In the Dark All Katz Are Grey: Notes on Jewish Nostalgia

Searching for where I belong, I find myself cobbling together a sort of mongrel Judaism—half-remembered and syncretic and porous and contradictory and all mine.

February 23, 2018

Samuel Ashworth's fiction, essays, and criticism have been published in Barrelhouse, Catapult, Nylon, and the Times Literary Supplement, and he writes...

Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing.

“What the son wishes to forget the grandson wishes to remember.”
— Marcus Lee Hansen


After about a year of postnuptial bliss my wife and I were sitting on the couch scrolling through Netflix options when somehow it came out that I had never seen Dirty Dancing, and just like that, the honeymoon was over.

SHANNON: This is ridiculous. You were a ballet dancer. You know every word to Center Stage and you’ve never seen Dirty Dancing.

ME: Well, it’s not like Center Stage has a lot of words. You know I don’t like partner dancing.

SHANNON (pinching the bridge of her nose, wondering if it is too late to annul): It’s not about partner dancing, it’s about a Jewish girl who goes to a Borscht Belt resort with her family in the ’60s.

ME: Wait, what?

SHANNON (who is Chinese): You are the world’s worst Jew.

Critical information here: I have long been fascinated by the “Borscht Belt,” which describes the profusion of resorts in the Catskills where, between the 1920s and 1960s, Jewish families who were not welcome elsewhere would migrate en masse during the summers. Today, the Borscht Belt is most commonly associated with standup comedy, and for good reason: virtually every major Jewish comic, from Henny Youngman to Danny Kaye to Woody Allen, cut his (and it was usually “his”) teeth in the Catskill Circuit. But back in the day, these resorts were far more than that. They didn’t just admit Jews, they were run by and actively catered to Jews. At a time when Jews were routinely shut out of housing developments or subject to quotas, they were places where Jews could go and, for a week, or a month, or a whole summer, not feel under siege. Among their own people they could loosen up, eat their own food, tell their own jokes, and speak their own vernacular without worrying what the goyim would think. Of all the niches that Jews carved for themselves in America, the Borscht Belt is perhaps the grandest, the most fondly-remembered, and the most creatively fecund. I like to imagine it in its heyday, with fathers smoking and arguing about Eisenhower over the newspaper; mothers tanning on the balcony, glancing over the rims of their sunglasses at their children playing in the pool; at night, teenage boys and girls in tennis whites slinking off together into the warm summer darkness.

It has all completely disappeared. The Borscht Belt resorts are gone now, boarded up and left to the weeds, their swimming pools drained and lawn chairs rusted, victims of their own success. Like delicatessens and Yiddish newspapers, the Borscht Belt gave Jews a foundation, an earth to root ourselves in and grow tall in this new country—so tall that for a long time, drunk on the view, we forgot the earth we sprung from.

Shannon grabbed the remote and started the movie and I watched as if in a trance. It was like watching a train fly off the rails in gorgeous slow motion. Jennifer Grey as the Good Girl who gets swept up in a teenage passion for a hip-thrusting goy. Her sister who dedicates herself to promiscuity with iron will. The doctor father—Jerry Orbach!—who tolerates his daughters’ flagrant rebellion with grim forbearance. The resort owner who knows that it’s all about to end, that America is changing and these beautiful young people won’t be coming back. Here was the story of how, as a Jew in America, I came to be where I am today: clawing at the treetops waving in the wind, looking desperately for a way back down to earth.

After I watched Dirty Dancing, I couldn’t stop thinking about it—how had I never seen this? So I did what all good Jewish boys do: I called my mother. It turned out she knew Jennifer Grey—or had known her, when they were at the Williamstown Theater Festival back in the early ’80s. It turned out moreover that she had been gently asked by Jennifer’s father to “keep an eye on her.” Who, I asked, was her father? To which my mother replied, in a tone that conveyed clearly how disappointed she was in me, “Joel Grey?”

Joel Grey I knew. He got his big break as the Emcee in Cabaret, the Kander & Ebb musical. My great-uncle is Kander. I don’t remember meeting Joel, but my mother knows him pretty well. It began to feel like my family story and Dirty Dancing were drifting closer together, like glaciers.

“What is this, an episode of This American Life?” I said, hopefully.


A month later my editor at the TLS wrote to ask if I would review a history of the Jewish delicatessen. It was clear that someone in the London office had said, “Does anyone know a New York Jew?” and my editor had called out, “I got one!” I was thrilled, for I am a New York Jew with the overcompensating zeal of the genetically-only-half. What I lack in religious devotion I more than make up for in the cultural-historical kind.

