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How I Met Leonard Cohen at a Jewish Summer Camp

Updated: Apr 15, 2022

He had yet to become famous, had yet to become handsome, I remember only a skinny, quiet, nerdy-looking boy of 12 when I was 10. So there’s nothing more to write about him, really. Sorry.

That camp was a magnet for Jewish kids from Cleveland, Chicago, Buffalo, Toronto, and Montreal. A very special kind of place. To get to it, we had to board a train, sleep in a berth overnight with all our summer camp friends, then hop on a big boat (The Modella) to cross Temagami Lake to get to our little island camp.

The thrill of boarding a train at age 10 without parents! A couple of hours running up and down the two sleeping cars saying hi to friends already onboard then greeting the Toronto kids who boarded before lights out. Did we sleep. I don’t recall—just screams, hugs, talk, laughter. Debarking at North Bay, then to the boat, and finally after an hour’s ride, camp.

To go sailing or canoeing, we had to be able to swim to John’s Island. Half a mile? A bit scary, but I did it. I learned to paddle a canoe there—didn’t sail much, but I loved those canoes. It was the horse-back riding that gave me a life lesson, however.

I was a sturdy kid, not afraid of much—felt not a moment of homesickness during the entire 2 months away. I was pretty confident about my swimming from years at the beach, and pretty sure about horseback riding too, having gone on many trail rides during those beach years. So the first time we trudged up the big hill to the stables I was laughing and chatting with my fellow campers. They gave us each a very calm and aged horse that was content to walk slowly around the nearby ring. Somewhere during the first pass, I became rigid with fear. It astonished me. I had never felt this before. I took my usual defensive stance of pretending all was fine but internally I was terrified. I couldn’t wait for the hour to be over. It seemed endless. But finally we could dismount and go back down the hill. I told no one.

Every day that first week, the same. Walking around the ring, me rigid with fear, just counting down the minutes. Was I going crazy? I didn’t know, I only knew that I had to stick it out somehow. The sweet horse just ignored me and plodded on. I trembled.

After two weeks of this daily torture, we climbed the hill and I climbed my horse, fully expecting the agony to return, but no, I was released! It was that sudden. I could ride, I could relax, I could pet the horse’s mane, I was liberated! I never told a soul. I finally enjoyed riding as much as canoeing. Within another week I took part in a circus—we were clowns in our pajamas and rode the horses around a huge stadium BAREBACK! They taught us to jump off and jump back on (how we did it, I can’t imagine) and one time during practice, my horse tried to get up the hill back to the stable, and I slid off its rump into the sand. We all laughed like crazy. I got back on.

A week later we took the horses bareback to the other side of the island and led them right into the shallow water. They walked out further and began swimming with us still aboard. I remember our delight (it was so hot that summer) and laughter as the horse poop started floating around us.

Fear defeated. What a summer that was. Leonard Cohen was there someplace, but I didn’t notice.

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