Even though Rebecca Dana was the smart kid (nicknamed “Dictionary”) who did well in math and secured a job as a reporter for the Washington Post fresh out of college, she dreamed of living a life of fashion in New York City. So, in January 2007, she relocated to the Big Apple, with a job at the New York Observer and not much else. Working as a “party reporter,” she met stylish people and wore great clothes. She wrote about couture and society, and essentially carved out the life she had envied on “Sex and the City.” But a few years later, after a devastating break-up with her long-time boyfriend, Rebecca was forced to reevaluate her life and do some soul-searching. And who better to soul-search with than a young, accidentally hip Russian rabbi?
"[O]verall the story flows well, and the rolling and funny prose is easy and enjoyable to read. Rebecca Dana’s humor is mostly self-deprecating, but her barbs at others often hit the mark as well."
In JUJITSU RABBI AND THE GODLESS BLONDE, Rebecca shares her post break-up year, living in New York’s Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Crown Heights and gaining perspective on identity, career and faith. The rabbi is a Lubavicher named Cosmo who needed a roommate. While co-habituating with a strange woman is not strictly kosher, he, like Rebecca, was in a transitional time in his life. Doubting some of the tenets of his Hasidic faith, Cosmo was more interested in music and martial arts than prayer and study. The two come together, a strange friendship built on circumstances, and thankfully Rebecca took notes (telling readers she often wrote down things Cosmo said to be able to later quote him because he was so funny), which she turned into this memoir.
Rebecca excels at juxtaposition: we find her, dressed in short skirts and high heels, walking alone through Crown Heights at night (a neighborhood not only on the unsafe side, but one in which the very religious will harass women based on how they dress and act), and living in a run-down and filthy apartment commuting to her glamorous professional and social life in Manhattan. She contrasts, quite honestly, the prejudices and assumptions she held about the Orthodox Jewish women who she now lived among and the female friends she made from that community. And, of course, there is the jarring image juxtaposing orthodoxy itself with the non-Jewish world: the Russian rabbi, dangerously flirting with the secular, chewing on a slice of raw bacon.
However, most of the book is more subtle than all that. Rebecca recalls her own Jewish childhood, secular except for years of Hebrew school, and understands it in new ways after meeting Cosmo. It is much more a part of her and a point of reference for her than she ever realized. Examined as well are her career path and her love of fashion and celebrity (not to mention her ongoing affection, probably like many women of her generation, for all things Candace Bushnell). In the end, Rebecca is confident in who she is and the choices she has made, but the personal exploration she recounts is compelling.
Certain aspects of the book --- for example, her “yeshivacation” at the Jewish women’s school --- feel like they were intended for another book, an exposé of the Hasidic world perhaps. At times Rebecca writes like an embedded journalist, and it is hard not to question her intentions. She is also guilty of name-dropping but justifies it as an occupational hazard. Some readers will be bothered, others thrilled. Cosmo, who shared titular honors, is a fascinating character but too often fades into the background. More page time about Cosmo would’ve balanced the book and made it much more successful narratively.
Still, overall the story flows well, and the rolling and funny prose is easy and enjoyable to read. Rebecca Dana’s humor is mostly self-deprecating, but her barbs at others often hit the mark as well. Insightful and indulgent, JUJITSU RABBI AND THE GODLESS BLONDE is an interesting (yet light) look at self out of context.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 31, 2013