How a Bloody-Knuckled Dodgeball Knockoff Took Summer Camp By Storm
It was the timid kids -- the Michael Rosenbergs, the Jeff Kleins, the David Kaufmans -- who inevitably lasted longer in the pit.
For the last seventeen years, the Coleman Country Day Camp in Merrick, Long Island, has held a gaga tournament of ever-increasing pageantry and chutzpah at the end of each session. In 2002, the Coleman family built a two story Gaga stadium with five courts, three of which are raised with poured rubber floors, and stadium lighting to play at night. The game is played throughout the camp session but during the tournament — technically three, one for the campers, one for the staff, and one for the parents — is the only time the upper doors are allowed open and the smoke machine turned on. The finals are broadcast at a movie theater in camp.
“The beauty of gaga, is the kid who normally dominate in soccer and baseball don’t necessarily win at gaga” says Ross Coleman, the camp’s patriarch, “There’s a lot of strategy.”
Alissa Schmelkin, who runs Manhattan’s Gaga Center, agrees. “There are definitely different ways to play. Ultimately whoever the last man standing is the winner but there are plenty of people who hang back in the beginning of the game and take charge later on.” It’s often not the strongest players who triumph, but those with an accurate read of angles and the ability to calculate not just the first angle of reflection but the angle of reflection of the angle of reflection. Other key calculations that must be made: force needed to achieve the desired trajectory and psychology of amped-up adolescent opponent.
Back in 1992, during an era of oversized t-shirts and brightly colored Umbros, I played gaga at the Rockwood Day Camp, in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Twenty five years too late, Schmelkin’s insight provides me with perspective on my play. I was always limited by my aggression. Wild-eyed and bloody-knuckled, I burned brightly but quickly. It was the timid kids — the Michael Rosenbergs, the Jeff Kleins, the David Kaufmans — who inevitably lasted longer in the gaga pit.
In its most basic form, gaga is a dodgeball variant. There is no unified rulebook for gaga. And even if there were, there’s no gaga association to enforce it because there is no professional gaga circuit. The basic rules are this: Many people start in a court. A ball is thrown into the court. The number of people in the court is whittled in a number of ways. Players hit the ball — or palm it but never hold it — at the other players. One is out if a ball strikes one’s lower body, often below the knee. One is out if the ball one hits in the attempt to strike another is caught. One wins when one is alone.
What makes gaga gaga is that this all transpires on an eight-sided octagonal court. The ball can be played off the walls and, because the walls introduce so many angles, become an IRL lesson in physics. Also, disappointment.
Back in 1992, we had to hit the ball with a closed fist. Today, both open and closed fists are acceptable. To be fair, because there is no centralized refereeing body, but that seems to be the trend and it’s understandable why. I remember that, in the high dander of gaga season, the pale knuckle skin of Main Line’s Jews of a certain age was frequently red and scabbed over. Bloody but not beaten, swollen but unsurrendered, our wounds were a welcome gash of reality in an otherwise overly protected existence. Gaga knuckles, as we called them, were one of the small ways we young boys and girls could assert our toughness.
The counselors at Rockwood told me the same thing as counselors at other camps told other Jewish kids. The game was handed down by Israeli counselors who learned it in the Israeli Defense Force and brought it across the sea to the shores of America in the 1970s. Whether or not that is true–and it likely isn’t–the origin story made the game seem exotic. It was like four square with an accent and a silk shirt. Today, there’s a permanent year-round gaga center in Manhattan, makers of luxury gaga gloves, and gaga court construction specialists who provide portable courts for camps as well as corporate retreats and birthday parties. I don’t know if the newfound gaga acolytes — including a surprising number of kids at Bible camps (search #gagaball on Instagram and see for yourself) — are told the same story or feel the same way about it, but you have to understand the sport’s mythology to understand its intense following.
It turns out it might not have been Israelis at all who brought gaga to the States. Schmelkin fingers a man named John Crosley at a camp called Camp Idolwyld as the sport’s true progenitor. Nevertheless, there must be some reason it flourished among Jews of the woods, some reason the origin myth situates itself in the Negev desert as a diversion for war-wary Israeli soldiers. I have a theory. At its essence, gaga is a game of consequences. In dodgeball, a ball may be projected with unhindered force into the vast open space. If it hits one’s opponent, wonderful. If not, no biggie. In gaga, on the other hand, the court is penned in on all sides. One must be concerned not only with one’s immediately target but on the secondary, tertiary and quaternary consequence. Gage reward strategy and skill, but it’s also karmic.
What’s more, gaga, unlike dodgeball, is not a game of allies. One does not start off as a member of a team battling an opposing team in a war of attrition. One begins life amidst one’s enemies. Whatever alliances form — Schmelkin frowns upon them — are temporary, transient and, by their very nature, cynical.
What better training for young American Jews to understand the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East than a gaga court? Consider the geography of the sport’s erstwhile motherland. Bordered by Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt on three sides and the Mediterranean Sea on the other, the nation is, itself, an 8,000 square mile gaga ball pit. Since its establishment in 1947, the nation has proved adept at playing its border-mates against each other whether it is playing the Saudi-backed Lebanese against Egyptians, for instance.
We Americans, separated by an ocean from our adversaries, imagine the fields of war from afar, a distant silent terminus of our bombs. For campers — the socioeconomic slice of campers most likely to play gaga are simultaneously the least likely to serve in the armed forces — it will always be thus. In Israel, however, the cities and towns, streets and sea, walls and turrets are riven with the scars of war at eye level.
Maybe gaga is just a game. Gaga is just a game. But it’s a great game and a game about consequences and that, itself, is consequential.
Every morning this summer, I drop my own son off at his summer camp near our house. Though not religious, it is at a local church. In the courtyard near the cathedral where the campers gather in the morning is a temporary gaga pit. Its walls, if they can be called walls, are actually net but it is octagonal and the floor is concrete. My son and I both eye it with the professional interest of a big cat trainer. And every afternoon, when I pick him up, his cheeks are flushed and covered in the sticky summer sheen of sweat and sunscreen and he is full of gaga tales. “Dad!” he says, “we played the funnest game ever” Then, as kids do, he gives me a detailed though cockamamie description of a game whose main features recognize even if much changed. The camper hit with an open hand. They bank less against the walls. The ball they use isn’t nearly as hard. But as I hold his hand in mine, his knuckles bloodless, I recognize the same exalted smile on his lips. That’s the gaga smile of a game well played.