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Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Jewish Subtext in Eleanor Bergstein's Two Movies

Eleanor Bergstein wrote the screen plays for two movies -- It's My Turn, released in 1980, and Dirty Dancing, released in 1987. Many people have watched these movies and not perceived any particularly Jewish motifs or concerns. For example, in a previous article, titled My Dirty Dancing Fantasy, I quoted the following comment from a Jewish young woman (emphasis added):
.... It wasn't until I was 14 that I saw Dirty Dancing for the first time while attending the Genesis program at Brandeis [a Jewish university]. 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 the JWA [Jewish Women's Archive]'s celebration [of the film], 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." ....
The above commenter correctly uses the literary expression "Jewish subtext". The website Literary Terms defines subtext as follows:
The subtext is the unspoken or less obvious meaning or message in a literary composition, drama, speech, or conversation. The subtext comes to be known by the reader or audience over time, as it is not immediately or purposefully revealed by the story itself.  
Subtexts are proof that stories are not surface-level things. Rather, they have a wealth of information available when you learn to read between the lines and to dig into what the story really means. Subtext allows controversial messages that would otherwise be questioned or left unpublished to reach public eyes. It allows characters who act one way to be revealed to be feeling and thinking another way. Subtexts weave through the underground treasure trove of hidden messages, meanings, and themes that many readers so often do not tap into.
The commenter's younger sister too is correct. Dirty Dancing indeed can be understood and enjoyed as a fun film without perceiving the Jewish subtext.

None of the dialogue in either of Bergstein's two movies mentions Jewish religion, ethnicity or culture. None of the characters speak in a stereotypically Jewish manner -- accented, Yiddishims, proverbs, etc.

At the end of the Dirty Dancing, the resort's owner Max explains that the Jewish resorts are going out of business because the young Jews want to travel to Europe during their summer vacations. Max does not mention that many of them traveled to Israel to spend their summer vacations on kibbutzim. This was a missed opportunity for the dialogue to mention that the resort's clientele was Jewish.


Bergstein herself has said that Dirty Dancing is "a seriously Jewish movie ... if you know what you're looking at", according to an article titled Is Dirty Dancing the Most Jewish Film Ever?
... Eleanor Bergstein, the writer and co-producer of the incredibly popular film Dirty Dancing [said] that 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.”

The main Jewish subtext in each of Bergstein's movies is the feeling that Jews should court and marry other Jews. This feeling is not expressed in the dialogue. The feeling is perceived only by some of the people watching the movie.

After Dr. Jake Houseman learns and has to deal with the fact that one of the dancers has suffered a botched abortion, he orders his daughter Baby to stop socializing with them.
I don't want you to have anything to do with those people. Nothing! You're to have nothing to do with them ever again!
Jake Houseman telling his daughter Baby
to stay away from "those people".
Who are "those people"? They are the dancers, who are sexually promiscuous and get into trouble with unplanned pregnancies, unwed motherhood, botched abortions, and so forth. The dancers also fail to attend college and educate themselves. That definition of "those people" is understood by everyone watching the movie.

Dr. Houseman does not say aloud to Baby that "those people" are the uneducated Gentiles working at the resort. For a Jewish young woman who is about to begin attending a university, even though her family is Jewish, her parents would disapprove a boyfriend who is both 1) uneducated and 2) Gentile. An uneducated Jew or an educated Gentile might be acceptable to her parents, but not an uneducated Gentile -- like Johnny Castle. That definition of "those people" is not understood by everyone watching the movie.

