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Aug 5 2014

I Was Embarrassed of My Jewish Looks–Until I Saw “Dirty Dancing”

By at 3:58 pm

Dirty-dancing

I watched “Dirty Dancing” with my daughter the other night. It was the first time she had seen it and probably my 10th.

I was super excited for our girls’ night–we bought candy, made some popcorn and changed into our pajamas–but I also felt some pressure. What if she hates the movie and thinks it’s corny and old-fashioned? Maybe next time, then, she’d ask a friend over to watch a movie instead of me. Maybe next time she’d choose to watch “Gossip Girl” on Netflix by herself. I know she loves our time together as much as I do, but I feel the fragility of these moments–of an almost 14-year-old–of a blossoming young woman who will soon begin her own journey of self-discovery apart from me.

“Dirty Dancing” was a movie that had a profound impact on me back in 1987. I was 19 then, just a year or two older than Baby (played by Jennifer Grey). It was the first time I had seen a movie that featured a Jewish girl as the romantic lead. I thought Baby was just like me because she had a Jewish nose and frizzy, curly hair. In reality she looked nothing like me. We were alike, however, in the absence of certain physical attributes. Neither of us had long golden blond hair, small button noses, big blue eyes, or full pouty lips. In fact, girls like me and Baby were typically the best friend of the pretty girl who dates the good-looking popular guy. Jewish girls like us didn’t get the cute guys.

All that changed with “Dirty Dancing.” Johnny thought Baby was beautiful and sexy. Maybe my Johnny was out there somewhere too.

“Dirty Dancing” took place in 1963. This was a pivotal time in American history. A huge social movement was under way with racial and gender equality at the forefront. And “Dirty Dancing” doesn’t shy away from exploring many of these issues particularly when it comes to women.

Baby represents the change that’s about to come for women. She plans to attend Mount Holyoke College and study the economics of underdeveloped countries. After college, she wants to enter the Peace Corps. She’s even named after Frances Perkins–the first woman in the U.S. Cabinet.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t thinking about any of this when I saw “Dirty Dancing” for the first time 27 years ago. Back then, I was so focused on the external and the superficial. I somehow thought if I looked more “waspy” and less Jewish, things would be easier for me. I was slightly obsessed with supermodels like Christie Brinkley and Kim Alexis and TV actresses such as Lisa Welchel (“The Facts of Life”) and Heather Locklear. After I saw “Dirty Dancing” the way I thought about myself started to shift. I was maturing anyway and had already started to look inside myself to see how beautiful I really was.

My daughter is a softer version of me. Her features are beautifully symmetrical–everything lines up perfectly where it’s supposed to be. She sparkles. Her eyes twinkle like her dad’s. She has great skin, high cheekbones. Her hair is thick and full, long, and wavy in a good way. People tell her she’s pretty a lot.

Of course, her looks matter to her, but not in the way they mattered to me when I was her age. Her real beauty comes from within. She’s confident, sure of herself, smart, and gracious. She has an awareness of the world that I never had at her age. Our conversations flow easily from back-to-school shopping and our favorite ice cream flavors to concerns about Israel, marriage equality, and the Affordable Health Care Act. She works hard and dreams big. She thinks a lot about all the injustices in the world that she’ll fix when she becomes President. No man will tell her she shouldn’t sit in the corner–she already knows that for herself.

Watching “Dirty Dancing” with my daughter was wonderful. She loved the movie. I did, too (but mostly I just love being with her). And indeed my daughter identified with Baby, but not for the reasons you might think. She admired Baby’s honesty, strength, integrity, and convictions because she sees them in herself. My daughter will soon embark on her own journey, like Baby, and I look forward to the woman she will become.

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