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What You Can Learn From Translating All Your Plays to Hebrew

I spent many summers of my youth at a sleepaway camp that “emphasized” the Hebrew language. When my father went to the same camp, this meant that all activities happened in Hebrew and campers got in trouble for singing English songs in public. In my day, it meant that we all knew from the cleaning charts posted in every bunk how to say broom (matate) and dustpan (yaeh) in Hebrew, but not how to ask a friend to pass the chicken soup at Shabbat dinner.

In actual camp programming, the only vestiges of real Hebrew education were our daily proyekt class, run by the extremely attractive Israeli soldiers familiar to anyone who has attended Jewish camp in the United States. Proyekt really translates to “skip class and avoid eye contact with staff members.” So, the only real Hebrew content of the summer was in the plays that every age group put on. Highlights of my own camp performances include Rocky Horror Picture Show, She’s All That, and The Prince of Egypt, staged with varying degrees of coherence and faithfulness to the original source. In my last summer as a camper, we put on Tommy, which makes surprisingly frequent appearances in the camp repertoire thanks to a truly impressive translation. Israeli theater producers: take note.

I spent one summer as a camp counselor. That year, thanks to our Jewish day school education, my friend Ilana and I were asked to write the script for the play my campers would perform—101 Dalmations. I hope that when I die, I am primarily remembered for my Hebrew version of Britney Spears’  “Toxic,” about Cruella DeVille.

For campers, play performances were among the grand events of the summer. One night, the summer before seventh grade, as I squeezed onto the floor of an unventilated wooden barn directly behind a boy a foot taller than me, I was ready for a magical performance of The Wizard of Oz. I had no idea I was about to experience the most meaningful Hebrew educational moment in my 10 years at camp.

I’ve seen The Wizard of Oz far more times than is healthy, and I spoke Hebrew just about as well as anybody at camp. So, I thought I had a pretty good grasp of the plot. The first act went exactly as I expected. But when Dorothy and Co. finally reached Oz, events took an unexpected twist.

During the Scarecrow’s big moment with the Wizard, the crowd suddenly went wild—or at least the part of the crowd who knew Hebrew. I did not get the joke. I turned to my counselor, bewildered, who generously explained that instead of saying, “I wish for a brain,” the brilliant 14-year-old performer had turned to the Wizard of Oz and said ten li rosh—“give me head”.

So, that emphasis on the Hebrew language paid off after all, as I got a handy lesson in describing the act of fellatio in the holy tongue. Thanks, Camp.

Shifra M. Goldenberg is an arts administrator and freelance web designer.

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