When Baby states to her father her understanding of his expectation, she mentions only the education consideration, not the Jewish-Gentile consideration.
You told me everyone was alike and deserved a fair break. But you meant everyone who is like you. You told me you wanted me to change the world, to make it better, but you meant by becoming a lawyer or an economist and marrying someone from Harvard.
Dr. Houseman evidently has told Baby that he wants her to marry an educated man, such as "someone from Harvard". The movie's dialogue does not reveal whether he ever has communicated to her that he wants her to marry a Jewish man. That latter, unrevealed consideration is in the movie's subtext.
Subtext allows controversial messages that would otherwise be questioned or left unpublished to reach public eyes. It allows characters who act one way to be revealed to be feeling and thinking another way.
For the people watching the movie who are concerned about Jews marrying non-Jews, this situation provides food for thought. Both Dr. Houseman and Baby act and talk as if they are not concerned at all about that issue. However, the normally intelligent, fair-minded and trusting Dr. Houseman over-reacted furiously by ordering that Baby "have nothing to do with them ever again!" His over-reaction might be explained by his unspoken ethnic preferences and prejudices.

People who are not concerned about Jews marrying non-Jews can enjoy watching the movie without that consideration. Even without that subtext, the movie still has plenty of food for thought.


The indications of a Jewish subtext in Dirty Dancing include the Jewish setting and characters' names. Those indications are not recognized by many people who watch the movie.

At one time, which extended into the mid-1960s, there was a Golden Age of Jewish comedy. Famous comedians were disproportionately Jews, and many of them -- for example, Jerry Lewis, Sid Ceasar, Jackie Mason, Mel Brooks, Rodney Dangerfield -- had performed at Jewish resorts in the Catskills Mountains early in their careers. After they became famous, they occasionally mentioned those Catskills experiences.

Older people have heard about Jewish resorts in the Catskills, whereas younger people have not heard about them. I myself am old enough (I was born in 1952) that I have heard about such resorts, and so when I watched Dirty Dancing for the first time, I perceived immediately that its story was taking place in a Jewish setting. Younger people perceived merely a summer resort, with no Jewish connotation.

The resort's owners and guests have last names that many people recognize as Jewish -- Kellerman, Houseman, Gould, Schumacher and Pressman. However, many people do not recognize those names' ethnicity, perceiving them perhaps as German or English. The resort's dancers and musicians have Gentile names -- Castle, Johnson, Suarez and Kostecki. Many viewers do not notice that the characters' ethnic family names distinguish two groups -- 1) the Jewish owners and guests, and 2) the Gentile dancers and musicians.


In It's My Turn, the characters likewise have names that many people recognize as Jewish -- Gunzinger, Lewin and Cooperman. The film includes a wedding scene, officiated by a rabbi, in which that rabbi and the groom wear yarmulkes. This wedding scene lasts only a few seconds and takes place in an apartment, not in a synagogue. Those Jewish names, the Jewish wedding and the two yarmulkes are the only hints that this movie's characters are Jewish.

In the wedding scene, the men of the bride's family -- in particular, Ben and his brother-in-law -- are not wearing yarmulkes. In addition, the yarmulke-wearing groom has a niece (Kate' cousin Gail) has a husband who is not wearing a yarmulke. Most Gentiles watching this movie pay little or no attention to who is wearing yarmulkes and who is not wearing them.

Kate's father is Jewish, but his new wife's family seems to be Gentile, and his Jewish niece seems to be married to a Gentile. Another explanation might be that the men not wearing are Jews by ancestry, but are so secular that they never wear yarmulkes. Yet another explanation might be that they expected that the marriage, which takes place in an apartment, would be conducted by a justice of the peace, and so they did not bring yarmulkes.

In any case, Jews watching the movie are likely to notice and interpret the yarmulkes, which indicate the movie's Jewish subtext.


For this blog, I have written two previous articles about the movie It's My Turn. I recommend that you read them before continuing to read this article here.

1) Eleanor Bergstein's Earlier Movie It's My Turn

2) Re-Watching Eleanor Bergstein's Earlier Movie It's My Turn


For this third article here, I researched the ethnicities of key people who made the movie.

* The screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein has a father who is Jewish. Her mother's ethnicity is not specified in articles that I found, but she is named Sarah, a common Jewish name.

* The director Claudia Weill has remarked that her grandparents were Orthodox Jews.

