I Remember Baby
by JULIE KLAUSNER
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)