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Punk Rock, Llamas, and Sun-In: A Famous Rabbi Shares Her Camp Memories

Danya Ruttenberg

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg is an author, feminist, mom, and avid tweeter. Her work is about “the messy business of trying to be a person in the world, and how spirituality can inform and transform that work. Sometimes that’s about parenting, sometimes feminism, sex, God, justice, or joy.”

But before she became a well-known writer and Twitter personality, she was a pre-teen at an arsty sleepaway camp that had llamas. Yes, llamas.

As Ruttenberg sends her eldest son off to sleepaway camp for the first time, she chatted with Kveller about her own camp experience.

Where did you go to camp? For how long?

I went to a secular artsy summer camp in Maine. There were a lot of Jews there. I went for 4 weeks I think at age 10 and 11, and maybe 8 weeks ages 12 to 13. It’s hard to remember, honestly.

What’s the weirdest thing about your camp?

I went to a camp that had llamas there. That was pretty cool.

Did you have a camp romance?

I had a camp almost-romance. I wasn’t very good at closing the deal in those days, but I had a very bad — possibly requited, I dunno — crush on the boy who introduced me to punk rock. He had a skater haircut and drew skulls on his hands. He sent me elaborate artwork he made riffing off the Bauhaus and Love and Rockets logos, and he had braces and a clunky Jewish last name. What was not to love?

Now we’re both married, parents, and friendly on Twitter. It’s kinda great.

Are you still in touch with your camp friends?

See the aforementioned Twitter relationship. And another friend and I reconnected through our extended networks— she’s a Jewish Studies academic; it’s a small world. We hung out a few times a couple of years ago when I spent the year in Jerusalem. It was delightful, she’s really wonderful.

What inappropriate things did you learn from your counselors?

I don’t know if I learned anything inappropriate, but there was one counselor who would smoke hand-rolled tobacco cigarettes outside the cabin when we were supposed to be asleep. It was quite the scandal among us kids; I don’t know if it was particularly a scandal on the staff side.

What was the major fashion or accessories trend?

Well, it was the mid-’80s, so stirrup pants, scrunchies, etc. The summer I learned about punk rock and the summer after involved me trying to dye my hair blond with Sun-In — it went orange — and spearing a rubber rat on an earring hook and wearing that pretty much constantly.

Danya Ruttenberg

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg and her mom, Janie Brill (1986 or 1987)

What kind of letter writer were you?

Terrible! Aren’t all kids terrible letter writers?

What “type” of camper were you?

I didn’t break rules, but by the time I was in junior high I was exploring my identity and the world in a number of ways, which manifested in everything from being unnecessarily harsh about girls I thought were mainstream or “conformist” (I used that word without irony, sigh) to making lithographs in printmaking with anti-Apartheid slogans.

Why do you think so many Jews love camp?

Summer camp is awesome for those who have the privilege to access it. What’s not to love about increased independence, being in a beautiful place where grownups are investing lots of time in figuring out what you will find interesting and fun, and making new friends in an environment with no homework?

I suspect the reason that the (adult) Jewish community is so excited about Jewish camp is that it’s an opportunity to give kids a joyful, immersive communal experience that can have a profound and hopefully positive impact on the development of their Jewish understanding, connection, identity.

Camp Kveller

Camp Kveller is our series dedicated to all things summer camp.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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