Throughout elementary and middle school, I was invariably the only Jewish student in my class. This had its charms: for example, I got to play the dreidel in the token Hanukkah song in the annual holiday (aka Christmas) pageant.
I also had the distinct pleasure of reading “The Diary of Anne Frank” no fewer than five times before high school, owing to overzealous teachers eager to find a protagonist with whom I might connect.
With the narcissism of a child, I loathed the comparison: What did I have in common with this gifted and ebullient Jewish girl who perished tragically in the Holocaust, whose book changed the world? Nothing. Anne Frank died, and I paid the price.
I realized, every year, each time a well-intentioned teacher handed me a copy of Anne Frank’s diary, that this was my only model. I looked around for other Jewish girls in my mostly-goyish world and I could not see any.
I hated Anne Frank, as only a petulant child could: Anne, in the context I met her, was so perfect, in her belief that everyone was good at heart, in her ability to make the best of an impossible situation. And in the end, it didn’t help.
Anne Frank was gifted and vivacious, and she was dead. She was crystallized in her youth and everything that was stolen from her in her life. She possessed a literary talent that surpassed her years, and while her death itself was the real tragedy, there was also a cruel irony: Her life’s work was composed as a teenager before her full potential could ever be realized. Early editions of her book redacted references to her sexuality and conflicts with her mother; thus, Anne’s agency was summarily denied. Even the title of the book—“The Diary of a Young Girl”—memorialized the author through the literary construction of a gendered childhood, rather than a young adult living and writing under extraordinary challenges.
But she was who I had, and so I read the book ad nauseam, dutifully and with a sense of profound ambivalence. Until the summer I turned 17, when I saw “Dirty Dancing” for the first time, and I fell in love with Baby Houseman. Portrayed by the inimitable Jennifer Grey, Baby, whose coming-of-age formed the arc of “Dirty Dancing,” kicked open a door that had previously been sealed shut.
Baby was the heroine I’d been looking for. Whereas Anne suffered in ways nearly incomprehensible to most of us, Baby lived a life of privilege. The movie is set in 1963 and Baby is on the edge of 17, the daughter of a doctor. She has recently matriculated at Mt. Holyoke College, where she intended to study economics of “underdeveloped” countries, and is spending her pre-college summer in the Catskills with her upper middle class family. She falls in love with Johnny Castle, the resort’s very non-Jewish dance teacher—played breathtakingly by a young Patrick Swayze—and learns painful lessons about life, love and sticking up for your beliefs in the process.
Baby embodied the awakening that happens when one is allowed the opportunity to break out of that privilege. She revealed what happens when a young woman is able to come of age, to brush up against her fears and transcend them. When the price of safety is higher than its rewards, one is compelled to transcend it and seek something more.
Here’s the crux: Baby was the first young Jewish woman protagonist I remember seeing on screen who wasn’t a martyr. When I was a young woman, I was taught to be Jewish was to be instrumental, to seek value through good deeds and to suffer from a particular admixture of competing preferences and desires: to be smart but not make a big show about it; to be nice; to be attractive but not sexual. To be a bubbeleh not a vilde chaye, not a wild beast, always, but always, a nice Jewish girl.
Baby Houseman showed us what the cult around Anne at the time often denied: that one could be both.
Now on the brink of its 30th anniversary(!) with an unmentionable remake that just aired, “Dirty Dancing” embodies a certain set of values and evokes nostalgia even, or perhaps especially now. It harkens to the 80s, the decade in which the film was produced, and the early 1960s, the period in which the film was set.
The feeling that arises when watching that film is difficult to encapsulate in words: It conjures the loss of youth, a perhaps irrational over-identification with the protagonist, and sadness, also. I watched the film again recently, in flagrant protest of the remake—which I refuse to screen—and yes, the original reveals its age.
Now, I can’t watch the fictional Baby Houseman without seeing and better understanding Anne Frank, the real person, who she was and wasn’t allowed to be. I can’t help but think: We were never that innocent; we could never be that innocent again.
Baby Houseman was the kind of young woman Anne Frank might have been if she’d been born a decade later, in a different land. She was smart and passionate, awkward but radiant, and identifiably Jewish. The young women who loved her wanted her to stand for herself, for us, for Anne, and ultimately, she did. Over the course of the film Baby grows from an entitled and scared child to a young adult with voice, vision, agency. Nobody put Baby in a corner. It was a problematic awakening, happening in the arms of a man—a goyish man, no less—but she represented all there was to live for; she gave us life. And we flew as we watched Baby fly.
This post is part of the Here.Now series, which seeks to destigmatize mental health,
and is made possible by UJA-Federation of New York and The Jewish Board.
You can find other educational mental health resources here.