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Interfaith Celebrities: Jennifer Grey Dances Again, Stuff His Dad Says

Somebody Put Baby in a Dance Competition

One of the most popular shows on television, Dancing with the Stars also has a rich tradition of casting dancers and celebrities with Jewish and interfaith backgrounds. One of this fall season’s “stars” is perhaps the most interesting interfaith celebrity they’ve ever cast–and not because she’s married to the son of an Episcopal minister.

She’s Jennifer Grey, 50, known primarily for one role in her career: “Baby,” the idealistic, naïve girl who is literally swept off her feet by Patrick Swayze‘s dance teacher, Johnny, in the 1987 hit Dirty Dancing.

Jennifer Grey
Recognize this woman? It’s Jennifer Grey, who starred alongside Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing, one of the most beloved romance films of all time. Grey is a contestant on the upcoming seasons of Dancing with the Stars Photo by REUTERS/Lucas Jackson.

Set in a resort outside New York in 1963, Dirty Dancing is often assumed to be an interfaith love story. But sources like Wikipedia ignore the fact that the words “Jew” or “Jewish” are never uttered, and Baby’s family’s religion is never denoted by any kind of explicit symbol, like a Star of David necklace. The film was marketed as a West Side Story-esque romance between two young people from different classes, not different religions.

However, to those familiar with American Jewish culture and history, it was obvious that the film was set at the type of resort hotel that catered to Jewish customers in the 1950s and ’60s. It was equally obvious that Baby was the Jewish daughter of an upper middle-class Jewish doctor, and that Johnny was from a working class background with another faith.

For this reason, I’ve always found Dirty Dancing to be a sociologically strange film.

A distinct minority of those who have seen the film–those with some familiarity with American Jewish life–“know” it is an interfaith love story. Most of rest of the audience doesn’t “get” this.

Made for $6 million, Dirty Dancing earned $214 million in movie theaters worldwide and is regularly replayed on basic cable networks. You have to figure there are tens of millions of people who have seen the film but have no idea that it’s an interfaith romance.

Grey’s real-life story is no less interesting than that of her Dirty Dancing alter ego. The daughter of two Jews, Joel Grey (Cabaret), 78, and Jo Wilder, Grey appeared in a series of iconic ’80s films in her mid-20s, including 1984’s Red Dawn and The Cotton Club, 1986’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and of course Dirty Dancing, from 1987.

Grey and Matthew Broderick, the star of Ferris Bueller, became romantically involved during the filming of the comedy smash and were engaged for about a year.

The engagement ended shortly after a horrible traffic accident in Ireland in 1988. Broderick was at the wheel, driving on the wrong side of the road in a rural area, when he hit another car. The two people in the other car were killed. Broderick was seriously hurt, while Grey escaped injury.

Since Dirty Dancing, Grey hasn’t been in any film or TV show that could be called a hit and her career certainly wasn’t helped by a nose job in 1990 that left her virtually unrecognizable. Even close friends didn’t recognize her at first.

But things turned around for her, on the personal side, in 2001, when Grey married Clark Gregg, an actor (Iron Man 2). Gregg’s father, an Episcopal minister and professor at Stanford University, performed the ceremony. People magazine described the wedding as “an eclectic interdenominational mix of Jewish and Christian customs.”

Grey was four months pregnant at her wedding (she was 41 then). The couple’s daughter, Sheila, their only child, was born late in 2001. The pair is still married.

Grey’s odd luck continues. While taking a physical for Dancing with the Stars, a lump was found in her neck. It turned out to be a cancerous tumor. If, as reports say, the doctors “got it all,” I suppose her Dancing role may have turned out to be a lucky break–something Grey has been long overdue for.

Also joining Grey on the cast of the 11th season of Dancing with the Stars is Jewish soft rock superstar Michael Bolton, 57. The new season debuts Monday, Sept. 20, at 8 p.m. on ABC.

Justin Halpern
Justin Halpern went from failed screenwriter to bestselling author, all by Tweeting his father’s profane advice several times a day. Photo courtesy It Books/photo by Matt Hoyles.

As an aside, I’m curious to know from my readers: When did you first understand that Dirty Dancing was an interfaith love story? If you are not Jewish, did the moment of revelation come when you came to know Jewish people (romantically or otherwise)? Please respond via a comment below or send me an e-mail via the editor of

S#*! My Dad Says’ Interfaith Author

Starting on Thursday, Sept. 23, are $#*! My Dad Says on CBS at 8:30 p.m., and My Generation on ABC at 8 p.m. (CBS says “$#*!” is pronounced “bleep.” Wink wink.)

$#*! My Dad Says is based on the best-selling memoir, Sh*t My Dad Says (2009) by Justin Halpern, 29. The description of the book, and the website and Twitter feed that started the craze, is straightforward: “I’m 29. I live with my 74-year-old dad. He is awesome. I just write down shit that he says.”

Halpern’s Jewish father, retired San Diego radiologist Sam Halpern, is a very blunt talking man, befitting his incredible rise from a poverty-stricken childhood on a Kentucky tobacco farm. Dr. Halpern’s salty language was probably enhanced by a stint as a Navy doctor during the Vietnam War.

Justin’s mother, who has a much more calm personality than his father, comes from a working class Catholic family. The younger Halpern says he was raised in no faith and his only childhood exposure to organized religion came when he attended a religion class for children of Jewish/Christian background that his mother found. He went to one class and never went back.