* The actress Jill Clayburgh (playing Kate Gunzinger) has a Jewish father and a Gentile mother.

* The actor Michael Douglas (playing Ben Lewin) has a Jewish father and a Gentile mother.

* The actor Charles Grodin (playing Kate's boyfriend Homer) was raised as an Orthodox Jew.

* The actor Daniel Stern (playing the mathematics student Cooperman) has Jewish parents.

* The actor Steven Hill, born Solomon Krakovsky (playing Kate's father Jacob Gunzinger), has parents who both were Russian Jewish immigrants.

* The actress Beverly Garland, born Fessenden (playing Ben's mother, Emma Lewin) has played Jewish characters. On the TV show Marcus Welby she played a Jewish mother whose son suffers from a disease that affects only Jews.

The above movie-making people certainly are aware of the subtext that they communicate in the wedding scene. Like these actors themselves, the characters they play are secular Jews who are dissolving into Gentile society.

The movie's theme is that intellectual, careerist women have difficulty finding suitable husbands. For the people watching who perceive the Jewish subtext, that difficulty is aggravated for such women who limit their search to Jewish men.
Kate Unzinger dancing with her new step-brother Ben Lewin
at the pre-wedding party
for her father Jacob and his mother Emma

Jacob Gunzinger is a retired doctor whose wife died two years ago, and now he is marrying another woman. He arranges for this wedding ceremony to be conducted in his apartment by a rabbi. These two men wear yarmulkes, but none of the other men wear them. For some people watching the movie, this scene prompts some questions.

* Was Jacob Gunzinger's first wife Jewish? (Is Kate fully Jewish or half Jewish?)

* Is Emma Lewin, Jacob's new wife, Jewish? Her previous husband (Ben's father) had the Jewish name Lewin.

* If Ben is at least half-Jewish (last name Lewin), then why doesn't he wear a yarmulke at the wedding?

* Does Jacob belong to a synagogue? If so, does it refuse to host mixed marriages?

* Is his niece Gail fully Jewish or only half Jewish? Is her husband Jewish?

Gail obviously is happily married. Gail and Kate, cousins, both say that they want Kate to be so happily married. Neither mentions whether marriage is happier if the husband is Jewish.

These Jewish concerns are not addressed in the movie, because the movie is about a general concern -- about intellectual, careerist women's difficulties finding suitable husbands. The particular, extra difficulty of Jewish women is relegated to the movie's subtext -- recognized and pondered by only some in the audience. The Jewish subtext is a vague puzzle that is missing many pieces.


The movie It's My Turn was directed by Claudia Weill, the granddaughter of Orthodox Jews. She has directed the play Adam Baum and the Jew Movie and the play Modern Orthodox.

In an interview she explained that she likes to portray the resentments of women (especially Jewish women) in having to compete with, measure up to, and learn from men.
I was very fixated on what it meant to be Jewish and female in America ... because that was what I was facing. ... because I had Orthodox grandparents. God was just available for men, not for women. [There is] a kind of self-doubt which is perhaps more female -- I think of it as being more female -- not being sure that you’re really a contender -- that you can play the game -- not sure that you’re one of the boys, so to speak.
In other words, the Jewish God helps men more than women. Men charge ahead, and women try futilely to keep up with them.

Kate is a mathematics professor, about 37 years old, who remarks enviously that Isaac Newton accomplished his first major break-through in mathematics when he was only 22 years old. Kate recognizes that one of her own university students, Cooperman, is a math genius who might accomplish a breakthrough as a young man.

Kate is offered a job as an administrator in another university's mathematics department, but she perceives that the job is offered because she is a woman who will help that university's affirmative-action status. The administrator job would pay better but keep her too busy to continue her own mathematics research. Because she is a woman, therefore, she might be detoured into administration busywork and so never accomplish a mathematics breakthrough.