The book was Ted Merwin’s Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli, and it was nothing less than a work of obsession, with all the minute precision and blind spots obsession entails. In the course of reading it—or at least, when I wasn’t salivating over pornographic descriptions of pastrami and fat full-sours and schmaltz—it became apparent that this wasn’t a history of the Jewish deli, it was a requiem for it, and for the grasping, striving, irreverent, bumptious, loudmouthed world that the early 20th-century Jews of New York created for themselves. And so this book, redolent with the smell of smoked meat and nostalgia, was already working its sorcery on me when I came across a reference to a singer named Mickey Katz.

I’d never heard of him, but he appeared to be the spiritual forefather of the song-parodist Allen Sherman, and therefore “Weird” Al Yankovic.11Who is, in defiance of all sense and logic, not Jewish. Mickey Katz was a hugely popular fixture in the clubs of the Catskills and Las Vegas, and he specialized in heavily Yiddished-up spoofs of popular songs. I found a few albums of his on Spotify (147 monthly listeners). I was instantly struck: his songs were uptempo, jaunty, jazzy numbers…but his voice! His voice was this silky nasal kazoo, like Porky Pig trying to seduce a cocktail waitress. His lyrics were pure Yinglish: (to the tune of “Hound Dog”) “You ain’t nothing but a paskudnyak/Oy I’ll give you such a klopp!” He pronounced “Thursday” “t’oisdy”; his R’s were rolled in the base of the throat in the German way. The songs were called “Gehakte Mambo,” “The Baby, the Bubbe and You” and “Borscht Riders in the Sky.” As a teenager Mickey won a talent show singing “St. Louis Blues” straight, and then later had a minor hit with an incomprehensibly Yiddished-up version of that same song (“Mama…ain’t got no naches!”). I realized I was listening to Jewish minstrelsy, that Katz was doing an impersonation of the Jew as gentile America conceived of him: addicted to fatty foods, lustful, bumbling, nebbish, kvetching. It’s easy to see these songs as presenting to Jews of the ’50s—Jews who wanted more than anything to be accepted as white Americans—a clownish version of themselves that they could pretend they were better than.

And yet, even now, they’re also hilarious. They aren’t mean-spirited, they’re loving. They are raucously, even defiantly Jewy. Not Jewish—Jewy. They are the shtick of a people that was finally comfortable enough to laugh at itself in public—a shtick we realized that America was buying after every other nation on earth had given us the hook.

Do I contradict myself? So nu? In 1958, when Katz was at his height, there was no such thing as jokes only minorities were allowed to tell—the solution was to tell jokes that only minorities could tell. Mickey Katz’s songs were written by and for Jews—in fact, between the klezmer clarinet and Katz’s accent (which was completely fake; he was born in Cleveland), they were virtually unperformable by anyone but a Jew. In essence, they were the first mainstream American Jewish shibboleths.


There is a famous story in my family. Around 1920 J.C. Nichols was on his way to becoming the biggest real estate developer in Kansas City. Nichols famously used “restrictive covenants” to keep ethnic minorities out of his properties for half a century. Inspired, the federal government used his model to implement the system nationwide. Undeterred, my great-great grandmother, Annie Aaron, went to see him when she was looking for a house. She was a small, gentle lady, and he was welcoming to her, telling her how happy she’d be in a new Nichols property. Near the end of the conversation, she finally said, “Just one more question, Mr. Nichols. Do you allow Jews in this area?” And J.C. Nichols put his arm around her little shoulder and said, “Don’t you worry, Miss Annie. We won’t let any of those people anywhere near you.”

So that’s where my mother’s people are from, anyhow.


Of the many things I love about being Jewish, near the top is our rabid attachment to shibboleths—the coded language, like the soup-based taxonomy of shlemiel versus shlimazel, that identifies one as part of a select tribe. That is what happens when you spend five thousand years defending your way of life. Jews invented shibboleths, and we have been using them (and subjected to them) ever since. More importantly, they have become invaluable means of establishing Jewish culture as a sustainable thing—they are how we police ourselves. As Toby says on the West Wing, “Don’t bring the Yiddish if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Vast portions of Jewish religious practice come from a desire to raise the bar to access so high that none but the most dedicated can clear it. For much of our history Jews used shibboleths like Shabbat and the even more byzantine kashrut laws not as a means of discovering impostors (because let’s be honest, except for some comedians, no one has tried to pretend to be Jewish in a few thousand years), but as a way of affirming our membership in the tribe—membership which demanded almost wholesale rejection of mainstream goyische culture. It was hard to participate in gentile society when we couldn’t eat what they ate. That was the whole point. As long as we lived in the shtetl, where every day we were one bad case of vodka away from a pogrom, self-isolation was a mode of survival. Ask Tevye.

