Hot like a love affair in the desert, baked scents wafted like wind behind a swift Arabian prince. I could not resist them. Little did I know that those rolls of fresh challah would be life-changing—and not just because they introduced my virgin taste buds to something unknown.
I was seven, a scrawny girl of boyish athleticism, on my first overnight at a summer camp for young Jews. Already, I had renounced my faith by missing too many Hebrew classes at the local synagogue. A letter in the mail had informed me that I'd been lagging on the long ascent to a bat mitzvah celebration, and they had to let me go. As a concession—or perhaps because my parents had already put down a deposit—I was still allowed to attend day camp in the summer.
Before each session, campers were asked to attend a one-night sleepover as a bonding experience. So began my journey to northern Minnesota and back again.
It did not take long for me to realize that this particular Jewish camp was no promised land. The lake looked nice from a distance, but after a 20-minute dip in its murky depths, I felt less rejuvenated than concerned for my health. I hoped for a warm, cleansing rinse, but the camp showers were difficult to navigate. Every corner was inhabited by a counselor in the nude, loudly reminding the campers, "We're all girls!" My chronic modesty kept me from taking off my clothes, and I left the premises unwashed.
At dinner later that evening, I sipped acidic grape juice in a corner, purveying the dining hall with homesick eyes. As children my age recited a Hebrew prayer and dug into waxen macaroni, I sidled through an unlocked door, hoping to track down a box of Lucky Charms and prepare my own meal. A few hallways later, I found myself in an empty staff room with a table and chairs, faced with the moral quandary of the decade.
Mounds of fresh challah loomed over me on the high surface among less appealing dishes, drawing me forward like the embrace of a handsome patriarch. It seemed too good to be true, or perhaps too good to be a coincidence and not some sort of test. Clearly these golden loaves were meant for the adults, and though I was no scholar in early theology lessons, I had paid enough attention in class to know that stealing was positively forbidden.
For many minutes I stood still, inhaling the sweet aroma and considering my options. My final decision was not dramatic—I must have recalled the macaroni in the main dining hall and thought, That shit was gross. Eventually I stretched out my palm, gripped a warm bun of egg bread, and noshed away. The taste on my lips was like enlightenment by some divine ovenly source.
Chances are there was a secret ingredient. I suspect it was adrenaline, or a strain of rabies, because in the camp-wide capture-the-flag tournament that followed dinner, some rare beast reared its head within me.
This game was legendary, discussed year-round among prospective campers at synagogue. Everyone played: hundreds of campers from age six to 25, whether Herculean or puny. And the goings got rough.
As young men pushed one another like moose in heat, trying to scrounge flags from belt loops and knock out their opponents, I ran through open fields, a spry rodent with claws unfurled. I procured the enemy flag several times. I scored for our team. I became viciously competitive, merciless toward my prey, and fierce—unlike ever before in my childhood.
I do not remember whether my team won, but I haven't been able to forget something else. On one of my later forays into enemy territory, an innocent girl with a bowl cut stood in my path, probably by accident. I plowed her down with my forehead, knocking the wind out of her and leaving her behind in tears. I am not proud of this: The poor thing was undoubtedly traumatized. But there is a moral to this story. (And, for the record, I also had a bowl cut.)
In the cabins that night, after listening to an older boy play soothing guitar songs about Moses, I ascended to my top bunk and rested my weary haunches. Time to sleep. And then I was struck by severe crotch itch.
I will not elaborate, but it was excruciating. It must have been due to that poisonous lake. And that was only the start.
A ghoulish choir of snores soon rang from all sides of the cabin. I buried my head in my pillow, attempting to escape the frightening moans to no avail. The discomfort in my ears was soon replaced by a vast headache, since my mattress was harder than the abs of Frankenstein's monster. Sleep was out of the question. Survival was my only concern.
At some ungodly hour, the itch I mentioned became more severe with the onset of a full bladder. I climbed from my bed, searching in frenzy for a counselor who would accompany me to a nearby outhouse with a flashlight. To my sheer terror, I discovered that Ozo Blatt's bed was empty. (Later, I found out she had snuck away to drink with other counselors. She lost her job, but that's not the point.)
By then, I had learned my lesson about breaking rules, so I did not dare leave the cabin alone. The rest of the night was a nervous haze: In my top bunk, I experienced my first silent panic attack and cursed the heavens while phantasmal sounds of slumber suffocated me in the darkness. Some centuries later, the sun rose, and counselors arrived with a rousing rendition of "Morning Glory." Like Job must have felt after his nervous breakdown, I was overcome with relief and gratitude.
The embarrassment I felt when I stepped off the bus and told my mom I needed treatment for a bladder infection was nothing compared to the insufferable aches in my lower half throughout the following week. On the jolting commutes to day camp, with a bottle of sulfurous, doctor-prescribed elixir in hand, I had plenty of time to reflect.
Though I never again found myself in an empty room with bread on the table, I have had similar choices since then. My mind always wanders back to those morbid hours at summer camp, to the girl with the bowl cut, and to those hot buns. And while I may have grown into a wiser woman, I have to admit: It was the best damn challah I ever had.