The first time I saw “Dirty Dancing,” I was at temple. (Yes, you read that correctly.) It was a film I was dying to see but we didn’t have cable and my parents were literal parental controls over my Blockbuster habits. Also, I was 11 when it came out. So, I was shit out of luck.
Until God intervened.
Well, God with an assist from Gail, my sweet, loving Jewish mother, who forced me to go to a USY sleepover at our shul. I could not have been less psyched to spend a Saturday night sleeping on the floor of the room where I’d have my bat mitzvah just two years later. But I had little say in the matter and my friends were joining, so off I went.
The whole affair was about as [insert eyeroll here] as expected until they announced that it was movie time, and they would be showing… “Dirty Dancing.”
DIRTY. FUCKING. DANCING.
Could this really be happening? I can only imagine the geshray I let out when they announced it. I was in heaven. Until I realized that I might be going to hell. I’m not allowed to watch this movie! And this was long before cell phones, so I couldn’t even make a half-assed attempt to ask my parents if it was OK.
Now, any normal kid would just have been psyched, full stop. Not me! I’ll take Internal Emotional Spiral for $200, Alex. There I sat buried under a blanket of Jewish guilt (not to mention the sleeping bag I was inside), a cold sweat settling in. What was I going to do? Go sit in the hall for two hours as everyone else had the time of their life? Watch it and live with the dark, dirty secret until it danced its way out of the shameful recesses of my soul?
And that’s when I realized. God must want me to see this movie. It’s showing at his house. Gail has no play here. This is fate, this is destiny. This is my watermelon to carry.
I’m not going to hell.
I’m going to Kellerman’s.
In the 30-plus years since that fateful night, I have probably seen “Dirty Dancing” 200 times. I know it by heart. I know that Lisa Houseman can’t find her beige iridescent lipstick. I know that Dr. Jake Houseman jokes that Baby wants to send her leftover pot roast to Southeast Asia.
Like the friendships at Kellerman’s, my knowledge of “Dirty Dancing” lasts “long as the mountains stand.”
But that didn’t happen right away. It took years of sleepover parties and basement VCR viewings to amass what goes beyond a base knowledge of the film. And over time I picked up on certain details that were sure to be overlooked by the casual viewer. Or, let’s be honest, anyone who wasn’t me.
About 25 minutes into the film, Baby and Neil Kellerman are raiding the resort’s kitchen, looking for a late night snack. As Neil stands in the glow of the 1963 industrial refrigerator light, he rattles off what could be the contents of your Bubbe’s fridge. “Brownie, some milk, leftover rice pudding… beets, leftover cabbage roll… fruit salad, sweet gherkins?” But Baby’s attention is elsewhere.
As is mine.
Now here is the difference between Toby Herman and Baby Houseman. (The lone difference, I might add.) Baby is focused on Penny, a staff dancer, who she notices on the floor of the dark kitchen, hysterically crying after learning she is pregnant, unable to pay for an abortion. And I –
Well, just like Eric Carmen, I have “Hungry Eyes.” Ones that can spot a rogue stash of matzah, at least.
On the shelf behind Baby, illuminated by the refrigerator light, is a bale of Streit’s Matzo boxes. You know, the thing where you can buy like six together in bulk? Yeah, that.
In front of it? A lone jar of matzah balls. (Likely in broth, but it’s dark so the label is somewhat obscured.)
On the shelf above, a box of Streit’s Matzo Meal, clear as day.
And, as we’ll discover in the upcoming scene where Johnny (Baby’s future Goy Toy) comes to Penny’s aide, there is a box of Streit’s Matzo Farfel, cloaked in a beam of moonlight.
So, yeah. I have some questions.
To be clear, I have always found this hilarious. But how did we get here? “Dirty Dancing” takes place in the summer, well after Passover has wrapped and Elijah has left the building. Not to mention, summer means swimsuit season! People are trying to tighten their borsht belts, not walk around with a lead boulder in their stomachs.
As for the “maybe people just liked to eat it!” camp, I state this for the record: There is something intrinsically wrong with people who snack on matzah in the off season. It’s not natural.
Perhaps the whole thing is a wink to how Jewish “Dirty Dancing” is at its core. There are countless Jewish references throughout the film… which is about a Jewish family spending their summer in The Catskills. Owner Max Kellerman reminisces about “Bubbe and Zayde serving the first pasteurized milk to the boarders.” The wait staff is basically comprised of Jewish Ivy Leaguers like Robbie Gould (who sucks, PS). And over the PA system we hear that Rabbi Morris Sherman is holding a symposium on “The Psychology of Insult Comedians.” That’s over on the west porch, in case you’re interested.
Now, I know this is the ‘60s, not that long after the war — or the depression for that matter — so we’re dealing with a generation of food stashers and savers, understandably. But that makes sense for their pantries back home. Not a summer resort’s kitchen.
Is it left over from what could only have been the worst Craft Services of all time?
Is it simply a matter of Streit’s product placement?
ARE THE PRODUCERS IN THE POCKET OF BIG MATZAH?
If I had to guess? In a movie about choices — and lack thereof — this feels like a choice. The film makes some big statements about class, politics, sex and women’s rights. So why wouldn’t it claim its inherent Jewishness by having the Kellerman’s kitchen cosplay as a Streit’s warehouse?
That said, I do have a favor to ask of any future filmmakers who want to embrace their Jewishness on the big screen. Can we at least have it make sense? Don’t just throw fiddler up on a roof and call it a day. Track the logic, consider how it will read.
And think about that young Jewish kid, sitting in her friend’s basement, rewinding their worn-out VHS tape, trying to figure out why the fuck there is a cache of matzah in a movie her parents wouldn’t let her watch.
Because much like Baby and that corner, nobody puts matzah on a counter. Not without telling me why, at least.
Late Take is a series on Hey Alma where we revisit Jewish pop culture of the past for no reason, other than the fact that we can’t stop thinking about it?? If you have a pitch for this column, please e-mail email@example.com with “Late Take” in the subject line.