Week One with the Youngers of Zion

AKA "Tis Sweet to work with Friends, ” July 26 through August 1st, 2007.

I caught the Block and Hexter shuttle bus out in front of the 92nd Street Y, which I guess is some kind of Jewish Community Center which puzzles me, as “YMCA” back home stands for Young Men’s Christian Association. New York really is Jew-ville after all, so Y means whatever they like up there. I waltz past the metal detectors (what the Fxxx??) and seek out a place to stach my gear. In no time flat, a stern matron kicked me out of the "community room," which had killer fast Wi-Fi and free bad coffee, so I relocated my bass, tuba and packpack to the the front steps of the place. In a town famed for its slice, I find a Israeli run kosher pizza joint and had possibly the worst slice of pizza I’ve ever had in my whole life. This will be an omen of things to come as it turns out.

Dance teacher-martini maker extraordinaire Steven Weintraub has wrangled a gig for the new “Klez Kamp Roadshow” concept at the Block and Hexter Center. They pulled it off a version of this gig last year without me, but this they budgeted enough to make it worth my while to head up there and I look forward to any opportunity to hang out with my Youngers of Zion band mates, no matter what the circumstances. After this week in the Pocono’s we’ll head up to East Hampton NY to glom onto a speaking gig that Henry booked and then subsequently got them to book the whole KK Roadshow experience for a weekend. That’s two whole weeks and I’m not sure my buds can take so much me in such a high dosage.

The week of instruction at Block and Hexter was a new skill set for me. We were essentially to be the live music for Steve’s dance classes and then provide entertainment at night, as well as give the odd lecture on differing topics associated with Jewish and Yiddish Culture. Kind of like a cruise ship gig when I think about it. Only this cruise liner has a median age of 80, keeps glatt kosher kitchen and runs on a fuel procured from incessant complaining. Don’t get me wrong, I dig old people. Just not in these sorts of high concentrations and especially not cranky old Yankees, frumme Jews to top it off. The complaints began even before the bus got to the campsite when the AC unit went kaput some 100 miles away from NYC. Gevault, indeed.

Ok, I’m not going to harp on any of the typical things that you can say about a summer camp arrangement. Anyone who has ever done time at a kosher Jewish Summer camp knows the drill. The food was exactly what one would expect to serve an elderly Jewish couple. That is to say cooked within an inch of its life and utterly devoid of any discernible flavor. But to speak to the positives, I had a clean room with an AC unit, Wi-Fi on demand, a lovely pool and an even lovelier pond which was well stocked with canoes and other water craft all of which I availed myself to. It was generally pleasant and run by decent, mostly happy people. In other words, it wasn’t anything like Circle Lodge.

There was a genuine wild card present however in the person of the camps staff entertainment director, a burly Israeli dame named Esther. Teaching folk dance and programming the evenings shows were her purview all summer and one got the feeling right quick that we were in her house and only just barely tolerated at that. She was all right and everything, but she was a force there when we got there and she’s still there now that we’re gone. Watching her lead dancing was truly a sight to behold, a mixture of enthusiastic prodding and borderline physical abuse. We reckoned she had become entirely immune to the cries of complaint from her elderly charges and had learned to simply manhandle them into submission and quiet, fearful subservience. (When one old lady came to her to tell her AC wasn’t working, Esther’s response was a loud “Are you threatening me!?”) Steve however has experienced working with her many times over the years and has developed his own system of coping mechanisms, which served him well all week.

The only controversy that occurred during our time there was on our very first evenings entertainment. We scheduled a staff concert of sorts where each of the guest lecturer-musicians performed a little something to give the attendees a taste of what to expect from our programming. Susan Leviton, our Yiddish vocalist and visual artist, was well received with her wonderful, unaffected singing. (She’s a real gem actually and was glad to have a whole week to hang out with her and her hubby Jerry.) Youngers played a tune or two and then Michael Wex got up and told a story from one of his books. It was damn funny too, something about having his first nocturnal emission make a stain in the shape of the Israeli flag, or something along those lines. Typically hilarious Wex material.

