Every morning this summer, when I drop my 6-year-old son off at Jewish day camp, he immediately makes a beeline for the orange-walled pit where the kids play a variant of dodgeball called ga-ga. A counselor drops the ball, it bounces three times (“ga! ga! ga!”), and then the game begins. Players hit the ball at each other using their hands, and if you’re hit below the waist with the ball, you’re out. The game continues until there’s a winner, and then starts over again.
My son’s daily ritual always brought something of a smile to my face, as I, too, was once an avid ga-ga player, back in my own Jewish summer camp days. At Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute, the Reform-movement-affiliated camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, I spent long afternoons playing ga-ga in the building known as Port Hall, first as a camper and then as a counselor, throughout the 1990s. Over years of playing, I perfected several strategies, such as the best ways to bounce the ball off the wall, how to do a reverse hit through the legs, and how best to avoid hand rug burns—“ga-ga knuckle”—and other common injuries. To me, ga-ga was as much a part of my Jewish summer camp experience as song sessions, “bug juice,” and camp cheers.
When my sons and several of their cousins asked to play ga-ga in the backyard one summer afternoon, I viewed it as the moment when my jobs of “father” and “camp counselor” had, at last, became one.
But there’s a controversy surrounding ga-ga: Where, exactly, did this game originate?
At the camps that I attended and where I played the game, the line we were always given about ga-ga’s origins was that it had started in Israel, most likely in the Israel Defense Forces—as a training exercise, perhaps—and that it had been brought to Jewish summer camps in America by Israeli camp counselors. In an age (the ’90s) when it was fashionable for young American Jews to walk around in IDF T-shirts, this particular creation myth brought the game some undoubtable cachet.
Years later, there emerged an even more spectacular ga-ga legend: That Sacha Baron Cohen, the British Jewish actor best known for portraying Ali G and Borat, was an avid ga-ga player during his days in the Habonim youth movement, and had “led his country to a silver medal in the world ga-ga ball championships.” That’s what Baron Cohen’s Wikipedia page used to say, anyway, something that was quoted on just about every Jewish blog in 2007.
Neither myth, it turns out, appears to be true.
There doesn’t appear to be any evidence supporting the Israeli army origin of ga-ga. I found no record of such, and a former teacher of mine named David Sprung, a New York native who has lived in Israel for five decades, says he never played the game during his time in the IDF between 1966 and 1969. Rugby, he said, was more the game of choice in the IDF back then. However, Sprung did recall that he was introduced to ga-ga during his time in the Betar Youth Movement, in the mid-1960s.
As for Sacha Baron Cohen, he did not actually enjoy a youthful career as a ga-ga champion. This was a hoax perpetuated by an Australian by the name of Ant Frosh, who admitted to me that in his university days, he used to make a habit of spreading tall tales online, including about the ga-ga exploits of himself and his friends. I had reached out to Frosh to ask about an old social media post of his describing, in elaborate detail, the “Perth ga-ga scene from the 1980s,” and he volunteered unprompted that the Baron Cohen ga-ga rumor originated with him: “I managed to perpetuate several hoaxes that resulted in stories in the main daily newspaper of the city I lived in at the time,” Frosh said. He remembers “something about how in late ’80s or early ’90s, a pre-famous Sacha Baron Cohen representing Habonim in the U.K. took on Australia’s best ga-ga players in some epic contests.”
I had been a skeptic about this even before hearing from Frosh; while Baron Cohen was indeed a part of Habonim and may have played the game at some point, he’s never mentioned ga-ga in any interview and there is no record, anywhere, of “world ga-ga ball championships,” aside from references to Baron Cohen’s supposed participation. Plus, the actor stands 6-foot-3, and ga-ga is not a sport that favors the tall.
So where did ga-ga actually come from?
Even if it didn’t start in the IDF, there’s little doubt that ga-ga as we know it today came to us from Israel in the 1950s or ’60s, eventually arriving in the Northeastern part of the United States and spreading across the U.S. from there, with the game passed down through the years at Jewish camps nationwide. It also spread at some point to the third major ga-ga nation, Australia, probably via a combination of camp counselors and international Jewish youth movements, although it does appear that a great deal of the lore online about the competitive 1980s Western Australian ga-ga scene was the mischievous invention of Frosh.
The question is, does ga-ga have an origin story that dates further back from its arrival in Israel? According to interviews with several people in the ga-ga world, there are a pair of competing theories.
