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« In Which Julie Klausner Goes Dirty Dancing »

I Remember Baby


Dirty Dancing might be the Jewishest movie ever made, and not just because of the Catskills setting or Jen Grey's original nose and curly hair. There are some impressively Semitic specifics in Eleanor (ahem) Bergstein's script, based in part on her own childhood. From the resort manager Max Kellerman — "This danish is pure protein" — to Wayne Knight as the Kellerman's tummler, alternately seeing over "Simon Says" on the lawn and cracking wise about his mother on stage, to the creepy neocon Yale Med school waiters like Robbie Gould; would-be louses I remember being ignored by when I was a baby myself, matriculating at Solomon Schechter.

Baby Houseman (Jennifer Grey), a lithe-limbed Lolita, is not caught between Robbie Gould and bad boy Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze). It's a no-brainer that the Ray-Banned race music aficionado is going to win over some would-be yuppie who tells her to read The Fountainhead after knocking up one of the help. 

Baby is instead caught between Johnny Castle and her dad. And because Dirty Dancing is an American Musical that entitles its heroine to all she wants, there are two embraces at the end of this perfect slumber party film. The first is the kiss Baby shares with Johnny after they finally execute The Lift. And the second is the hug she gets from her dad, played by Jerry Orbach, who admits, with no paucity of menschlichkeit, that he misjudged Johnny. "When I'm wrong, I say I'm wrong," Dr. Jake Houseman admits to Swayze, then adds, to his daughter, "You looked wonderful out there."

Dirty Dancing is not just a Jewish West Side Story about getting it on with the guy from the other side of the tracks. It's also a Jewish Annie, about persuading Daddy Warbucks to fall head over heels for you, despite his reservations about budging on his worldview, and Yentl-esque too, in that it's about the pilgrimage a young girl takes, in the name of her poppa.


Daddy can you hear me?

It's a Jewish John Hughes period piece as well. Baby begins as a Semitic version of Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles — the gawky underdog who has to dance the meringue with the old lady in her class when it gets partnered up, and schlep a watermelon to the hottest party in town. She transcends the dregs of suitors unfit to shine her Keds, tolerates her squawking older sister, and ends up losing her virginity to her version of Jake Ryan. 

Swayze's Johnny Castle literally could not be any less Jewish if he tried. He is a sexy greaser whose dad is in the House Painter's Union. He doesn't know the Talmud from the Megillah. And he took a hungry young woman with a heart bigger than a Catskills Family Resort and all the Mountains around it from babydom into adulthood with a tilt of his pelvis and the "guh-GUNK" of his heartbeat. Johnny's love, the forgiveness and admiration of Baby's daddy, AND an all-you-can-eat fleishig buffet, is a Houseman's — or a Bergstein's or a Klausner's — ultimate fantasy.

The Jews of Dirty Dancing are not low-status. They are not oppressed first-wave immigrants, fools, clowns, or money-lending schnorrers. At Kellerman's, Jews are moneyed doctors and lawyers who tip and vie to shtup the ethnic hotel staff. It's a small distinction to those who see the proceedings as another generic installation of "slobs versus snobs" from the "One Crazy Summer" chapter of 80's romantic comedies, but to Jews, being considered White People, even at the hands of our own screenwriters, is something we never take for granted.

It's nice to see that a lead character with a name like Houseman and a nose that came with the name was still someone scores of teenage girls and women from all over the world could relate to. That there was no need to make Baby "Muffy" or to make Kellerman's a Yacht Club. Women love this movie because they remember when they were girls who hadn't outgrown their daddy's love, but wanted to make room for somebody else, too. 

It's a particular stage of reverse Oedipal girlhood, especially among the Jewish set, and it doesn't get as much ink as Woody Allen's whole "My mother!" thing, but it's parallel and real, as is a Jewish woman's sexual desire for a goyish guy. There are plenty of pop culture examples of Jewish guys lusting over shikses, from Portnoy's Complaint to the special "Leslie Mann" filter Judd Apatow uses to make his slope-nosed, blonde wife look even more radiant in one of his shots.

But Dirty Dancing is one of the only movies to illuminate the flip side of the same story. "You're WILD!" Baby screams in Johnny's car, speeding towards the lake in the rain. And she's really saying "I would rather slit my wrists than end up under a chuppa with that circumcised schlub Robbie Gould!"

"That was the summer of 1963," Baby narrates in voiceover from the backseat of her parents' car at the top of the film, "when everybody called me Baby and it didn't occur for me to mind." She starts her summer in the nascent stages of her sexuality, scared of everything by her own admission, but especially worried that she'd "never find a guy as good as my dad." 

At the end of the film, she does — and she gets to keep both.

