Journalist experiences Chasidic life through eyes of a jujitsu-practicing atheist rabbi

Journalist Rebecca Dana chronicles her time living with a lapsed Chabad rabbi in Brooklyn in her new book, "Jujitsu Rabbi and the Godless Blonde."  (Terry Gruber)

Journalist Rebecca Dana chronicles her time living with a lapsed Chabad rabbi in Brooklyn in her new book, “Jujitsu Rabbi and the Godless Blonde.” (Terry Gruber)

NEW YORK (JTA) — What would happen if a pretty, educated, secular journalist experiences a horrible breakup, finds herself broke and ends up living with a jujitsu-practicing atheist rabbi in a Chasidic neighborhood in Brooklyn?

So goes the hilarious "Jujitsu Rabbi and the Godless Blond,” a new book by Rebecca Dana, a disgruntled fashion reporter for The Daily Beast who is forced to seek shelter in Crown Heights solely for its affordable rent.

Smart and biting, the book describes what happens when Dana’s aspirations suddenly come crashing down and how the world of Chabad-Lubavitch helped her get back on her feet.

Dana writes in a style similar to David Sedaris, her prose peppered with amusing anecdotes about bat mitzvah lessons, her lonely childhood in Pittsburgh and a search for some trace of humanity in the cutthroat world of Tina Brown’s The Daily Beast.

The book does not offer a road map to spiritual growth or self-discovery, but it does provide one paradigm for how a generation raised on the daydreams of Nora Ephron and Carrie Bradshaw can find meaning beyond a life of shoes, parties and bacon.

JTA: Can you give the us a quick elevator pitch about what the book is about?

Dana: The book is the nine months I spent living in the Lubavitch Chasidic community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. I was roommates with a 30-year-old bass-playing, jujitsu-practicing, lapsed ultra-Orthodox rabbi while working as a fashion reporter for Tina Brown. The book sets up the contrast, and in some cases the comparison, of these two very different worlds that are geographically jammed right against each other.

On the one hand, I talk about the sort of glitzy, glamorous media and fashion world of Manhattan, and on the other hand this very traditional, very religious world of Brooklyn. Only a half-hour on the subway train separates them and yet they couldn’t be more different. It’s a funny, ‘Odd Couple’ story of me living with this rabbi, of all people, and our cultural exchange: He would invite me to Shabbat dinner and events in the community because I was curious about the life they were living, and I, in turn, would take him to movie premieres and events in Manhattan because he was curious about the secular life.

This book has a really loaded title and could be misleading for anyone looking for a martial arts book, a religion book or a fashion book. Why the complicated title?

After I wrote my 90-page book proposal, my literary agents told me to come up with a title. I was suggesting very milquetoasty neutral things. I lived on Crown Street in Brooklyn, so I suggested calling it "Crown Street," and my agents said no to all literary suggestions. Finally I suggested calling it "Jujitsu Rabbi and the Godless Blond," which I thought was the most ridiculous, literal version. And they said, “Actually, yes!” It’s kind of a mouthful, I know, but it also makes it stand out. I hope it hints at the humor of the book but will also be taken seriously.

Can you tell us about your struggles in the book?

I came to New York from Pittsburgh with a very clear idea of the person I wanted to be. I had a very lonely, sad childhood, and part of what kept me going was this fantasy of being this person I was going to be when I was an adult. The fantasy came from the books and magazines I read, the movies I watched and the culture I absorbed as an only child, and I fell for a particular vision of adult life in New York. And it’s relatable to anyone who wants to live a glamorous life, where you’re thin and you’re pretty and you go to fabulous parties and you wear fabulous shoes.

It’s a familiar fantasy that writers write about, like Carrie Bradshaw and Nora Ephron, and I dreamed of this version of life. I got really close to this imaginary dream, I got close to living my life to the way Carrie Bradshaw wrote it, and after I had a horrible breakup, the thing I found is that all this stuff didn’t make me happy. There was low-grade dissatisfaction I was feeling, and all this stuff didn’t add up to the perfect life I imagined I would be living.

I kept waiting for the book to have a religious conclusion or moment of self-discovery. Why didn’t you talk about that?

I think there’s an impulse in writing books like this to land on easy answers for things, to go someplace and then have an easy solution to something. I wanted this book to feel ruthlessly authentic and the truth is, I saw part of the community that made me feel envious, but I didn’t feel any easy embrace of Chabad or any desire to be in that community. Many of my experiences in the Chabad community help me realize what I was missing more than providing me with a clear path toward a solution. I think a lot of books try to artificially create solutions and I thought that would be an easy way out.

The book talks a lot about the Chabad community, from gender roles to quoting the Lubavitcher rebbe. Did you do a lot of research or are they your own observations?

I did a little research. I want to stress that this isn’t a reporded book about Chabad. I don’t want anyone to think I did extensive research into Chabad. I talked a lot to my rabbi roommate, and I also read a great book, “The Rebbe’s Army." I also read local publications and spoke to some people in the community. Also, when I quote the Lubavitcher rebbe, I got it from pamphlets. There’s always pamphlets floating around the neighborhood, and I read them with general interest in what they had to say.

Do you think your book will offend the Chabad community?

I don’t know, I hope not. I think it’s a fair depiction of the experience I had there and I try to present a fair to generous depiction of what life in the community is like. But it’s truly a book about the dozen or so people I got to interact with there.

In the book, you talk about going to a religious program in the Chabad community. What was that experience like?

I went to a really great program called Yeshivication run by an organization in Crown Heights called Machon Chana. They were really sweet and welcoming to me, even though I was not a typical member of the school. At this point in my life, things might change, but my views of Judaism and the role it plays in my life are pretty well established. I knew going into the Chabad classes that I wasn’t going to suddenly  become a person of faith. I wasn’t going to go to shul and I wasn’t going to become a devout Jew.

I will admit to some prejudice going into the school: I always had a prejudice against more religious Jews. I’m a Jew, and I live in a world of secular, enlightened Manhattan Jews, and I think a lot of us instinctively feel a little ashamed of the more traditional people who live across the bridge. It seemed to me like they were restrictive and abusive to women; it seemed like it was from another era. When I moved there, I was initially scared of them and I was really judgemental. But once I got to know them more, I became curious about who they really were. I did Yeshivication not because I thought it would turn me into a believing, observant Jew but because I thought it would teach me about who these people are. And one of the things I got out of being in Crown Heights was a discovery of the humanity in the community. I made quick, unfair generalizations about them.

Looking back, do you see your time in the Chabad community as part of your spiritual journey?

I’m not sure if I’d call it a spiritual journey, but living in Crown Heights completely changed my life. I’m a completely different person. Outwardly, my life might look quite similar, but now I try to be a better person and value community and humanity, the way Chabad helped me to see.

The experience made me realize there was a component of service missing from my life. It’s hard to draw a linear conclusion, but I can say that being in that community helped me see that the job I was doing before was not enough. Now I try a bit harder to be a nicer person, and I’m much more family oriented than I was before. But like I said, this book isn’t about finding easy answers.

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