But then my people came to America and suddenly they weren’t beating us for sport. Slowly, over the decades, we began to come out of the mental shtetl we had been locked in—had thrived in—for so long. The days of Tevye importuning God for favors are over. As are the days when Jews needed a third space like the delicatessen (i.e. a place between home and synagogue to be openly, loudly, eructatingly Jewish). We realized that in this new country we could be something more than yiddishkeit. We could run things, own things, build things. The 613 medieval commandments of the Talmud were replaced by a single one, the directive that Philip Roth articulates in American Pastoral: “Make something of yourself! You must not come to nothing!” This is the Judaism so many of us were taught—not the Judaism of tefillin, of Havdalah, of sitting shiva, but the Judaism of fighting our way to the top. We know the Judaism of Stanley Kaplan teaching kids in Brooklyn how to game the SAT; of Louis B. Mayer and Sam Goldwyn and Irving Thalberg turning Hollywood into a juggernaut; of Madeleine Albright becoming Secretary of State; of Barbra Streisand telling every agent who told her to get a nose job to go fuck himself.


After I read about Mickey Katz, I called my mother again—I wondered if she’d grown up listening to his music. She hadn’t she said, but I did know who his son was, right? I did not.

Again, the disappointment in the voice: “Joel Grey.” I dropped the phone.

And now again the digging. The reaching down to the roots to try to stop the tree from shaking. Because suddenly I saw the history of this family bending back on itself, the snake sinking its teeth into its own tail.

When the resorts died out, Mickey hung up his clarinet. Joel liked the resort circuit, but his sights were set far higher. And so here’s the irony that drew me to this family in the first place: Jennifer’s big break comes playing a character who puts the final nail in the coffin of the very world that gave her family its start in show business.

The exact world that more and more I find myself looking to with a nostalgia that bites so hard it draws blood.

Joel Grey is born in 1932 to Mickey and Grace Katz. He is a preternaturally gifted boy who begins performing at the Cleveland Playhouse when he turns nine. In 1947, Joel has an affair with a married man—a twenty-five-year-old cantor— culminating in a menage a trois with the cantor’s wife. Shortly thereafter the cantor’s wife files for divorce, and threatens to name Joel in the lawsuit. Joel is fifteen, yet his greatest fear is not that his parents will reject him, but that if it comes out that Mickey Katz’s son is a feygele—to this day that word echoes in Joel’s ears—his father’s career could be ruined. So Joel sits them down one night and confesses everything. His mother begins to cry. Seventy years later, he will still describe her as “my whole world.” He moves to hug her but she pushes him away and says, “Go away, you disgust me.”

Mickey puts his hand on his son’s shoulder and says, “Let’s go for a drive.”

In 1954, Joel makes his debut on the Eddie Cantor show under his stage name: Grey. There is no surprise that he would change his name; it is de rigeur for anyone seeking to break out of the Jewish nightclub circuit. And break out he does. Eddie introduces him as a terrific talent, pegged for stardom, and they do a groan-inducing bit on why he changed his name, winding up at the proverb Eddie attributes (erroneously) to Ben Franklin: “In the dark all cats are grey.” Joel sings a medley beginning with a song called “Youth Is Here To Stay,” pinging and leaping all over the stage. His tiny frame is superkinetic, buoyed upward, every limb going every which way, his face arranging itself in a series of melodramatic vaudeville expressions. It seems chaotic, but Joel is in perfect control—he never misses a beat or a note.22At one point he switches into “glugging,” a Jewish style of glottal singing his dad was a master of, and which if you’ve never heard it, entirely defies the power of language to describe.

“Isn’t he young?” asks Eddie Cantor, after Joel exits. “Isn’t he wonderful? He’s so wonderfully young…I could kill ‘im.”

He begins performing with his father in Mickey’s revue, “Borscht Capades.” He can’t speak Yiddish, but he can sing it perfectly. For years he will join his father on tour in the Jewish resorts, singing and dancing beside him.

He gets married, as one did back then. He gets work, but he’s small and ingenuous and so instead of doing Broadway, he’s stuck in regional theater. And then in 1966, he is in a godawful musical in Long Island called Mardi Gras, and starting to wonder if it’s time to get out of the business, when he gets the call for the role that made him a star: the Emcee in the Kander & Ebb musical Cabaret, set in Weimar Germany.

