Dancing to a different tune

Now I am a Jewish mother, I can sympathise with those parental ogres in 'Dirty Dancing'

By Miriam Shaviv, September 24, 2009

The first time I watched Dirty Dancing, as a teenager, I completely missed its Jewish undertones.

Swept up in the music and the moves, and of course, completely in love with Patrick Swayze — who died last week, aged 57 — I naturally rooted for middle-class “Baby” to overcome her parents’ prejudices and get together with her working-class dance instructor, Johnny Castle.

When, in the iconic final scene, the couple are finally embraced by all the pretentious guests at the hotel, and Baby’s snobbish father, who tried to separate them, is taught his lesson, I — like millions of other young girls — thought it was terribly romantic.

It was only several years later that I finally realised that the holiday resort was specifically Jewish, of a type that existed in New York’s Catskills Mountains for much of the 20th century.

Although the word “Jewish” was never uttered, those repulsive old snobs were all Jewish snobs (as any American would immediately have recognised).

Although the word 'Jewish' was never uttered, those repulsive old snobs were all Jewish snobs

What’s more, their objection to Johnny was not just that he was from a lower social standing, but that he was an Irish gentile.This was not just a story of class warfare and gender empowerment, but of American Jews, and their slow integration into the American mainstream.

Of course, part of me will always still root for Baby and Johnny — every frame in the movie pushes you that way. But now, looking back on the movie as a Jew and as a mother, I am no longer completely unsympathetic to the supposed villains of the piece, Baby’s parents.

Yes, they were terrible class snobs; they infantilised their daughter; they should have treated Johnny with respect. I do not — let me emphasise — in any way excuse any of these faults.

But on the charge that they did not want their daughter to date a non-Jew, I am on their side. There is nothing wrong — or racist — about Jews ruling out partners from another religion. There are very good reasons to look for a partner with a shared background and interests, including culture, religious practice and spiritual sensibilities.

This does not make them narrow-minded, or mean that they dislike people of other religions. It means they are seeking a partner who wants to live a similar kind of life.

Nor is there anything wrong with Jews wanting their children to perpetuate their culture and their faith.

Most parents want to transmit their values and traditions to their children; religion is no different (just perhaps a little more urgent).

The movie tries hard to convince us otherwise, vilifying the parents as religious bigots. Sadly, too many young Jews today have internalised its damaging message, which has become a given in much of popular culture (most notably in Ben Stiller’s romantic comedy, Keeping the Faith, in which a rabbi, noch, struggles to explain why he is reluctant to commit to his non-Jewish girlfriend).

They find it hard, or uncomfortable, to articulate why they want to date other Jews, and why this is a legitimate choice.

This is a major challenge for our community, which must give our young Jews the tools to answer these questions — starting with a strong enough Jewish identity to be worth passing on. Not that I am expecting — heaven forbid — anyone to stop watching the movie, which doubtless will be shown countless times over the coming weeks and months.

But, on balance, I think I prefer Ghost.

Last updated: 10:56am, September 24 2009