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Is ‘Dirty Dancing’ the Most Jewish Film Ever?

The women of the film, out of the corner, a generation later

Stephanie Butnick
August 16, 2011
(Margarita Korol)
(Margarita Korol)

A week ago, I told Eleanor Bergstein, the writer and co-producer of the incredibly popular film Dirty Dancing, that when I first saw the film years ago, I hadn’t realized how heavily influenced it was by Jewish culture. She beamed, as she had the entire evening, and assured me it was a seriously Jewish movie. So Jewish, in fact, that none of the characters ever need to explicitly mention their Jewishness—they’re spending the summer at Kellerman’s resort in the Catskills, after all, and, Bergstein pointed out proudly, milk and meat are never served in the same scene. It’s a Jewish film, she explained, “if you know what you’re looking at.”

I met Bergstein at a screening of Dirty Dancing, the seminal coming-of-age film that is actually much, much more than that, organized by the website Jezebel to benefit the New York Abortion Access Fund, which drew a packed house at a downtown movie theater. An illegal abortion (and its botched, back-alley consequences) shape much of the plot, making the 1987 film about summer in 1963 far ahead of its time. Bergstein, in a pre-screening discussion with Jezebel’s Irin Carmon (who last year wrote the definitive piece on Dirty Dancing, and who posted video of last week’s event), said she was adamant as a producer that the abortion remain in the film, since, she had presciently argued, the battle for reproductive rights still hadn’t been won.

Calling Dirty Dancing “a very American film,” Bergstein described it as the story of a young girl who took her life in her hands and ran with it, no matter what it cost her. (As Carmon helpfully contextualized long before the screening, “The daughter of the first generation of American Jews to read widespread upper-middle class prosperity, if not elite cultural acceptance, she is swathed in a pre-Kennedy assassination liberalism.”) I counted enough male attendees to abandon my tally of how many might actually show up as the lights went down and the instantly recognizable opening notes of The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” filtered through the sound system.

For those of you unfamiliar (shame, shame), the film centers around Frances Houseman, a 17-year-old (Jewish) New Yorker whom everyone calls Baby, who is spending the summer with her family in the Catskills at Kellerman’s resort. Heading to Mount Holyoke in the fall to study economics of underdeveloped countries, the idealistic Baby—portrayed perfectly by a pre-plastic surgery Jennifer Grey—intervenes to help get Penny, a dance instructor at the resort, the money she needs for an abortion. Sheltered enough to not realize exactly how dangerously makeshift that procedure might be, but insistent on helping and convinced she can, Baby also fills in for Penny and dances with Johnny, the male dance instructor played by the delightfully swoon-worthy Patrick Swayze, for the pair’s annual gig at the nearby Sheldrake resort.

Returning to find Penny in alarmingly bad shape after the primitive, unsanitary abortion, Baby calls upon her father, a doctor, for help. Jerry Orbach saves the day, as usual, though he is horrified at what his daughter has become a party to. Though Dr. Houseman expressly forbids Baby from seeing Johnny, mistakenly believing he is responsible for what is euphemistically referred to throughout the film only as getting Penny in trouble, she sneaks out to see him for, as Carmon convincingly argues, “the greatest love scene of all time.” Class tensions and scheduled activities resume, while Baby is forced to deal with her changing relationship both to Johnny and her father, challenging each man with her resolute determination (and, dare I say, complete stubbornness).

The film is hugely Jewish, capturing a 1960s Jewish family and their open-minded but still guarded sensibilities. Referring back to Carmon’s description of Baby in the artificial environment at Kellerman’s,

Told her whole life that she could do anything and change the world, she’s faced with the hypocrisy of a long-shunned minority enacting its own unexamined exclusion, this time on class grounds. The guests at Kellerman’s look comfortable, but they were raised in the Depression and traumatized by World War II.

After the screening, I sat on the sticky movie theater steps with the energetic and eccentric Bergstein, who told me how grateful she felt seeing young people who so clearly love the film, and said it had been years since she’d seen it in a theater. I, for one, was certain I never noticed how insanely skinny the female leads were. Or, I suppose, how Jewish some of them were. Did I mention they’re coming out with a remake?

Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.