Many, many movies capture the essence of growing up in New York. Many capture the New York Jewish experience perfectly. And a few go so far as to bring to life a part of that experience that flourished in the ’50s and ’60s in a place known as the Catskills.
Some background: Located a couple of hours, give or take, from New York City, the Catskill Mountains in those years offered a summer haven for lots of Jewish families from Brooklyn and the Bronx. A family would typically rent a tiny cottage in a “bungalow community” for the entire summer, with the father coming up from the city for weekends, or would stay for a week or so at one of the area’s then-enchanting hotels — like the Nevele, the Concord, or Grossinger’s.
Two of my favorite movies take on these summers as their setting — with characters as real (and annoying) as someone’s cousin Ira or someone else’s little sister Rhonda — Dirty Dancing and A Walk on the Moon.
If you’re one of the five people on earth who hasn’t seen Dirty Dancing, it takes place in the early ’60s and centers on 16-year-old Frances “Baby” Houseman (an adorable Jennifer Grey), the youngest daughter of a well-to-do doctor, who spends a week or so with her family at Kellerman’s (a fictitious Catskill resort). There she learns about love — and about the mambo — from dance instructor Johnny Castle (an über-sexy Patrick Swayze), who comes from the other side of the tracks. Baby is brave and outspoken (fighting social injustice in her too-cute little peasant blouses and white Keds). So much so that, in the movie’s final scene, Johnny announces, “Nobody puts Baby in the corner!” as he leads her up to the stage to dance. (Really. It’s the resort’s end-of-summer talent show. I kid you not.)
A Walk on the Moon takes place later in the decade, during the summer of ’69 (we’re talking moon landing, Woodstock, and sexual awakening). The main character, Pearl (Diane Lane) is married to Marty (Liev Schreiber), a TV repairman from Brooklyn. The two take their kids and his mom with them to a bungalow for the summer, where Pearl begins to long for what she thinks she missed out on by getting pregnant and marrying very young. Enter the Blouse Man (again, I kid you not), a hippie salesman who visits the bungalow colony each week in his bus, selling blouses, t-shirts, jewelry — and a kind of sexual healing that Pearl just cannot resist. In the end, it all works out — not the least reason being Marty’s mother, who asks Pearl point blank, “You’re shtupping the Blouse Man, Pearlie?”
Shtupping the Blouse Man. Immortal words that could only be uttered in the one place that understood what “shtupping” meant (it means exactly what it sounds like) and who the Blouse Man was. That same one and only place that nice Jewish girl Baby and blue-collar, leather-jacketed Johnny Castle — complete opposites — could ever meet and mambo into love.
A place where oy meets girl.
© 2013 Claudia Grossman