The Emcee is a seminal character in Broadway history, a slithering, grasping lothario made even more sinister by Joel’s smallness and reedy voice. Joel bases him on a comedian he once saw in St. Louis, who was the vilest bigot he had ever seen on stage. He told queer jokes, Jewish jokes, women jokes—it was everything that was sick at the heart of America, and the crowd, to Joel’s horror, lapped it up. The first day he attempts this character in rehearsal, he is so revolted by his own behavior that he runs and hides in the theater, convinced that he has disgraced himself. And then he feels the hand of Hal Prince, the director, on his shoulder: “Joely,” Hal says, “you got it.”

Joel wins a Tony for his performance. Six years later, he wins an Oscar for the same role. He becomes a Broadway legend. He records an album called Songs My Father Taught Me, singing in perfect Mickey-Katz-style Yinglish, but this time without his father’s shticky nasal voice. He sings earnestly, warmly. He still does not understand what the words mean. He does not need to. All he knows, he will later say, is that they are about nostalgia. And that, he says, is enough.


In 1984, Joel’s daughter Jennifer is cast in the Soviet-invasion film Red Dawn. She is twenty-four. Three years later, her fame eclipses her father’s when she plays Baby in the low-budget sleeper hit Dirty Dancing.

With the benefit of hindsight we can see Dirty Dancing for what it is: a Jewish horror movie. In the summer of 1963, a nice family goes to a Jewish resort in the Catskills for a week of bonding and relaxation, only to have their Mount Holyoke-bound seventeen-year-old daughter repudiate them completely in favor of an uneducated blond Adonis in leather pants named Johnny fucking Castle, who has rhumba’d his way into her heart. At the end, while near-anarchy has broken out and all the staff are dancing with the guests, Kellerman, the resort’s owner, laments to his bandleader that there won’t be many more summers like this—the new generation just isn’t coming. Resorts like Kellerman’s have relied on the Jewish need for a third space, and now that need is dying. Just look, the movie seems to say,33As does Patrick Swayze, who described the movie’s appeal thus: “It’s not about the sensuality; it’s really about people trying to find themselves—this young dance instructor feeling like he’s nothing but a product, and this young girl trying to find out who she is in a society of restrictions when she has such an amazing take on things. On a certain level, it’s really about the fabulous, funky little Jewish girl getting the guy because what she’s got in her heart.” Jewish ears trained from birth to detect slights will hear the condescension in that clearly. even the gawky, big-nosed Jewish girl is getting the beautiful sheygetz now.

And then Jennifer takes her assimilation one step too far.

If there’s one thing everyone knows about Jennifer Grey, it’s that her career was cratered by a calamitous nose job in the early ’90s. “I went in the operating room a celebrity,” she said, “and came out anonymous.” She had taken the last thing that marked her as Jewish and let a doctor crack it with a hammer. This is almost so clichéd that I don’t want to write about it—the suggestion of karmic kickback is too pat, too facile; the world is not so simple. Is Jennifer’s nose job all that different than her father’s changing the family name?

And yet, even cultures that aspire to tolerance have norms, and in order for the culture to hold together, there must be some price for violating those norms. The contract of secular Judaism is simple: if you embrace your Judaism, we won’t question how you practice it.44My wife is Chinese. When we got married, the Rabbi said nothing about conversion. All she asked was that our children be raised Jewish—and we agreed. My wife, incidentally, lived with an orthodox roommate in college, and will argue volubly that she knows more about Judaism than I do. You want to eat pork? Eat pork! You don't want to watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel? Don’t watch! If, however, you hide or deny or erase that Judaism, you’re out on your ass. We are not a chill people because there aren’t that many of us we can spare. We don’t forget this; reform, conservative, or Satmar, it is baked into us from birth. You must not come to nothing, we’re told, and the subtext—and often there’s nothing sub- about it—is because there aren’t that many of us left.


For thirty years my family has spent every Christmas, give or take, in my mother’s ancestral home of Kansas City, where my grandparents and cousins still live. The four of us would fly in from New York, and so would the family from Los Angeles. For at least twenty of those years we performed an idiosyncratic version of Christmas morning. All three branches of the family would gather at my grandparents’ house, where my grandmother would have decked out a potted ficus plant in a handful of ornaments and a single string of Christmas lights. There would be presents under the fern, and then we would eat bagels and smoked salmon. We would argue about which movie to see, then go to dinner of crab rangoon and mooshu pork at Princess Garden. It wasn’t a great restaurant, but my grandparents had been going for years, and the owners, Sam and Robert Chang, always welcomed them warmly.

