake in the mountains, surrounded on three sides by a pine-tree forest. The front side had floating docks for canoeing, and roped-off areas for swimming.
Up a steep hillside sat dozens of wooden bunk houses. At the top of the hill was the dining hall, and next to it a large theatre, much like you’d find in any big city. Checking into our bunk houses, we met our counselors. Two sides of cot beds for about 30 campers, and a large communal bathroom with showers at one end. Dinner in the dining hall that first evening was pretty exciting. There must have been 500 campers, seated fifteen-to-a-table. The waitresses, waiters, and dishwashers were senior campers earning a few extra bucks by serving us younger ones.
After dinner, we were welcomed by the camp’s founder and administrator, who explained the history and philosophy of Camp Ramah. Before concluding the festivities, he told us that there would soon be a camp talent show to be held in the theatre, inviting all interested musicians, singers, and dancers to audition for the few cherished parts to be offered campers. The majority of parts were reserved for the college-age counselors. Suddenly, I felt very glad that my father had convinced me to bring my trumpet along.
A week later, I showed up for the audition, trumpet case in tow. Right away, I noticed that all campers waiting to audition were high school juniors and seniors. Undaunted, I sat in the front row of the theatre waiting my turn. From the stage, the director noticed me, but never got around to inviting me up to audition. So I sat. And waited. And sat some more. Two hours later, all the older campers had completed their auditions. The director announced auditions were over. As he turned to leave the stage, one of the house-band musicians objected.
"Wait, we've got one more waiting!” the accordionist insisted.
"Naw, we're full up, no more room!” the director bellowed, shaking his head.
"C'mon, man, this little guy has been sitting here waiting for two hours! The least we can do is let him play something.”
With that, he motioned me up the stairs. As I took my trumpet out of its case, he whispered, "Don't be nervous. Our director can be a real schmuck sometimes.”
"You know Hava Nagila?" the director challenged with a smirk.
I just nodded. The accordionist, drummer and bassist played the introduction. All the while, I focused my eyes on the accordionist for my cue. No sooner did I play the first chorus than the band abruptly stopped playing, looking at me in apparent disbelief with raised eyebrows.
"What's your name?" the accordionist asked.
"How old are you, Jeff?”
“Ten?! So, how long have you been playing the trumpet?”
"I started taking lessons last year," I answered, a little unsure of where this question-and-answer was going. All three band members then gathered around the director, who nodded his head slowly. The accordionist walked over and placed an encouraging hand on my shoulder.
"Jeff...you're gonna be famous someday. I mean it. You're already a gifted trumpet player, and I know we'll all be hearing a lot more from you in the years to come. Rehearsals start tomorrow. You're in the show, kid!”
And that was the moment I first understood that music would become the focus of my life.