Halpern had little success when he tried to be a screenwriter and moved back home a few years ago. On a lark, he began twittering his father’s often comic–and almost always saucy (but direct)– advice. His tweets acquired a huge following (1,684,798 and counting) and a book followed.

Jewish actor William Shatner, 79, plays Sam Halpern in the new TV show (he’s called Ed Goodson in the series. How’s that for an ethnically agnostic name?). The show focuses on Ed’s reaction when one of his two adult sons moves back in with him.

Legendary (Jewish) TV director James Burrows, 69, an incredible talent who co-created Cheers, was brought aboard to direct the show’s pilot.

My Generation is a mock-documentary series about a group of Generation Y-ers from Austin, Texas. The premise is that we see their lives during their high school senior year in 2000 and again in 2010. Playing the “rich kid,” Anders Holt, is British Jewish actor Julian Morris, 27, who had a recurring part on ER.

Ashley Tisdale Graduates

High School Musical, an original Disney made-for-TV film (2006), was a surprise blockbuster. The film, and its sequels, made the leading members of the young cast household names among the “tween” set. This includes Ashley Tisdale, 25, who played bad girl Sharpay Evans.

Tisdale, who is the daughter of a Jewish mother, co-stars in the new CW series, Hellcats.

Hellcats centers on Marti (Alsyon Michalka), a smart but poor college student who loses her scholarship. She has no choice but to try and join the school’s big-time cheerleading squad because cheerleaders get financial aid. Her roommate, Savannah (Tisdale), a peppy but tough girl, is the head of the squad.

Hellcats debuted Wednesday, Sept. 8, at 9 p.m.

Caan-do in Honolulu

Scott Caan
Scott Caan is one of the stars of the remake of Hawaii Five-O, premiering next week on CBS. Photo courtesy CBS.

Scott Caan, 34, co-stars in a re-make of Hawaii Five-O, the classic CBS ‘60s police show, premiering Monday, Sept. 20, at 10 p.m., on CBS. The title, network and character names remain the same. Caan plays Detective Danny “Dano” Williams, the sidekick of the lead detective.

Caan’s “Dano” will be a bit edgier than in the original. The new show’s storyline has him being a tough cop, originally from New Jersey.

Caan’s first major acting role was in the 1999 teen hit Varsity Blues, about a high school football team. He’s had a moderately successful career since. He’s starred in several indie films and he’s had supporting parts in the three Ocean’s Eleven films. This past year, he had a juicy recurring role as talent agent Scott Lavin on HBO’s Entourage.

Caan is the son of James Caan (The Godfather, Vegas), 70, and Caan’s second wife, Sheila Ryan, a former girlfriend of Elvis Presley. The marriage lasted only from 1976 to 1977 and Scott was the only child of this marriage.

I reasonably assume that Ryan is not Jewish, but my information is scanty. James and Scott Caan have never discussed Ryan’s faith, or whether Scott had any religious upbringing.

James Caan has been married and divorced four times and has five children from his marriages (one child with each of his first three wives and two with his last wife).

However, of all his children, it is Scott that James Caan talks about most in interviews. He has good things to say about his son–complimenting his sense of loyalty and morality; in a 2008 interview with Cigar Aficionado magazine, he poignantly recalls how when Scott was 15 or 16, he went after James’ drug dealer with a baseball bat. (The elder Caan had a cocaine habit that went on for decades and nearly destroyed his life and career).

From Lonestar to Superstar?

The Fox drama Lonestar also starts on Sept. 20, at 9 p.m. It stars James Wolk, 25, a very good-looking Jewish guy who grew up in a Detroit suburb. If Lonestar is a hit, Wolk may be headed towards a huge career.

Wolk has only been acting for about five years, but showed some real acting chops when he starred in the 2008 TV movie Front of the Class, based on the true story of Brad Cohen, a Jewish guy with Tourette’s Syndrome who became an elementary school teacher.

In Lonestar, Wolk plays Robert Allen, a Texas con man who leads a secret double life. As “Bob,” he is married to Cat and living in Houston while working for his oil-tycoon father-in-law (Jon Voight). Four hundred miles away, he is “Robert” in a second life with girlfriend Lindsey. As he schemes to take control of the oil business, he must fight to keep his web of lies from falling apart, while torn between the love of two women.

Voight, who isn’t Jewish, is well known as a great friend of the Jewish people and as a major supporter of the Orthodox Jewish group Chabad. By the way, he recently reconciled with his famous daughter, actress Angelina Jolie.

You Want the Truth?

Starting on Wednesday, Sept. 22, at 10 p.m., is ABC’s The Whole Truth. It co-stars Maura Tierney (ER) and Jewish actor Rob Morrow (Northern Exposure, Numb3rs), 47. Tierney is a Manhattan district attorney and Morrow is a defense lawyer. The series’ gimmick is that we see each case from both sides’ perspectives and guilt or innocence is only revealed at episode’s end.

Nate Bloom

Nate Bloom writes a weekly column on Jewish celebrities, broadly defined, that appears in the Cleveland Jewish News the American Israelite of Cincinnati, the , Detroit Jewish News and the . New Jersey Jewish Standard. It also appears bi-weekly in j., the Jewish news weekly of northern California. Starting April 2012, a monthly version of his column (featuring relevant “oldies but goodies”) will appear in the following Florida newspapers: the Jewish News (Sarasota and Manatee County), the Federation Star (Collier County) and L’Chayim (Lee and Charlotte counties). The author welcomes questions and celebrity “tips,” especially about people you personally know. Write him at


Author: Nate Bloom