Cliff Silverman, known as “Coach Cliff,” who operates the Ga-Ga Ball Pits business in Waukegan, Illinois, believes the order went: Israel, then Australia, and then the U.S. “Most commonly, it is believed to have originated in Israel during the early ’50s, then discovered in Australia,” Silverman said. “Then surfacing in the [Northeastern U.S.] at various Jewish summer camps. From there, it stayed somewhat dormant, only making its presence in camps scattered around the country at a slow pace.”
But Caroline Fasulo, from the Gaga Center, an indoor ga-ga venue in New York, has an alternative explanation: The game began at a camp in the U.S.
“There was a man named John Crosley who owned a sleepaway camp in the Northeast U.S. and invented the game,” Fasulo said. “There were Israeli counselors at the camp who then brought the game back to Israel. That’s why a lot of people think it started there.”
That summer camp was Camp Idylwold, in the Adirondacks near Schroon Lake, New York, and the game was known as “Crosleyball,” after the man who reputedly invented it in the late 1950s. Camp Idylwold, which closed in 1987, was like many summer camps in that part of the country throughout the 20th century: nominally secular, but attended almost entirely by Jews.
Harley Spiller attended the camp in the late 1960s and early ’70s and remembers playing the game and calling it Crosleyball—a tradition that continued until the camp’s closure.
“It was always Crosleyball,” said Josh Lisman, who attended Idylwold in the mid-1980s. “The story goes that John got tired of campers not burning off energy on rainy days and created this activity. In my day, the ‘sport’ was codified with rules that look remarkably like ga-ga.”
Lisman, like me and many others, has a younger family member who loves ga-ga. “I fight with my stepson all the time about it,” he said. “And anytime someone says ga-ga, I automatically correct them.”
Despite the Crosley legend, though, there has been no shortage of other American summer camps claiming credit for the game’s invention. The “Talk” page for the sport’s Wikipedia entry has a subsection titled “This Wikipedia Article Is Not an Ad for Your Camp.”
Wherever the game itself was born, the name “ga-ga”—Hebrew for “touch touch,” or “hit hit”—undoubtedly originated in Israel. If this is true, how the game changed in its migration overseas—much like the question of how “rounders” became baseball in the 19th century—is likely a question whose answer is lost to history.
As for ga-ga today, it’s booming throughout the U.S. The game got the New York Times Style section treatment in 2012, indicating that its mainstream moment had finally arrived. Since then, ga-ga has only gotten bigger, with ga-ga equipment manufacturers and birthday-party venues such as the Gaga Center coming online, and ga-ga being featured on Fox and Friends and various local news broadcasts. The game, perhaps inevitably, has even begun to spread beyond the Jewish world to public school gymnasiums and even Christian and secular summer camps.
Oddly enough, despite its Israeli lineage, the game appears to have fallen out of favor completely among Israelis today. To a person, Israelis I’ve asked about the game have either never played ga-ga or never even heard of it.
Chris Wallendal, owner of the New Jersey-based equipment manufacturer Mamba GaGa, said, “We have mentioned this to people from or traveling to Israel, but they don’t seem to know the game there.” Josh Weinberg, who I originally knew as my bunkmate (and occasional ga-ga adversary) at camp when I was 12 years old and is now an ordained rabbi and the president of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, echoed the point that most Israelis he knows are unfamiliar with the game.
And even though ga-ga was almost certainly spread worldwide by Jewish youth movements over the years, Melvyn Rach, the programs director of World Habonim Dror, whom I contacted to ask about Sacha Baron Cohen’s mythical ga-ga career, said, “I am afraid that we here at World Habonim Dror do not really know about ga-ga.”
But they absolutely know about ga-ga at Harlam Day Camp in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, where my son played each morning in a pit made by Mamba GaGa, with rules remarkably similar to the ones I played under all those years ago at Port Hall in Wisconsin. Whether the game dates back ultimately to the Northeastern U.S. or to Israel, one thing is clear: It’s another durable Jewish tradition passed on from parent to child over many years. First the Torah, then baseball, then ga-ga.
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Stephen Silver is a journalist in the Philadelphia area whose work has appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, CSNPhilly.com, Splice Today, Screenrant.com, New York Press, and the Good Men Project. Follow him on Twitter @StephenSilver.