If Kate accepts the offer, she will move from Chicago to New York. Her boyfriend will stay in Chicago. He would not sacrifice his own career to support hers.

The movie does not indicate that Kate believes in the Jewish God or believes that she should marry a Jewish man. Her doctor father -- marrying a Gentile woman but wearing a yarmulke in a Jewish wedding ceremony -- teachers her by his own example that the Jewish religion does not have to mean much, but it should mean something. To some extent, the Jewish traditions should be maintained, even by scientific people -- by a doctor and by a mathematician.


Bergstein was born in 1938, so she grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. Her movies indicate to me that she is a very secular Jew who does not feel a religious obligation to marry a Jewish man. Even such a woman, however, might feel that the Holocaust imposed on her own generation an extraordinary consideration that the Jewish population needed to replenish itself.

Intellectually secular Jewish women felt free to marry non-Jews, but subconsciously they still felt some guilt if they did so. Furthermore, they felt some Jewish guilt if they remained single and childless.


Another subtext in It's My Turn is about psychiatry. During the pre-wedding party, the audience sees that Ben has a sister who is married to a psychiatrist. Ben and his psychiatrist brother-in-law do not like each other. When Kate is introduced to Ben, Kate thinks mistakenly that Ben is a psychiatrist. As Kate and Ben begin talking and becoming acquainted with each other, they joke about a "Freudian" explanation of their situation and remark:
Kate: I don't like shrinks.

Ben: Neither do I.
Ben's dislike of psychiatrists appears to be related to his personal antagonism with his brother-in-law, who uses psychiatric put-downs to mock Ben (e.g. remarking that Ben has grown a beard to compensate for his inadequacies.)

The reason for Kate's dislike of psychiatrists is not apparent. However, she exhibits a complex of neurotic ideas that might benefit from Freudian psychoanalysis.

* Although she is a 37-year-old feminist, she repeatedly is called a "daddy's girl," and she is delighted when her father calls her "my girl".

* Although she is a professional mathematician, she hates her new step-mother for reasons that are blatantly irrational -- because she is her father's age (not younger) and does not know how to swim.

* On the same night when her father and new step-mother begin her honeymoon, she herself secretly consummates her relationship with her step-mother's son -- with her new step-brother.

Ben Lewin and Kate Unzinger dance at the pre-wedding party
of her father Jacob Unzinger and his mother Emma Lewin.
A few minutes later, Ben dances with his mother Emma
while Kate dances with her father Jacob.
Kate's father Jacob and new step-mother Emma.
Kate's new step-brother and lover Ben.
On the following evening, Jacob and Emma will marry
and Ben and Kate will consummate their love affair.
I think that this brief banter between Kate and Ben about psychiatrists and Freud is meaningful as a Freudian subtext -- separate somewhat from the Jewish subtext. Bergstein hints that her movie does have a Freudian interpretation  Kate's dislike of psychiatry. Perhaps Kate already has subjected herself to psychoanalysis or is resisting an urge to do so.


Journalist Barbara Kay has written an interesting article titled Psychiatry's Chosen People. Kay describes the particular psychiatric neuroses that many Jews -- especially women in the post-Holocaust generations -- developed by becoming secular. Kay describes her own Jewish mother's excessive reliance on psychiatry. I think the article provides some insights to understanding Eleanor Bergstein and her two female protagonists Kate Gunzinger and Baby Houseman. Here are some excerpts:
.... Some [Jewish] kids’ moms felt they missed their calling as a dancer or a writer. Mine [Kay's mom], a high school graduate with native intelligence, but underdeveloped critical thinking skills harnessed to overdeveloped self-confidence, was an analyst manqué. I simply accepted that “what do you think you/she/he really meant by that?” was a normal response to even the most banal assertion at our dinner table. I assumed all families were like that, but they weren’t. It really was a Jewish thing. ....

