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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.

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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 Zimbardo 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.)


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mouskatel says:

Much of the same memories from Orthodox Jewish camp in the 80’s but we had a lot more brands- Champion sweatshirts, Benetton sweatshirts and rugby shirts, Pop-Swatches.

Swimming in the lake, Shabbat walks, co-ed night activities. Bunk inspection. OD. Good times.

    marjorie says:

    Word length, she is a harsh mistress. I’ll try to post the original version (which was like seven times as long — I’m obsessed) on my personal blog in the next few days. Rest assured that Swatches (you can see mine in the Camp Yavneh pic!), shmira (nighttime patrol) and nikayon (bunk-cleaning) were all in there!

HopeinDC says:

Brought me back to Yavneh so hard! Totally going to send my kid.

Marc Katz says:

Wonderful list but Sheva, the band that wrote Od Yavo wasn’t founded until 1997.

Ramah Palmer?!?

Berkshire Rules!!!

    Lisa Liel says:

    Feh. Wisconsin is and will always be the real Ramah. All others are imitations.

Rebecca says:

Don’t forget about canteen, fun-dip and stained Kool-Aid fingers, Battle of
the Air Bands, getting scolded during benching “Ze t’filah, ze lo
shira”, meltzar/meltzarit duty, woodworking in Hebrew and crocheting

    mouskatel says:

    I used to get little holes in my fingers from kippah crotcheting. And those “dugmaot” books. Pretzels and mustard anyone? Did anyone eat pretzels and mustard outside of camp? Pink lemonade/iced tea mix fingers (blehhhh).

robee61 says:

Great story. Although I never went to sleep away camp I still like to read the stories. My youngest daughter just left for her 9th year at NJY Camps to make her own memories. This will be her 3rd year as staff. I will forward the article to her because she loves Craig Taubman. Take a look at the book Camp Camp for more memories.

Melissa Schapiro says:

The photo of the girls dressed for Shabbat looks so familiar — even the dresses! — but not the building. Was it at Ramah in Ojai? If so, this looks like my bunk!

    marjorie says:

    it’s ramah in palmer. but there’s a joke in nyc about all the restaurants on 6th street in nyc secretly sharing one underground kitchen…i suspect that all jewish camps secretly share one bunk.

Tammy says:

How about not knowing the words for certain cleaning supplies, such as Ya-eh, in English? Marjorie…what Edah were you in in 1981 @ Palmer? I was waterstaff that year.

    marjorie says:

    OK, i have not thought of the word “ya-eh” in 30 years. brain explosion.

      Guest says:

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    Isabel Herron says:

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Paula Jean Steiner says:

Today, I dropped my daughter, Samantha off At Camp Ramah New England, Palmer RULES! for her 1st year as a counselor. Her brother Noah was a counselor a couple years ago. This will be her 9th year at camp. Not a camper of the 80’s but her father was. David Steiner…lol, second generation and proud!

Aaron Goldberg says:

Interestingly, here in Australia, the ‘secular’ Jewish school I went to had a program called ‘Counterpoint’ where we would get these AMERICAN ring-ins from Brooklyn and Cleveland or wherever, and be taught the most ridiculously sucky songs like ‘All my life’s a circle’. The best thing we did was do a role-play game where-by we pretended we were Russian Refuseniks trying to leave the place. The barrack-like ambience of the camp site made the game even more fun!

Beth says:

I went to Ramah in Ojai – California.. Isn’t funny how its all the same no matter which one you were at.. I’m 45 years old now, but its still some of my favorite memories.. Thank you for writing this.. Made my day!!

Summer comes and I always dream of lazy days in army tents, Char-Man’s Cave, roller rinks, the Ojai boys and more.

marsht9 says:

Great Article! Kol HaKavod! Lots of similarities between this and my Hebrew Jewish Summer Camp of the 80’s – Camp Massad Manitoba. Regarding Maccabiah, you will enjoy this documentary trailer currently in production- Project Maccabiah

Shari Spark says:

Is that Seth Greenberg in picture 12 (on the right)?

    marjorie says:

    Yes indeed! And I will now publicly admit my huge crush on him in this safe space.

purrldiver says:

I’m a bit older than you guys. I went to a Jewish Sleep-Away Camp in the 1970’s. Camp Cejwin in Port Jervis, NY. Going on “raids” to the girls bunks in the middle of the night was scary and fun. Swimming in a lake (the camp had NO POOL). Hearing the song “Free Bird” thousands of times. Sitting in the dining hall on Friday nights singing “Daveed Meloch Yisrael, Chai Chai Pizza Pie.”

ShloymeBaruch says:

You might want to re-title the article to reflect that it speaks to a narrow bandwidth of Jewish camp experience. I went to Camp Mogen Avrohom in the Catskills. Other than table-banging, there is no commonality.

    mouskatel says:

    shloyme, your bandwidth is much much smaller then the on to which this article speaks. In terms of Jewish camping, MA/Sternberg were miniscule compared to Y camps, Ramah, and Modern Orthodox ones.

      ShloymeBaruch says:

      The point is that there are lots of camps and lots of camp cultures, none of which should be confused with the archetypal “Jewish camp experience”

Shmooster says:

I’m a veteran of Camp Moshava – Wild Rose, WI in the 60’s, but despite differences in details, this brought back a lot of memories. Oh, the stories I could tell . . .