It was a profoundly confused ritual, for we were obscurely aware that we weren’t supposed to be doing it at all, but we liked it. The overtly Christmasy elements of the ritual have fallen away over the last decade: I went to China for the first time in 2006, and on my return made it clear that crab rangoon was an Americanized outrage—so much for Princess Garden. Then the youngest children got old enough to where they didn’t need presents, and then the financial crisis gut-punched my grandparents, and the whole matter of gift-giving was quietly abandoned. The ornaments stayed in their box, and all that was left was the smoked salmon and the movie. My grandparents left their home of 54 years to move to a smaller apartment in an assisted-living facility, but still, I can’t imagine spending December 25th anywhere else. It is how we practice Family. This year, my brother and I stopped at a Chinese takeout place on State Line Road and loaded up on egg rolls and beef and broccoli. It was awful and it was perfect.

The ritual sheds its vestigial limbs, and evolves.

When my grandmother died suddenly last winter, the whole family was there within hours. My grandfather kept saying, resignedly, “It is what it is.” She was ninety, he is ninety-two. He had found her on the bedroom carpet in the apartment they had moved into only a few months prior, an apartment she hated. She was on the floor and he got painfully down onto the thick carpet she also hated to try to help her up and she was dead. Friends and family mobilized, and by the time dinnertime rolled around there were more people on hand than could be wedged into a table in the dining room of his facility on short notice. There was only one place that made sense—only one place anyone wanted to be that night.

Sam and Robert Chang welcomed the whole mishpocheh back with open arms.


And now the twist: the history I’m nostalgic for isn’t even my history. My people came from Germany, starting well before the Civil War. We didn’t even come through New York—we came through Charleston and wound up in Kansas City. We were the Germans who formed new synagogues so we didn’t have to sit in the same shul as the Eastern Europeans, who dismissed Yiddish as the demotic of bumpkins, who fell all over ourselves to assimilate. We never summered in the Catskills. I was the first person in my family to become bar mitzvah in generations. No one in my family ever spoke Yiddish—at least not fluently.

I could be nostalgic for my specific historical patrimony (or matrimony), of which there is plenty. The German Jews gave America blue jeans, half of the publishing houses in New York, MGM, the Guggenheim—heck, we gave this country condoms. But no. Instead, in searching for where I belong, I find myself cobbling together a Judaism out of half-remembered stories and vanished foods and demolished resorts and songs I can’t understand. A mongrel Judaism, syncretic and porous and contradictory and all mine.

And to my mind, that’s the most Jewish thing of all.

For the Yiddish word for “nostalgia” is benkshaft, which essentially means “longing.” This is fitting. The specifically (if not uniquely) Jewish mode of nostalgia does take the form of longing, but it is a longing for something we were very likely not alive for. This is what happens when you are scattered across the world for millennia.

Nostalgia is a slippery thing. If anything it is a symptom of mission creep. Jews in particular are such creatures of our own past—by the stories we are ordered to tell and retell—that as a people we are Benjamin’s angel of history, blown backwards into the future, the past a “pile of debris rising skyward” before us. And we, surely, have amassed a higher pile than any other people on earth. It is not that we have suffered more, only that we have kept better records. This isn’t to say that Jews are nostalgic for the Bad Times—rather, that our absorption with them sets the tone for how we interact with all artifacts of the past, whether they are 2,000 years gone or twenty. We mourn with equal grief the deaths of Yiddish (or Ladino) and the destruction of the second temple.

Nostalgia has a dark side. There is a toxic fetishism for the past in America, a yearning to return to a time before everything got so damn complicated. America seems always to believe the past was a purer time. This is of course bullshit; the past only seems purer because we don’t know it anywhere near as intimately as we do the present, and purity cannot survive intimacy.

What saves Jewish nostalgia from this historical sclerosis is that no Jew (except, perhaps, for the Hasidim, for whom history more or less stopped dead in 1750) would ever utter the words “the good old days.” These are the good old days. They are happening right now.

So why can’t we stop looking backwards?


It’s November of 1995, and the movie star Jennifer Grey is on Late Night. Conan O’Brien is explaining to the audience that she is the granddaughter of a “klezmer singer” named Mickey Katz, who did Yiddish spoofs of hit songs back in the ’50s. Conan produces a record of Mickey’s songs, and Jennifer claps her hands and laughs. He says that he understands that Jennifer does, in fact, know one of her grandfather’s songs, “The Ballad of Duvid Crockett.” Except Conan pronounces it “Dah-vid.”