This was in the 1950s. I was an impressionable teenager, and I did not find her idea as ludicrous as I would in retrospect. Just as “red diaper” babies in the 1930s and ’40s were raised by their parents to believe the world was divided between evil capitalists and right-thinking Communists, I was for many years persuaded by my mother’s equally binary approach to life that history was a struggle between the psychologically crippled and the psychologically healthy (amongst whom she naturally counted herself). ...

To be fair to my mother, I think she had difficulty processing the fact — still pretty fresh then — that six million Jews had been murdered for no comprehensible reason. “Evil” was not a good enough explanation, for evil is not curable, and my mother was an inherently optimistic person. It had to have been some form of mental illness.

Religion had obviously been no help, so it must be science alone that could make “never again” a reality. Well, that is what she [Kay's mother] and many other people believed at the time. I did too, because the books by post-Freudian psychoanalytic writers she pressed on me ... exuded scientist-like confidence. ....
When I was a young adult, settling in for no-cutoff therapy with a “shrink” was commonplace, for Jews at any rate ... I spent a desultory few months in psychiatric therapy as a teenager because my mother thought it would be a salutary intervention, although I can’t now remember why.

Being neurotic, or even being thought to be neurotic, was a kind of social capital amongst Jews of my generation. .... Jews studying the humanities ... would sit around ... in our black turtleneck sweaters, surveying the room with world-weary, kohl-lined eyes, drinking bad coffee, and turning the air blue with smoke, as we kvetched about how misunderstood we were by our parents, and how neurotic we had become as a result. ....

Neurosis was supposedly a psychological deficit, but amongst highly self-regarding middle-class Jews of a certain stripe .... it came to be equated with superior intelligence and psychological complexity .... For a highly educated Jewish young woman in artsy circles to admit that she was psychologically normal and got along swell with her parents made her a bit pathetic, a bit of a simpleton.

We sophisticates identified with the Glass family in Jewish J. D. Salinger’s novel, Franny and Zooey (published in 1961, my sophomore year). The precocious Glass children were highly neurotic, alienated (though outwardly conforming) and mentally anguished; but they were oh so attractive, so cultured, so brainy, sensitive and witty. ...

... Jews dissatisfied with Judaism’s tribalism, legalism and tediously punctilious demands looked to Buddhism and other Eastern religions for universal spiritual nourishment — the vision was mystic, disembodied love for humanity. .... Looking back, I can see that blind faith in psychiatry as the Answer was a kind of mania in the 1950s and beyond for Jews who had lost touch with the faith of their fathers, but were too bourgeois and socially conformist to find appeal in far-left political radicalism. ....
So, many secular Jews of Bergstein's generation, bewildered by the recent Holocaust, sought their explanations in psychiatry. In modern America, they were too scientific to seek their answers in religion and too prosperous to seek their answers in socialism.

In their efforts to achieve "psychiatric health", Jewish women strove to understand their parents' influences, to free themselves from social dogmas, to think for themselves. Psychiatric health required also sexual pleasure and freedom -- in intelligent moderation.

However, efforts caused also stress, conflict and guilt for women. Parents were disappointed. Husbands were divorced. Children were neglected. Traditions were abandoned. And so forth.

These problems applied to all women who went through "women's liberation" but it applied in a particular manner to Jewish women, because they belonged to an ethnic minority that had suffered genocide recently. No matter what they thought intellectually and secularly, they suffered guilt feelings if they failed to marry a Jewish man and failed to give birth to and raise Jewish children. Secular women were likely to suppress such guilt into their unconscious, because their conscious opinion was that they were not morally obligated to marry Jewish men.


Kate's fling with Ben -- and Baby's fling with Johnny -- were fraught with such subconscious guilt but also were rewarded with exuberant liberation. These two Jewish women had sinned but survived. They had enjoyed some sexual fun with mentally mediocre but extraordinarily athletic men, and they still would have time and opportunities to perhaps eventually marry a suitable Jewish man.

1 comment:

  1. It's so disgustingly Jewish that I can't watch it. It literally makes me sick