Back in the spring of 1979, I was a fifth grader seeking redemption.
The temple to which my family belonged was holding its annual contest through which three lucky Sunday School students would win a two-week scholarship to Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI), the Oconomowoc, Wisconsin overnight camp for Reform Jewish youngsters. The contest consisted of an essay written during religious school from a pre-selected prompt and then, if advanced to the final round, an interview with members of the temple Board of Directors to determine the winners.
The prior year I was a much less mature fourth grader who wrote in freeflow. That’s why, when given the prompt “What is your favorite thing about Saturday mornings?”, I wrote about waking up to the smell of bacon–which is, ahem, technically verboten in the Jewish religion–instead of how lovely and relaxing I found the Sabbath to be, or some other more acceptable Jewish answer.
Needless to say, I didn’t advance to the finals.
I did, however, get teased about it by my parents after they asked what I wrote about. My maternal grandmother (who was extremely active at her synagogue) found it hysterical, too.
Though I can look back and laugh about it years later, back then I remember being extremely embarrassed at such a mistake. I can still feel the heat of my cherry red cheeks after saying out loud what I chose to write about that day and realizing the big “Oops”. Of course, at nine and a half years old I was being completely honest: my family did enjoy bacon most weekends* when I was a kid. I just wished I had left that little detail out of my probably otherwise fantastic essay.
That’s why, in the spring of 1979 when I heard that contest time was imminent, I was ready. There would be no talk of bacon or anything else that would prevent me from moving forward in the contest. I was going to write the essay of my life.
The camp scholarship would be mine.
I was relieved to find that the prompt was “What is your favorite holiday and why?” I did not write about the fact that my Grandma had bought a pair of pantyhose the previous December for me to wear (for the first time! ever!) when we attended the annual Christmas party given by close friends of the family, the one during which the children always had to sing a song to Santa Claus–who always made time in his busy schedule for this particular party–before receiving a gift from him. (True story.) I didn’t write that I thought much of Easter was pretty cool and that even though we were Jewish, my sister and I still received Easter baskets full of trinkets and candy and those colorful plastic eggs every single year. (True story.)
I wrote about the magic of Hanukkah, how I loved lighting the candles in the special menorah we used every year, and how presents were nice but the true joys of Hanukkah were family-related. There was nothing free-flowing about this essay except my transitions from paragraph to paragraph. It was an also-truth, and a carefully crafted work of art.
I was selected as a finalist.
I thought the challenging part of the contest was over, because sitting in the small temple library talking to board members didn’t make me nervous in the slightest. That is, until one of them asked me what I liked most about attending services.
Here’s the thing: the Reform branch of Judaism is the most liberal of the four (Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Orthodox). It’s the most relaxed, the most open for interpretation when it comes to observance.
Unfortunately, however often I attended services with my parents, it wasn’t enough for me to have a favorite part to share.
I had to improvise.
It didn’t matter that although I really did enjoy the choir, I didn’t realize at the time that the choir only appeared in the sanctuary during the High Holidays each fall. I was totally grabbing at straws. Those board members didn’t challenge my answer (or my level of knowledge about what typically happened at Shabbat services each week), nodding and making notes that probably said something like “Loves the choir during the High Holidays. Impossibly adorable. Great on-her-feet thinker.”
Only a few days went by before I learned that I won the camp scholarship, and that summer I spent a glorious two weeks singing Jewish camp songs, making Jewish crafts, swimming, spending two weeks’ worth of camp allowance on candy in the first couple of days, and most importantly, feeling like I belonged because I was with a camp full of other Jewish youngsters just like me, something that had never happened before outside of my weekly religious school class, which only contained about eight kids in my grade**.
My two weeks at OSRUI was one of the best experiences of my younger years, even though–as you might have guessed–bacon was not a part of the breakfast menu.
*Jim, the boys, and I belong to a Reconstructionist temple now, which sits comfortably between Reform and Conservative on the scale when it comes to observance (It’s progressive and traditional at the same time). We stopped eating pork about twelve years ago, and neither one of my boys has ever written about waking up to the smell of bacon, because turkey bacon just doesn’t smell as good as the real thing.
**I was also apparently warming up OSRUI for my much younger friend and LISTEN TO YOUR MOTHER SHOW creator/National Director Ann Imig, who arrived on the scene years later and probably not because of a bacon-related incident. Ann wrote about her OSRUI experience here. It’s one of my favorite things she’s ever written, and she’s written some amazing things.