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Jewesses with Attitude

My "Dirty Dancing" fantasy

I was 14 when the movie Dirty Dancing came out, and I was utterly entranced. I loved watching the frizzy-haired Jewish girl not only prove her sexiness and get the guy but also change the people around her. At the time, I didn’t think much about the Jewish subtext of the movie – I just knew that it felt familiar and relevant in some way.

Now, 20 years later, in preparation for JWA’s Dirty Dancing 20th anniversary movie night tomorrow (7pm at 138 Harvard Street in Brookline, MA), I’ve been revisiting the question of what’s Jewish about this film, and whether it’s important that Baby is Jewish. I don’t think the word Jewish is actually ever mentioned in the film, but the setting of the Catskills provides an obvious Jewish context. In this case, “Jewish” is coded as middle class, comfortable (perhaps too comfortable), and well-meaning – remember, Dr. Houseman is a do-gooder – but somewhat naïve and insensitive to class issues. I think it’s also important that the world of the Catskills depicted as one on the wane, is no longer appealing to people like Baby, who is turning away from her family’s middle class comfort for something more raw, honest, and sexy, represented by Johnny and the other working class dancers.

What’s interesting to me is that by making Baby – the spunky, uncompromising idealist – a Jewish girl, the movie confirms my own sense that these characteristics are part of what constitutes Jewish womanhood. And there’s something that feels historically accurate about this depiction, too. Please humor me as I put on my historian’s hat for a moment and think about where Baby fits into the trajectory of the 1960s…

The movie takes place in the summer of 1963, before what we think of as the “Sixties” has really begun – before the Pill and the Beatles, as the movie reminds us, and I would add, before the civil rights movement is in full swing, before real anti-Vietnam War activism is underway, and before Women’s Liberation changes what women like Baby can expect from their lives. She’s between high school and college, already politically aware (she knows that starving children aren’t in Europe but in Southeast Asia), but with no real place to implement her politics except to fight for the rights of working class hotel employees to do their own “dirty” dancing. But let’s imagine her life after this film. She goes to college in the fall, and in my fantasy, she spends the next summer not at Kellerman’s but in Mississippi, doing voter registration with African-Americans as part of Freedom Summer. She remains involved with civil rights activism when she returns to school, becoming a campus organizer. Her affair with a fellow organizer ends in pregnancy, and in 1965, she joins Penny in the ranks of women who’ve had illegal abortions (though through her contacts in the Left, she’s able to find a real doctor who doesn’t botch the job). This experience, plus her realization that despite her intelligence and great organizing skills, she’s still expected to be the note-taker and coffee-maker in her campus SNCC chapter, leads her to wonder about the place of women in the “beloved community” she’s helping to build. When whites are kicked out of SNCC the following year, she turns her activism to the antiwar movement, but is soon fed up with the arrogance of the male leaders who turn out to be basically scruffier versions of Robbie (the Kellerman’s waiter/Yale med student).

When Baby graduates in 1967, she moves to New York City to work for a neighborhood organizing project. Looking to meet other young women in the city, she goes to a meeting of the group that soon becomes New York Radical Women, and guess what – Baby becomes a feminist! She helps develop the process of “Consciousness Raising” and participates in the early women’s liberation actions, such as the protest at the Miss America convention in August 1968.

I’m pretty sure that’s Baby’s trajectory. You can tell, in the movie, that she’s an incipient feminist, just waiting for Women’s Liberation to appear on the horizon. Where she goes from 1968 on – your guess is as good as mine. Does she join the Peace Corps, as she had planned back in the summer of 1963? Does she become a radical lesbian? Is she a journalist? A poet? A lawyer with the ACLU? Whatever the plot line, I’m almost certain that by the 1990s, she’s realized that Judaism is cooler than she thought back in the Kellerman’s days, and she joins a Rosh Hodesh group, has an adult bat mitzvah, goes to Israel for the first time and participates in an Israeli/Palestinian women’s dialogue group…. Wait, I think I saw her on the street in Newton the other day…

So what’s your vision of Baby? Please let us know, and if you’re in Boston and want to come to JWA’s Dirty Dancing anniversary screening tomorrow night, click here to RSVP.

2 Comments

And let us not forget to have Baby appear in tallit, tefilin and kippah at the Kotel in time for the next Rosh Hodesh prayer service.

I was a charming four-and-a-half in the Summer of 1987 when Dirty Dancing first hit the screen. Though I was clearly too young to see it, I have a distinct memory of hearing "Hungry Eyes" playing on the radio while patiently waiting in the lunch line at Spring Lake Day Camp with my little red tray, and thinking to myself: "this song is about wanting a grilled cheese sandwich and french fries." Then, upon listening to the lyrics more closely, I remember thinking: "There is magic in grilled cheese! And when there's a tomato squished inside, that does take me by surprise! This is a great song!" Indeed, that was my own Dirty Dancing fantasy -- grilled cheese at day camp. Yum.

It wasn't until I was 14 that I saw Dirty Dancing for the first time while attending the Genesis program at Brandeis. I was more captivated by the dancing and by Patrick Swayze glistening than by the issues of class, religion, and abortion in the film, but I did have some understanding of the film's historical context and its Jewish subtext. Curiously, when I talked to my 16-year-old sister the other day--she's a dancer who thoroughly enjoys this film--and told her about JWA's celebration, she asked: "What does Dirty Dancing have to do with being Jewish?" Baby's Jewishness wasn't ever part of my sister's consciousness. Neither was Jewish life in the Catskills. As I brought all of this to her attention, I suddenly sensed disappointment -- almost embarrassment -- in her voice as she exclaimed: "What?! Baby is Jewish?! "Yes," I said. She is. Does this now make Baby and the film less cool?" "No," she replied. "It isn't less cool. I just hadn't ever thought of Dirty Dancing as Jewish or not Jewish. And I don't think it matters one way or the other. It's just a fun film about dancing and falling in love." <sigh>

Maybe in a few years I should encourage her to put on her historian's hat and have a Dirty Dancing fantasy of her own... hopefully, by that time, being Jewish actually will matter.</sigh>

How to cite this page

Rosenbaum, Judith. "My "Dirty Dancing" fantasy." 1 August 2007. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 30, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/dirty-dancing>.

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1 day
Thank you for writing such a passionate and important book!
1 day
And we just mentioned the book in a post on the history of abortion access: https://t.co/YatTU2gqN7