Julie Klausner is a comedian living in New York. She blogs here, and you can buy her new book here. She last wrote in these pages about Hannah & Her Sisters.

More Movies About Jewish Women Coming Of Age:

guest list by Molly Lambert

Marjorie Morningstar: Natalie Wood is a sassy Jewish girl who charms arrogant playwright Gene Kelly with her Hebraic sex appeal and verve. He turns out to be a real dick and then the movie goes on for a while longer. Based on the book written by Herman Wouk, who coined the term Jewish-American Princess

Hester Street: Carol Kane is the HBIC of the Lower East Side in the late 19th century.

The Way We Were: Barbara Streisand and her beautiful goyish college boyfriend Robert Redford try to make it work but can't. I made fun of this movie a lot before I saw it but damned if I didn't cry like a bitch when I finally did.

Julia: Lillian Hellman gets sexed up Jane Fonda style, with Vanessa Redgrave and Nazis.

Crossing Delancey: Sex and sour pickles with Amy Irving. Another Joan Micklin Silver joint, who also directed Hester Street. Alex Carnevale loves this movie.

A Walk On The Moon: Diane Lane flees bougie JAPdom and fucks traveling tie dye salesman Viggo Mortensen under a waterfall while Woodstock happens. Her daughter Anna Paquin fucks a guy with a teenstache. And somebody walks on the moon. 

Clueless: I mean her name is Cher Horowitz, duh. Zol zain!

Lost In Translation: What? She's half.

every Winona Ryder movie

"Be My Baby" — The Ronettes   (mp3)

"(I've Had) The Time of My Life" — Bill Medley & Jennifer Warnes (mp3)

"Hungry Eyes" — Eric Carmen (mp3)

"Where Are You Tonight?" — Tom Johnston (mp3)

"Yes" — Merry Clayton (mp3)

"In the Still of the Night" — The Five Satins (mp3)

References (5)

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Reader Comments (7)

Wonderful post. I'm trying to think of other movies that deal with that breaking space between father and daughter...Riding in Cars with Boys, I guess is the only one coming up.

September 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

Jewish girls are the fucking best.

September 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLB

I'd add Kissing Jessica Stein to the list. She's a bit old for a coming of age but it is about self discovery and has Jackie Hoffman and Tovah Feldsuh, who are brilliant. I wept at the scene when Tovah says "I think she's a very nice girl."
It would be nice if Apatow could make a movie about a Jewish girl, or if Woody Allen had (or maybe he did and I'm generalizing?)

September 24, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterjvansteppes

"There are plenty of pop culture examples of Jewish guys lusting over shikses, from Portnoy's Complaint to the special "Leslie Mann" filter Judd Apatow uses to make his slope-nosed, blonde wife look even more radiant in one of his shots."

Is there, like, a farm where they grow these self-hating Jewish writers? I do not mean Judd Apatow (although he counts also), I mean Julie Klausner and others, who seem to really get kicks out of enforcing stereotypes of Jews, using these stereotypes like they're a given ("slope-nosed", "original nose and curly hair" = Jewish, etc; come on, give me a break!)

Does Judd Apatow love photographing his hot blond wife? I'm sure. But what does that have to do with Jewishness? Rob Zombie loves photographing HIS hot blonde wife, Sheri Moon (a Leslie Mann-lookalike), and he isn't Jewish. Why do we need to keep hearing these cliches about the hideous Jewish guy and the hot blonde woman? (or vice versa). All it does is make it seem like Jewish men (or women) are all ugly and non-Jewish women or men are apparently all blonde versions of Greek Gods. I dunno, I went to a mostly WASP school, and I do not recall this phenomenon. In fact, I don't think there was a single guy who was all three of tall, blonde, and good looking. Plenty of geeks, though, none of them Jewish.

And what does Lost in Translation have to do with it? If you're counting it because Johansson is Jewish in real life, you'd have to count every other movie with a Jewish actress, in which case you'd have a pretty big list, and that's if you're counting the last year only.

September 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJenny

jenny, THANK YOU. my thoughts exactly!
where do self-loathing jews come off and decide it is okay to enforce every rabid, megalomaniacal stereotype there is? it is terrible; between myself and every other women in my book club who read this site - we are disgusted! grow some balls, woman. visit israel, love yourself, and get the hell off your self imposed pedestal.
no. one. is. looking. up. at. you.

December 10, 2009 | Unregistered Commentergrier

you have no pride. grier is right - grow some fucking balls.

December 10, 2009 | Unregistered Commenteringrid

My man is a hot Jewish dude from Israel and I'm his hot German tall blonde. We love each other. It's a pity that there is so much emphasis on wether someone is a jew and wether someone is not. To really grow out of history is to give this the least importance in selecting a partner or friend. Culture, and with that, films may do the same.

January 31, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnna

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