Rebecca K. says:

Gaga. Not the one that sings.

marjorie says:

OK, posted a bunch of the left-on-the-cutting-room-floor items from this story here, on my personal blog:

Fun read. I went to Ramah and Massad in the 60s/70s. The hair and music were a little different but much was the same great stuff. I still remember the Snipe hunt in Eydah Bet at Ramah East Hampton.

    Yam Erez says:

    Remind me what Massad was? I recall my day school friends going there. Why was a camp named after Israel’s counterterror org.?

Sandra Jull says:

In Louisville, KY, I, a young Catholic girl, went to Jewish Summer Camp in the 1950s. It was in a field, which is now a huge complex of all things Jewish. We sang the Titanic song and went to the YMHA when it rained. I probably went there because we had a lot of Jewish friends.

    marjorie says:

    What is the TItanic song??

      Sandra Jull says:

      “It Was Sad When the Great Ship Went Down.” Had to Google it to get the title. The lyrics are there also.

Kobi Ableman says:

There is a nice selection of Jewish camp experience at the American Jewish museum in Philadelphia

Guest says:

I almost died when I read this, I laughed so hard. I was also at Yavneh, Gurim around 1982/83 or so, then went onto Moshava when I was a bit older. Still, I remember ‘meltzers’– and it even became a verb—i.e. are you meltzing tonight? Also, going to the ‘marp’ when you were sick. I have to say, though, I was never happier than when I was at summer camp.

    marjorie says:

    OMG i forgot “meltzing”! What a great coinage. And i am disappointed that “the marp” is not vernacular at my kids’ camp — it’s straight-up “mirpa’ah.” So much less brisk and jaunty.

Yam Erez says:

Who’s the guy on the right in the top photo, playing backgammon wearing aviator glasses and braces? I think I know him.

lisa says:

HI Marjorie. I don’t know you but i feel as if we lived the same life! I was at ramah Canada 1976 -1980 ( with heart-throb Craig! amazing rosh shira) and then at Palmer for 1982- 83 as counsellor with stuart (rosh edah) and then Judy Kose. My years at Ramah shaped my whole Jewish life and love of yidishkeit. Your pictures and article brought me many amazing memories. Jewish camps have the power to transform. Looking forward to more of your pictures. Lisa Schwartz ( Steinmetz) Montreal, Canada

mark says:

I have to chime in too. Here in the Great Northwest, (Vancouver, and Seattle), we have three Jewish Camps divided by the clichés of traditional jewish politics. Solomon Schecter in Washington State was the Conservative Synagogue Run camp, Camp Hatikvah in B.C. which was run by the Young Judea Zionist Secular Movement and Camp Miriam run by Habonim-labour secular Zionist . I went to Hatikvah and then Bilium in Quebec and everything you talk about is so typical to my Camping experience. Three days of Maccabiah competition with lots of ruah, singing after meals and competing against the different age groups: hatikvah 8 to 12 yr, Kochot 12 to 14, Massada 15 to 16 etc.; Hoogs in whatever the counsellors could come up with–football, wrestling, arts and crafts etc. Yom Hashoa, field games where we are divided into Arabs, Jews and the British. What is amazing is that Jews from all over the World can have such similar life experiences and commonalities even when it comes to going to summer camp. Your typical ‘Meatballs’ experience. All the Jewish kids went to camp, and the non jewish kids in the summer hung out at the seven elevens, poor sods. I can usually meet a Jew in Timbuktu and all of sudden be talking like old friends because of our similar upbringing and humour. I just hope the new parents of today send their kids to summer camp too and hope that the summer camps of today are not diluted and secularized so as to dilute the Jewish experience. Unfortunately with Camp Hatikvah the latter has happened as a result of new age parents wanting to keep their lovely children more wonderbread then rye bread and fearing that camp might indoctrinate their children to go to Israel and make aliyah, instead of becoming a lawyer. And the new counsellors just don’t have that Jewish old school upbringing to teach the kids.

Daniel says:

What’w with #12? Peace At Home first, baby….you are being inappropriately cynical here…what ever happened to If I Am Not For Myself Who Will Be For Me???

Vanessa says:

any of this you experienced?

Vanessa says:

any of this familiar ?

Replace Craig Taubman with a reigning obsession over “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” and the roller rink trips with Israeli folk dancing, and you’ve pretty much nailed Zionist Jewish summer camp in the 1970s, too.

We still play Backgammon and Risk, make fortune tellers and gimp, observe Tisha b’Av, skate at the roller rink to Foreigner/Styx/Air-Supply/Journey/etc., chant Od Yavo Shalom Aleynu, sing Cat’s in the Cradle at campfires, and keep many of the old traditions alive at :)

Shprintzel says:

I went to Camp Bnos and Camp Sternberg in late 1960s and all of 1970s. I appreciate reading all your different experiences. I think most of us who went to Sternberg/Magen Av camps attended day schools and yeshivas. I also want to say that i loved camp. I didn’t love lining up for every meal. Oy! I learned most of the Jewish songs I know at camp. I can recite Birkat Ha’Mazon by heart (including Ritzai). I am a champion swimmer because of Camp Sternberg. We had hay rides, hikes and overnights. We had a nature house, a dance studio, woodwork and art studios. The shul was called the casino. And Ronnie Greenwald played Ringo-leevio with us. Good times.


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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.

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