A Catholic Childhood at the Jewish Community Center

I can see the moment of Mark’s ecclesiastical transgression in my mind’s eye as clearly as if it happened yesterday: Mark had just turned five and had not yet gone to Kindergarten.  I was 8, having just completed second grade at St. Peter’s Catholic School.  It was 1966: Vatican II had occurred, but the changes it instigated were still very new and unfamiliar—the priest now facing the congregation instead of the altar, only parts of the Mass still in Latin. I wore a chapel veil to daily Mass during the school year and had to substitute a single, white Kleenex bobby-pinned to my head if I forgot mine.

 That spring I had been confirmed, after receiving two other sacraments the year before, First Confession and First Communion.  Seven was considered “the age of reason” in Catholicism, the pivotal age at which you were believed to have a fully developed conscience and could be held accountable for your actions.  In other words, you were now considered capable of committing sins of omission as well as commission.  Once confirmed, you became a “Soldier of Christ.”  The nuns who taught us wore black habits that swept the floor as they walked.  There was no question about what it meant to be a soldier of Christ.

In summer, the world became lighter and brighter: pastel play clothes rather than the drab, heavyweight grey pinafore and grey felt beanie I wore to school.  That summer my parents sent Mark along with me to a day camp at the Jewish Community Center. My parents were compelled to join the center when our older brother broke his kneecap the previous winter and needed access to an indoor pool for hydrotherapy.  The camp we attended, called “Funtime,” was organized by age, each room of 15 or so kids proctored by a teenage counselor and a younger protégé.  At one point, I was one of Debbie’s Dynamos and think Mark might have been one of Harvey’s Hippos.

We rode a yellow school bus to and from the site of the center which spanned significant acreage in what was then the southern edge of the city.  The bus routes were arranged by geography and color-coded to help kids remember which of the 20 identical buses to board.  Mark and I were assigned to the “Purple Monkey” bus.  I can still smell the chlorine-drenched swimsuits and towels bound up in our swim bags, mine a Pepto-Bismal-pink burlap tote lined in rubber with an amorphous sea creature made of straw adorning the front.

 The days seemed endless and timeless: simple crafts, snacks of grape juice and Vienna Fingers cookies, swim lessons, showering before we entered the pool, romping on the hot playground equipment, playing silly group games like “Categories”, singing camp songs—including a morbid one about the fate of the Titanic.  I inched my way over a period of seven years to the deep end of the Olympic-sized indoor pool, which is where our swim lessons were conducted.  Frequently, we took field trips to nearby spots like the bowling alley.

 Each day followed a regular schedule except Fridays, which were distinguished by an all-camp assembly that served to close the week and celebrate the Sabbath. During these Friday afternoon assemblies, we would sit on the cool, speckled tile floor in a large room, gathered in clusters near our counselors, all Jewish teenagers.

The girl counselors seemed especially glamorous in their fluorescent white lipstick and brown leather bear claw bracelets.  I was enamored of their exotic names: Leslie, Debbie, Joyce, Cindy, Jackie, Gail.  Not a single saint’s name among them and quite a contrast to my school world where every female had Mary somewhere in her name—to the point that we had to be identified by two names rather than one: Mary Jo, Mary Jane, Mary Ann, Mary Beth, Mary Jean, Mary Pat.

Typically the assembly was used to present awards and engender spirit among the campers.  A solemnity prevailed as a brief Jewish blessing was delivered over bread by a couple of pre-selected campers.  Each room got a turn giving the blessing over the course of the summer by sending forward two or three kids to conduct it on a designated Friday. 

On that particular Friday, I glanced about the room, waiting for the assembly to start when I caught sight of my brother Mark donning a yarmulke and preparing to give the Jewish blessing.  I recoiled in horror.  This surely bordered on sacrilege.  If he were to proceed, I was certain that all of the Jewish children would go home and onto their respective synagogues that night in the firm belief that they had received a valid blessing earlier in the day. I was sure that no one else in the room realized a Catholic was about to conduct a sacred Jewish ritual. 

Moreover, Mark could be revealed as an imposter!  What if he failed to say the Jewish words correctly or, worse, didn’t say the right Jewish words? What if they interrupted this enterprise when they realized he was not Jewish?  What if this so offended our Jewish hosts that we were ejected from “Funtime” permanently?  The prospect of the violation of what was clearly an important religious act and my own recent anointing as a soldier of Christ struck profound fear in my heart: I was being called to act to protect the religious rites of others.  I felt a moral obligation to speak out.

My counselor that year, Judy Feldman, was an older and more mature counselor, probably 16 or 17, with dark, short, wavy hair and brown-rimmed glasses and braces.  She was clad in a white sleeveless blouse and madras shorts.  Her keen sensibility welling up, she rose from her spot on the floor and approached Skipper Feingold, the diminutive grand matron of the camp and the assembly, whispering in her ear what I had revealed  moments ago, “…That’s my brother and I don’t think he should be doing that.  We’re Catholic.”  Mark was promptly removed from the makeshift altar and returned to his counselor while another child replaced him.

Mark, only five but deeply pricked by the sting of public embarrassment, probably didn’t speak to me on the journey home as the bus weaved through the Jewish enclave of houses near Tower Park and past the enormous synagogue on Holmes to our own neighborhood just a few blocks west off of Edgevale, little realizing how his big sister had saved him not just from committing at the very least a venial sin or perhaps even heresy but from trampling the sacred traditions of another group whose world we inhabited each summer.

And while we played and crafted animals out of hangers we covered with multi-colored telephone wires for the rest of that summer in the air-conditioned comfort of the center, he didn’t know that the nuns abandoned their chosen names for their given names—Sister Gabriel became Sister Janice in an instant—and shed the long black habits with giant rosary belts for simple navy blue shifts and shorter, less confining veils with white headbands.  When he arrived at St. Peter’s that next fall, our world had changed in dramatic ways that were simply invisible to him.

What else didn’t he know back then?  That the huge silver sculpture depicting human figures drowning in flames that we drove past every summer Sunday our family went swimming was actually a tribute to Holocaust survivors. That many of the Jewish children who attended the center and worked as counselors were children of Holocaust survivors.  That many of the women who volunteered at the snack bar at the pool and spoke with heavy Yiddish accents and whose forearms bore tattoos of long numbers were themselves Holocaust survivors.  That many of those who joined the Jewish Community Center to swim were Catholics who were infrequently admitted as members of local country clubs and resided in a segregated city which adamantly resisted the idea of public pools.

I think now as I felt then: What a safe haven it was!  An enormous slab of concrete engulfing the L-shaped outdoor pool with multiple diving boards, thick nylon ropes for swim meets, and two tiny wading pools for toddlers. Baseball diamonds for peewee league play dotting the treeless grounds surrounding the pool.  Tennis courts for team matches.  Playground equipment and swings for children.

The clusters of families and friends, laughing and chatting, parked on adjoining beach towels anchored by bottles of baby oil and Coppertone, demarcating groups of people: senior citizens, teenagers, school friends, parents and their broods, Catholics, Jews, and anyone else who had been turned away by someone else.  A world away from anywhere, from everywhere, even Nazi Germany.  The ping of the metal gate we passed through to enter the center: to swim, to play, to live.

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