Rebecca Dana won’t dish. Seriously. She has nothing but great things to say about the social circles in which she has trucked, mingled and reveled since she moved concertedly to Manhattan in 2007.
The pretty party people she wrote about as social reporter for The New York Observer? “Great, interesting, fun!” Controversial publishing legend Tina Brown, her editor at The Daily Beast, where Dana covered fashion and celebrity? “Incredible.” Sex and the City inspiration Candace Bushnell, whom she met at Brown’s glitzy-but-serious “Women in the World” conference? “Zen Buddha-like.” Girls creator Lena Dunham, smart-pop culture’s current whipping-girl/obsession–whose work, like Dana’s, uses Sex and the City as a touchstone? “Genius.”
Look at Dana’s career, though, and it’s easy to see how her all-out embrace of the high life has not only worked well for her but has nourished an eyes-wide-open, non-ironic view of celebrity and city life. Dana went to Yale, where she was The Yale Daily News editor, and had a reporting internship on the police beat at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, followed by stints at The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, before she even launched her career properly.
Some might say Dana’s early opportunities constituted a (deserved) embarrassment of riches, but she views them as means to an end. “I’ve never been interested in doing serious journalism,” she says. “That just wasn’t me. I like glamour, and I like clothes and I like to go to shows and go to parties and write about clothes and celebrities.”
In her new memoir, Jujitsu Rabbi and the Godless Blonde, Dana speaks, often hilariously, to the familiar tension between spiritual searching and an unabashed embrace of the superficial. Her smart, tight prose and incisive humor take us effortlessly from an uneventful Pittsburgh childhood to her achievement of the now-common American dream among a large swath of contemporary women: Move to The City, Write, Befriend the Beautiful People, Become a Star of Some Sort. To top things off, she shacks up with the perfect mate: “Chad” (“I wanted to give him the worst name I could think of,” she says), who eventually cheats on her and then sort-of dumps her in spectacular fashion.
And that’s when things get interesting.
Bereft, broke and capable of only the most basic survival strategies, Dana becomes roommates with Cosmo, a doubting rabbi living in the Lubavitch-Hasidic section of Crown Heights, Brooklyn – a crowded, insular community of ultra-Orthodox Jews who by all outward signs, says Dana, live more or less as if they were in 18th century Russia.
When she moves in, Cosmo is in the midst of a spiritual crisis. He’s wearing a Calvin & Hobbes shirt that reads “New York Attitude” over his long, fringed religious garment and experimenting with the titular martial art (yes, the “ju-“/Jew pun is acknowledged when he points it out in a Michael Chabon novel and tells Dana she should put it in her book), not to mention accepting a woman as a roommate. Rather than leading a congregation, he’s working at the Fast Trak copy shop. Meanwhile, Dana has found her secular Jewish doings less than completely satisfying. It’s (kind of) a match made in heaven.
Cosmo and Dana remain chaste, but both gain from dipping their toes into one another’s worlds. Dana became “fascinated by the Crown Heights community,” she says. At first, she flouts Hasidic dictates that women dress extremely modestly: At one point, she’s harassed by the “tsnius police”–self-appointed practitioners of public opprobrium–while strutting to work in knee-high boots, leather leggings, and a short Diane von Furstenberg shift.
After an incident with a kind Hasid in the street (he invites her to his family’s home after she ruins said leather leggings chasing down another Hasid’s hat) and participating in shabbas dinners with Lubavitch families, Dana begins to view their lives differently. Though she witnesses some of the oppression she suspected, she also develops an appreciation of the comforts and pleasures available in close community.
Curiosity piqued, she signs up for a “Yeshivacation”: a pseudo-vacation in which women learn to be “more Jewish.” Because she can barely read basic Hebrew prayers and is 27 and unmarried, the other women view her as an illiterate old maid, though not without sympathy. The course culminates in an Orthodox wedding, where the overwhelming happiness and community so obviously present make her realize that she longs for some secular version of that connection.
Cosmo, meanwhile, becomes increasingly disenchanted by the only religion he has known. He nurtures an interest in psychedelic punk and asks to go dancing with Dana and her friends (“Will it be like Sex and the City?” he asks. “Yes and no,” she replies.) That doesn’t happen, but she does take him to a Thanksgiving dinner in a downtown Brooklyn loft, to which he brings kosher wine, then argues about Scottish agriculture, extols a particular “G-dcast” and chows down on turkey that’s been roasted in bacon. Ultimately declaring himself a “non-Jew,” he celebrates the arrival of his green card with Dana, eating a cheeseburger and watching Avatar at a theater in 3-D.
In the end, Dana returns to Manhattan, her point of view expanded but not fundamentally changed. “People talk as if you should experience this incredible transformation when you write about an experience like this,” she says, but her geographical healing is not on the level of, say, an Elizabeth Gilbert adventure (Dana has nothing but high praise for Eat Pray Love, by the way).
Nevertheless, between her connection with those who embrace even the most restrictive Hasidic covenants and her relationship with the spiritually grasping, crazily smart Cosmo, her Crown Heights adventure inspires an urgency to develop and maintain a vague, but solid, sense of what she calls a “cobbled together community of people from all aspects of my life.”
And what of Cosmo, who, it could be argued, experienced the larger transformation of the two? “I’d like to think that I was part of his transformation,” says Dana. “Of course, if you ask Cosmo, he’ll tell you,” she says, in a rough, deep, Russian-sounding accent, “You did nothing!”
Cindy Widner is a writer and editor living in Austin, Texas. Her work can be found in The Austin Chronicle, Bitch magazine, Pop Culture Press, and other publications.
Photo credit Terry Gruber.