I am not, as one may say, a camp person. I mean, obviously I went to summer camp—I was raised as a middle-class Jew in late 20th century America (and in that vein, you might as well question whether or not I breathe air or eat food, too). But I never exactly lived it as it seemed like so many of my bunkmates did.
Most year before sleepaway camp began, I’d pack my splintery wooden trunk without putting up too much of a fight, but I wasn’t exactly counting down the days until the first session began. Camp was fine and pretty much everyone there was perfectly nice, but the entire construct of it was inherently antithetical to my many childhood and adolescent peculiarities: my discomfort with having others in my private space; my hatred for structured activities; my deep ambivalence toward the things that the other inmates (a term my mother strongly suggested I stop using in my infrequent letters home) seemed not to question, like the bonding nature of group bathroom excursions, or the genius of the band Phish, or the ultimate morality of Zionist thought in a post-colonial world.
Upon arrival at camp one year, I spent my mental and physical energy figuring out ways to make it bearable for myself. One year, I stealthily signed up for only two activities—horseback riding, and arts and crafts. (And I participated in these activities with enthusiasm; if you know me, you’ll know that animals and craft projects are basically what I live for). Then, Ispent the rest of my time happily lying out by the camp’s single, chlorinated pool re-reading Night by Elie Wiesel, the only book available for sale in the commissary. I managed to keep this up for almost a full week before my activities were discovered and I was shunted into some godforsaken volleyball chug.
Another year, I educated myself so thoroughly on the presentation of the symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome that I managed to convince one of the counselors that I would need to report to the camp nurse directly following lunch, thereby ingeniously missing the mandatory after-lunch ruach session. Hence, I arrived in the air-conditioned haven of the infirmary exactly on time for The Bold and the Beautiful.
In short, I spent most of my time at camp pretending I wasn’t at camp.
Perhaps that’s why, that as hilarious as I find the new Netflix series Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, as well as the film on which it was based, I see here and there some glimmers of recognition, but feel little nostalgia while viewing them. That is, until the appearance of one character: the visiting Israeli soccer counselor/resident sex object, Yaron, who is played by David Wain, the director and co-writer of the series.
Forget for a minute Yaron’s perfect costuming—the wild hair, the Naot sandals—and Wain’s shockingly flawless Israeli accent right down to the guttural “r’s” and oddly sibilant “s’s.” His presence—his entire person—is so eerily accurate, so freakishly right, and so utterly un-mined in American comedy (Don’t Mess With the Zohan notwithstanding) that I actually screamed when he appeared on the screen. Of course! The Israeli guy! There was always an Israeli guy at camp! And it was always the same guy—a little bit older, a little bit hippy-ish, and with far, far more comfort with his body and sexuality than any neurotic, Jewish-American teenager could ever dream of having.
The sex part: that’s what WHAS gets particularly right. It was always a major part of any camp experience (the third thing, along with the horses and the lanyard making, that made the entire thing bearable for me), and the Israeli boys—they were always boys, at least as far as I remember—who were never quite counselors, and never quite teachers or in any position of authority that they could officially abuse, injected (pardon the pun) more than a healthy dose of it on whichever girl(s) they chose to pursue. (For Wain’s Yaron, Lake Bell’s Donna Berman, of the studied bohemian vibe and newly-discovered interest in her Jewish identity, is the perfect muse/victim.)
Camp was full of nice Jewish boys, but the Israelis made you feel sexy, and it’s not until I was watching Yaron that I quite understood why. It was a truth universally acknowledged—at least where I come from—that for the vast majority of the year, most Jewish boys had virtually no sexual interest in the Jewish girls they knew, and even if you weren’t particularly interested in buying whatever it was those guys were selling, it always felt vaguely insulting to be considered automatically out of medal contention just because some Lutheran girl had agreed to show up to her little brother’s bar mitzvah party.
At camp, Jewish boys would hook up with Jewish girls because they had no other choice—you know, like prison. But to the Israelis, living as they did in eternal Jewish summer camp, you weren’t a Jewish girl—the automatic second choice—the kind of person they’d figured they resignedly marry in order to make their parents happy. To them, you were just a girl, with all the power and mystery that entailed, which in turn made the American Jewish boys feel inadequate, un-masculine, unwanted.
Which brings me to my conclusion: at camp, Israeli guys were to American Jewish boys, as Gentile girls were to Jewish girls the rest of the year. Yaron, and all those many Yarons just like him, were the shikses of summer. It’s too bad there was only ever one to go around.