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Thirteen Signs That You May Have Attended Jewish Summer Camp in the 1980s

Still cry when you hear ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’? Remember how to Dippity-Do your hair? Take a trip down memory lane, camper.

Marjorie Ingall
June 19, 2013

It was the era of Walkmans, Love’s Baby Soft, Tretorn canvas sneakers with the gull-wing logo, and boy campers teasingly singing Frank Zappa’s “Jewish Princess” at girl campers. It was sleepaway camp, and it was the ’80s, and we were wee Jewish campers.

Sure, research shows that attending Jewish camp made us more likely to later feel a connection to Judaism, join a shul or JCC, and consider our Judaism vital to our identities as compared to Jewish kids who didn’t go to camp. But what’s way more important is that Jewish summer camp taught us to use Sun-In, bang really loudly on a table during Birkat Hamazon, dance to “A-Ba-Ni-Bi,” and kiss Jewish boys (or, fine, girls).

If you, too, were a chanich or chanicha in the ’80s, here are a few other things you might remember. (Please click on the links. You will not regret it.) And tell me: What did I forget to include?

1. Boys played marathon games of Risk, Stratego, and backgammon at the picnic tables during Shabbat and chofesh (free time). We girls pretended to ignore them.

2. We put today’s crafting obsession to shame. During our boring Hebrew classes, we made fortune-tellers. During our art (omanut) classes, we covered balloons with papier-mâché and put beads on safety pins. In our spare time, we made amazing things with gimp.

3. Grooming was important. We were like chimps! Boys gelled their hair till it was crispy as a Pringle. On Friday nights, they put on Davidoff Cool Water cologne, while we girls shaved our legs as a tzrif (bunk), communally, on the porch—after which we sometimes did a kick-line to “Who Wears Short Shorts.”

4. We all got dressed up for Erev Shabbat: The boys wore Z.Cavaricci, Skidz, and Izods with the collars popped. The girls wore Gunne Sax, Naf Naf, and CP Shades. Here’s my bunk at Camp Ramah in 1983. Apparently Hashem loved ruffles.

(I am dead center in the unfortunate sash.)

5. Also on Friday nights, we feathered our hair with a round brush and Conair blow dryer, before anointing it with Dep or Dippity-Do. It was a form of ritual observance.

6. Hair was a huge focus. We traded painted metal barrettes and braided barrettes with ribbons hanging down, without worrying much about lice. (Then we got lice. And had marathon full-bunk hair-washing sessions with incredibly toxic Kwell shampoo, which dried out your hair so radically you could sculpt even the longest hair into giant punk spikes while the product was in there.)

7. Lice were a bummer, but no big deal. You know what was a big deal? Tisha B’Av, when we’d sit on the floor for services, surrounded by candles in paper bags. It was sad but beautiful, too. Then there was that thing when suddenly the entire camp is Poland in 1942, and you get a new identity as a Jew, Nazi, or passport officer. That was like a junior version of the Stanford Prison Experiment.

8. But rest assured, it wasn’t all depressing. There was Maccabiah! And field trips to the roller rink, where we’d skate to Foreigner, Styx, Air Supply, and Journey. Look, here’s my edah (age group) from Camp Ramah in New England:

(No, I’m lying.)

9. We learned how to perform—and how to speak Hebrew! In fact, we learned both at the same time, performing in great American musicals translated into modern Hebrew (Kol Ha’Olam hoo Cabaret! Zeh ani Don Quixote, he’abir mi’LaMancha!). Here’s my brother Andy and fellow Ramah-nik Jill in Pippin, 1983. As in all camp musicals, the sexy stuff was edited out.

10. And, look, it’s me, directing Free To Be You and Me—in a mix of Hebrew and English. I believe this is Camp Yavneh in 1986. Oh, how I loved that Adrienne Vittadini sweatshirt.

11. We loved to sing. And we felt the music. We sang “Od Yavoh Shalom/Salaam” with such sincerity your heart almost broke, and we were sure that Mideast Peace would occur by the time our kids went to Jewish camp. Ha ha!

12. And at the bonfire, between roasting marshmallows and making “Rocky Mountain Toast,” we sang “Cat’s in the Cradle” while weepily thinking it was the deepest song ever, man.

13. We thought Craig Taubman, the Bieber of ’80s Jewish campdom, was the hottest shira (song) guy in the universe. (Today, he looks like chef Eric Ripert, which is a different but still valid kind of hot.) Though I think if I’d met the guy below at camp in the ’80s (when he was Rosh Agam—director of the waterfront—at Rainbow JCC Day Camp in Freedonia, Wisconsin), I’d have revised my opinion of Craig. Cute, funny, and secure enough in his masculinity to wear a bikini?

Reader, I married him.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.