Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Jujitsu Rabbi pulls emotional punches
Journalist Rebecca Dana came to New York with Sex and the City dreams. The Pittsburgh-born writer pictured herself in a tiny skirt and giant stilettos, striding confidently through a glamorous world of cocktail parties and galas.
And she achieved her goal, transforming herself into a skinny blond fashion plate with a cool job writing lifestyle features for the Daily Beast website and a handsome, successful boyfriend (though Carrie Bradshaw would have stopped short of the nose job).
Unfortunately, when her Mr. Big turns out to be Mr. Big Cheating Jerk, the dream goes off the rails.
In this somewhat glib, scattered memoir, Dana documents the post-breakup soul-searching that found her sharing an apartment with a rapidly lapsing 30-year-old rabbi called Cosmo in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in the midst of the Orthodox Lubavitch community.
It's the proverbial gefilte-fish-out-of-water story, as the Jewish but secular Dana struggles to fit in with a culture that's both vaguely familiar and yet utterly foreign, where the women are covered from neck to ankle and the "tznius (modesty) police" literally follow her down the street, yelling, "Where is your skirt?"
When she steps out of her self-absorbed, self-pitying shell, the author does captures some deliciously comic moments, and she has an astute eye for the absurd.
Cosmo is unorthodox in more ways than one. A ginger-haired Russian immigrant with a penchant for mistranslated idioms, in addition to practising the titular martial art, he longs to eat bacon and date loose women.
Despite his quirks and waning faith, he introduces his new roommate to a traditional way of life she grows to find oddly comforting, sharing dinners with his friends and their children, and even attending Yeshivacation, a crash course in Lubavitch culture for women.
If Dana had been content to mine this part of her story, her memoir might have had a bigger impact.
However, her narrative meanders distractingly, like a series of disconnected journal entries. Just when you think she's going to get into the nitty-gritty of Hasidic culture, she's dancing all night at the Boom Boom Room, or indulging in tiresome periods of navel-gazing and name-dropping, interspersed with desperate-seeming anecdotes to show the reader she's not a shallow gal. (She met Harold Bloom! More than once! He liked her!)
Dana does attempt a meaningful juxtaposition between the methodical rituals and modesty of the Lubavitchers and her relatively empty nights spent partying and doing blow, but she never accomplishes (or seems to have) the "aha!" moment.
The yeshiva course she takes feels like a journalistic exercise, a curiosity that will give her something to write about, not a personal journey she's undertaking that might really change her life.
It's a diverting tale but, emotionally, The Jujitsu Rabbi pulls its punches.
Jill Wilson is a Free Press copy editor.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 2, 2013 J8
Updated on Saturday, February 2, 2013 at 3:44 PM CST: adds fact box