Camp, Vodka And A Song

"Rabbi Akiva Greenberg (with beard) at camp"

"Rabbi Akiva Greenberg (with beard) at camp"

When I was a teenager I spent most summers working at Camp Gan Yisroel in Fenton, Michigan. Rabbi Berel Shem-Tov the Detroit, Michigan Lubavitcher Shali’ach (emissary) purchased the site to establish the Michigan branch of the chain of Lubavitcher summer camps. However there weren’t enough local Lubavitchers to staff the camp so he hired many of the rabbis and older students of Detroit’s Yeshivah Beth Yehudah and other Yeshivahs to staff the camp.

It was a great camp. Rabbi Sholom Goldstein ZTz”L, who brought me into the Yeshivah world was camp director, Rabbi Shne’ur Weinberg who has been a mentor and friend to me ever since was the head counselor and Rabbi Yankel Krantz ZTz”L and his wife Fay were a major influences on me.

In 1964 I was 17 years old and was hired by Rabbi Shem-Tov to be the camp driver. My job description was to make pick-ups of food and supplies and occasionally take staff on their days off to the Flint bus station and pick them up on their return. Life was great, I was outdoors, independent, among good friends and I had enough responsibility to satisfy me without being overbearing, Chasdei HaShem – God is kind.

Two of my closest friends were also on staff, Dave Berg a counselor from New York and the arts and crafts director, Rabbi Akiva Greenberg. Dave was the hippest guy in camp, his New York personality combined with his talent as a counselor and ability as a troubadour reflected his very outgoing and strong personality. Rabbi Greenberg was larger than life. He was a Vishnitzer Chassid married to a Lubavitcher woman. He was one of the most talented men I have ever met. He was a great Rebbe (teacher), a carpenter and an artist, he could captivate you with his wit and his chuckle. He brought his Spike Jones and Mickey Katz record collection to camp and we would howl at the absurdity of the songs, he was so cool.

Rabbi Greenberg had relocated to Windsor from Toronto. He was hired by Yeshivah Beth Yehudah to teach and influence his students. Since he had 11 or 12 children he decided to reside in Windsor because the Canadian government provided baby bonus cheques to supplement a working family’s income.

Being an orthodox jewish camp we observed all the Jewish observances. Between the fasts of the 17th of Tamuz and the 9th of Av there is a 3 week mourning period for the destruction of both the first (586 B.C.E.) and second Temples (70 C.E.) and includes a restriction on bathing. Needless to say programming for a camp without a swim period causes a great need for imagination, it is also a time of stress for the program staff.

It was the Saturday night after the fast of the 9th of Av which traditionally is a period of merriment and I was itchin’ to do something absurd. Rabbi Greenberg, Dave Berg and I took out a small boat on the lake. Dave brought his guitar, Rabbi Greenberg brought a bottle of Vodka and I brought the muscle. We rowed out to the middle of the lake began to pass the bottle and Akiva (as we often called him) began telling stories of his youth (before he discovered orthodox Judaism). After a few more shlugs of vodka, Dave picked up his guitar and began playing Achas Sho’alti. This song, today a classic, was very popular at the time and I loved it. The moon was full, the lake was calm and we drifted and sang this one song over and over again for about 45 minutes. During this time I couldn’t take my eyes of Dave’s fingers. Every combination of chords he played I put to memory, I so wanted to play that song. When we finished singing I asked Dave for his guitar and very crudely and with many mistakes, I played the song.

Monday morning on my Detroit run to pick-up food I stopped at a guitar store and bought an Epiphone nylon-string guitar, a chord book and the rest is history. I started practicing on my own with just the chord book and Dave Berg to help me. Rabbi Greenberg encouraged me and that summer I composed my first song.

My travels and experiences have taken me to many different locations but always with a guitar at my side. I played guitar with hippies around the camp fire or in living rooms. I’ve played concerts, hooked up with friends and started small bands. I accompanied Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach ZTz”L at many of his concerts in North America and in Israel and traveled with him for over a month. I have composed songs that won first prize in major Jewish song festivals, have had my music recorded by others and even produced a CD at one of my live concerts (with the direction of my son Benji) with my band, the Kosher Gravy Company.

All this happened because Dave Berg, Rabbi Akiva Greenberg and I got into a small row boat and howled at the moon.

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