Funny to me maybe, but incredibly insulting to not but a few of the old frumme couples (not folks who had signed up for the Road Show I am quick to point out, but liggers left over from the week before) who stormed out in a public huff. Most of these people all turned up the next day at his lecture, hectoring him mercilessly with silly questions, and asking loudly I’m not making this up, ‘Why do you hate the Jewish People?” and “How did they let an Anti-Semite like you here?” It got even worse after his lecture when these nut jobs button holed him, screaming at him in English and then talking to one another in front of him in Yiddish AS IF HE DIDN’T KNOW WHAT THEY WERE SAYING. When he responded to them in his native tongue they quickly switched to Hebrew, to which he again retorted to in kind. Ironical, as they say in my native Oklahoma. With this sort of crowd, Wex kept a low profile for the rest of the week and had lots of great material for his next article in the Jewish Week.

As the food there at the job site was a no go, we made several trips out into the countryside to find good burgers and booze. We were told of a particular joint called the Beacon Bar & Grill and after our first experience there, we came back again and again. Actually, I ate too much. No really, way too much. This whole being away from home and my regular surroundings and Mexican food and stuff, it was all catching up with me in this TV-less, shomer-shabbat rustic retreat. When I wasn’t working, I was writing this damn blog or eating and that was about it. The Beacon provided comfort food in every respect. We ended up there 3 nights in a row and with my taking pictures of everything ordered, I do believe the staff thought I was a food critic or something. It was midway into the signature Beacon burger, a massive meat fest made to resemble the Beacon's logo of a lighthouse, that I realized that I have as very deeply twisted relationship with food and it’s gonna screw me up if I don’t get a handle on it eventually. That said, here's what we ate:

The Beacon Burger, the house's signature dish, served with a side of chili cheese fries. "Angina on a platter." Seriously, I had a hard time downing this mammoth tower of meat.

Cookie contemplates the desert plate.

Hank goes for the Peanut Butter Pie, naturally...


and after....

Henry and Wex discuss the joys apple sauce and rare steak.

It wasn't on the menu, but I was craving a Patty Melt, which the chef made for me special. Again with the chili cheese fries....

Really, the Beacon was just that, a Lighthouse of well prepared meals in a vast sea of institutional kitchens. I'd drive 100 miles out of my way to eat there again.

We play every day for Steve’s dance class, we host lecture-talks on various subjects, including a lively talk about playing Jewish music in Eastern Europe and looking out to see mostly Holocaust survivors in the audience, and basically keep to ourselves. Cookie and I, Midwesterners by birth, avail ourselves of the private ponds many watercraft, including a hilarious attempt at a paddle boat. I redeemed myself later by taking a canoe out solo for a good long trip. The cool of the dark waters of the pond where a welcome respite to the heat of the mosquito-laden airs around the camp.

One evening after our labors, Steve shows up with a DVD collection of a 1950's era cartoon that I had never heard before. We loaded up on snack foods and liquor, moved a TV set into a unused conference room and the proceeded to watch episode after episode of Colonel Bleep. Evidently it was the very first color cartoon for TV, which is mighty odd when you consider less than 10% of the viewing public had a color TV to watch it on. Hank remembers seeing it as a young child, but in black and white. The episodes are in a word, pretty damn weird, with a mix of outrageous scripts interspersed with pointless "educational" content ("Today we go to the Belgian Congo....") Crude, bizarre and amazingly compelling. Especially if you are really, really high. Look it up on You Tube or some such and check it out for yourself, as could go on for hours about it.

Here's some stills that I took in a much addled state:

By the end of the week, we had won the campers over completely, even amongst the frum who gave us static at the beginning.The final concert went great, and even Wex's bit got laughs. Afterwards we experience the "let me tell you a story" session so prevalent at these sort of gigs.

Soon it was off to Henry's cabin in upstate NY to chill out and eat cooked meat for a few days and then we all regroup in East Hampton to do it all over again.

But for now, presented for your edification, Block and Hexter Camper Talent Night featuring Leon on the Accordion.