Rebecca Dana's memoir "Jujitsu Rabbi and the Godless Blonde" is a laugh-out-loud tour of heartbreak, fashion and the search for community in unexpected places.
Ms. Dana, a Pittsburgh native, is the titular Godless (Bottle) Blonde. She was living a fine post-college life in New York, until the man of her dreams betrays her and they break up, just like in a romance movie, on the streets of the West Village. Single and newly homeless, she is forced to scramble for the Holy Grail of New York City -- an affordable apartment. The only viable option is in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, home to one of New York's largest colonies of Orthodox Jews.
"JUJITSU RABBI AND THE GODLESS BLONDE"
By Rebecca Dana
Amy Einhorn/Putnam ($25.95).
Though she was raised Jewish -- attending Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill on all the major holidays -- Ms. Dana did not consider herself a religious person. So you can imagine what ensues when she finds herself rooming with Cosmo, a Hasidic rabbi in the process of losing his faith -- and discovering jujitsu.
A self-confessed devotee of "Sex and the City," Ms. Dana is a senior correspondent at The Daily Beast, where she writes about fashion and pop culture. Her dream was to grow up to be the real-life Carrie Bradshaw and, from the outside looking in, she seems to have nailed down that column-writing, expensive-shoe-sporting goal. This memoir would be easy to dismiss as another romp through New York's high society life, but Ms. Dana's self-deprecating humor and spot-on quips about human nature rescue it.
Despite the pain she was going through during this time in her life, she writes about her experiences in an optimistic and lighthearted voice. Her one-liners contain nuggets of truth: "The day someone hands me a present and I think 'meh' is the day it's all over," she declares. As long as you can still get excited about presents, somewhere in the depths of your despair, you're probably going to be all right in the end.
The majority of the story hinges around Ms. Dana's platonic friendship with Cosmo and the Orthodox Crown Heights community that he introduces her to.
The reader struggles to navigate the laws of this world right alongside Ms. Dana, from the day a tsnius man (think Orthodox fashion police) chases her down the street asking where her dress is (since the one she was wearing at the time barely peeked from under the hem of her overcoat), to the shabbas she spends with a loving couple, younger than her, who already have three children and will likely see more on the way soon.
She both pities and envies their tightly knit and strictly regulated lives. They'll never experience a Fashion Week after-party, even though SoHo's high-rises are less than five miles away. They'll probably never jet off to L.A. for a weekend, or be sent to Dubai on business with all expenses paid.
But on the other hand, they know exactly where they belong in the world, what their purpose is and what to expect from their future. They believe in their way of living, and that belief comforts them whenever hardships strike. It's easy to see why Ms. Dana -- recently detached from the man of her dream life, and newly questioning her devotion to the secular religion of outward appearance -- is drawn to this community.
Her friendship with Cosmo acts as another anchor. While he struggles to find a new identity outside of his religion, Ms. Dana tries to reunite with her own roots in Judaism. The crossover results in some entertaining disputes -- most memorably when she catches him eating raw bacon (because cooking it would wreck his heretofore kosher kitchen). "He was on the very brink of freedom, staring into the abyss but unwilling to cut the last threads."
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Although it is certainly a light read, "Jujitsu Rabbi and the Godless Blonde" does touch on some deeper questions.
Refreshingly, Ms. Dana does not propose to have the answers to these questions, or even attempt to answer them for herself. She considers the possibilities, and some conflicting advice she receives on how to react when tragedy strikes (for example, should we "lean into it" and accept the change? Or should we try to reclaim what we've lost, to start over again on the same path we were taking until we can make it work?).
Additionally, while her breakup was the catalyst for her move to Crown Heights and the beginning of her existential search, I appreciated that Ms. Dana did not linger too long on love and men as the sole answers to the sense of displacement we all experience at times.
"First we write love stories, then they write us," she says. But she does not let her love story overpower the narrative -- something that can happen all too frequently in the more lighthearted, chick-lit style memoirs.
What's missing in her life, she finds, is not the hunk she dumped on a street corner. What's missing is a sense of community, like the friends she meets in Crown Heights possess. This memoir is her journey to understand why there is an abscess in her life and where it comes from.
"What is God?" she asks. "Call him love, call him a father, call him whatever name you want [...]. God is never the thing that fulfills you. God is the name for the hole." And what matters is not whether you can fill that hole completely, but whether you can acknowledge its existence and start to pursue what you're missing.
Ellen Goodlett is also a Pittsburgh native and writer living in New York (email@example.com).