Life & Culture

My Dirty confession

I was literally a child in America throughout the ’80s, which means that I spent that entire decade wishing I was a teenager.


I am a true child of the American ’80s, in the most literal sense — that is, I was literally a child in America throughout the ’80s, which means that I spent that entire decade wishing I was a teenager. Happily for me, it was a great era for idealising teenage-hood because, back then, film-makers such as Amy Heckerling, Cameron Crowe and, most of all, John Hughes were making some of the greatest films about teenage life in America that have ever been made back, and I spent that decade watching those films obsessively. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Say Anything, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Breakfast Club: these were the movies that I was raised on and, to this day, I can still recite them all from memory, mainly because I never stopped watching them.

These films, featuring resolutely ordinary kids going through resolutely ordinary ordeals, taught me that I was worthy of being the star of my own story, despite my lack of superpowers, perfect looks or A-plus grades.

But there was one problem with these films: I didn’t really see me in them. Eighties teen films are set, in the vast main, out in the American suburbs and feature white WASP-y kids going to big co-ed schools, where the girls all join the cheerleading team and the guys pick fights in the canteen.

I, however, grew up in a Jewish enclave of New York City and went to an all girls’ school where the girls were expected to join the math and science clubs as opposed to any cheerleading nonsense. My Hebrew school was co-ed, sure, but I’ve yet to meet a jock called Isaac or Noah. So, while the emotions the films depicted certainly felt universal to 11-year-old me (namely, your parents are idiots, school sucks, the boys you fancy never fancy you back), the worlds they showed were as foreign to me as if they were set in Mozambique.

Except in the case of one film.

Now, there were many reasons I loved Dirty Dancing from the moment I saw it at the age of 10, and the vast majority of them had to do with the sex scenes (a revelation to me) and Patrick Swayze’s bare chest. But there was something else about it that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, something about Jennifer Grey’s character, Baby, that I connected with in a way I didn’t with, say, Molly Ringwald’s characters in John Hughes’s films. The reason was, of course, because Dirty Dancing is a Jewish teen film.

(Goy) friends are always surprised when I point this out to them, and I can’t blame them. There are none of the usual obvious signifiers in the film that the characters are Jewish: no one is shown lighting a menorah, no one drops any cod Yiddish, and the characters betray no Jewish stereotypes so beloved of American movies (hypochondria, nerdiness, self-deprecation, etc.) Instead, as the film’s creator and screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein said to me when I interviewed her for my book on ’80s movies, Life Moves Pretty Fast, “It is a completely Jewish movie. You just have to know how to spot the clothes.” Just as Bergstein smuggles a pro-choice message into the movie so subtly audiences barely noticed it at the time, so she sneaks in the movie’s Jewish tinge, and only those attuned to the signs will notice.

Baby’s family, the Housemans, are clearly Jewish, and completely of their class (middle) and time (1960s). Her father, played by Jerry Orbach (the son of a Jewish immigrant but raised Roman Catholic by his mother) is a doctor (obviously) and Baby, whose real name is Frances, was named after Frances Perkins, the Secretary of Labour under President Roosevelt, who fought for changes in America’s immigration policies to allow in more Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany.

The Housemans are typical of their demographic in that they are proudly bettering themselves — the mother and sister Lisa through shopping and beauty, and the father and Baby through education.

They have come to the Catskills for a summer holiday, as American Jewish families in the ’60s were very wont to do (including my parents.) There, the hotels were run by similarly aspirational Jews (represented in the film by the characters Max and Neil Kellerman), but staffed by working-class Catholic kids, like Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze.) The friction between the staff and the guests is based on more than just class differences, although there is that, too, and the film is unstinting in its depiction of mid-20th-century Jewish snobbery towards those they deem unhelpful in their ambitions for their families.

They come from such different worlds, as Baby discovers, that they are utterly alien to one another. Baby, however, is determined to bridge that gap because her aspirations go beyond just self-improvement — as her father says, she wants to “save the world.”

There is also the unavoidable truth that Jennifer Grey looks adorably, gloriously Jewish in this film, with her cute curls and fabulous nose. Just a few years after the film, she had a nose job which mutilated that gorgeous protrusion and promptly killed her career in the process. There is a moral lesson in that, fellow Jewish girls.

I love Dirty Dancing for so many reasons, but the fact it is the one great Jewish teen movie gives it a truly special place in my heart. I also enjoy that it keeps its Judaism subtle, close to its chest, as opposed to the faintly minstrel Jewy-ness that you get in Woody Allen’s films. Only those in the club get it.

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