Duh-vid,” she corrects him, her arms folded, then laughs. “That’s a Jewish name, O’Brien?”

“It passes,” Conan grins. He says he’s told the band to learn the song, and that he hopes there is some way he could convince her, maybe, to sing it. She hesitates theatrically, and then turns serious and asks: “Is there a clarinetist?”

Of course there is. It’s the instrument that Mickey fell in love with when he was eleven.

Jennifer squeezes past Andy Richter over to the stage, where she is joined by a clarinetist. They make a brief pantomime of not having rehearsed. And then the song begins and the clarinet lilts into Klezmer and Jennifer switches on like a headlamp.

Born in de vild of Delancey Street
Home of gefilte fish and kosher meat

Her Yiddish accent is perfect, her R’s glottal in the old-country way. Her voice is a clear ringing alto, and she bulls-eyes every note. She’s wearing a dark suit with shoulder pads, and she shimmies happily in place while the clarinetist takes a solo. Since a car crash eight years earlier she has been in near-constant pain, so this is the most she can dance, but it’s all she needs.

He went down South looking for a maidel
Met a little tsotskeleh called Daisy Freydel

She sells every word with her eyes and face and hands, pitching the brilliance of the song to the audience. They can’t understand half of it—she can’t understand half of it!—and she doesn’t care. And here is where I fall in love. Here is where I forgive her.

I can sound out Hebrew, I was splendid at my bar mitzvah, and I know the words to most of the prayers. I eat the v’ahavta for breakfast and I can do the full Kiddush blessing, with a little prompting. I have no idea what the words in either one mean, but I know what they’re for. There is a scene in Angels in America when Roy Cohn is dying, and Louis the socialist atheist intellectual feels like he should say the mourner’s Kaddish for him. In lieu of a kippah he puts a white tissue absurdly on his head and begins, but he falters—he only remembers the beginning. He feels foolish. And then the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, who has been haunting Roy Cohn all this time, watching him die, materializes and breathes it into Louis’s ear all the way through the final lines: “oseh shalom bim’romav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu, v’al kol yisroel, v’eimru amen, you son of a bitch.” When he finishes, Belize the nurse whispers, “You did fine.” And Louis, who has felt the earth move, says, “Fine? What are you talking about, fine? That was fucking miraculous.”

I cry like a baby during that scene. Because suddenly I am Louis, and Ethel is the history behind me, evanescent and ever-present, that rises in the nose like fragrance when I cross back over the Manhattan Bridge and the sign says, “Leaving Brooklyn: Oy vey!”; that leaves a tincture on the base of the tongue, revolting and proud, when I so much as hear the words “gefilte fish”; that knifes me in the ear when Michele Bachmann pronounces it “choots-pah”; that causes uproar in the blood when I see rainbow bagels trending on Twitter.

And this, finally, is why we look backwards. Because it’s not the meaning of the words that matters anymore (if you actually look at what Kaddish means, it has no reference to death or mourning; it’s just more kvelling about how swell God is), it’s the act of incantation. To sing a song whose words you do not understand, in a language you do not speak, and all the same to trust, to know in your very bones, that in singing this song you are bringing grace—that is faith. That is faith.

And this is why Jennifer Grey is singing “Duvid Crockett” on Late Night. She’s not doing it to be a star. Her career has never really recovered from her nose job, and if she’s promoting anything on this show tonight (all that exists of it is a single YouTube clip uploaded by an admirer), it’s a now-forgotten TV movie with Shirley MacLaine and Liza Minnelli called The West Side Waltz. Singing a desperately uncool piece of Yiddish doggerel is not going to set casting agents’ hair on fire. Doesn’t matter. She doesn’t know what the words mean. Doesn’t matter. Jennifer Grey is a pro. She comes from a family of pros, of Jews who made something of themselves. Keyner leygt bibi in di vinkl. Nobody puts Baby in the corner. She’s on Late Night. She’s still here. And she loves this ridiculous song.

Samuel Ashworth's fiction, essays, and criticism have been published in Barrelhouse, Catapult, Nylon, and the Times Literary Supplement, and he writes the (somewhat) monthly "Dispatches from the Swamp" column for The Rumpus. He has an MFA from George Mason University, and is working on a novel about the life and death of an American chef, told in the form of an autopsy.