Some girls imagine their wedding day when they’re growing up, with clear vision of the dress, the cake, the man they’ll marry.
When Rebecca Dana was a young girl in suburban Pittsburgh, she liked to imagine her first day in New York City in all its detail, when she’d finally begin the life she longed for. New York was her Jerusalem.
In January 2005, she arrived at Penn Station with $20, a rolling suitcase, a credit card and an idea of how to hail a cab in traffic. The Yale graduate had quit her job at the Washington Post and was hoping to begin reporting for The New York Observer. In a New York minute or two, she was attending exclusive parties, interviewing celebrities, wearing great outfits and fabulous shoes. An admirer of Eleanor Roosevelt and Gloria Steinem who came of age with “Sex and the City,” she looked to that show’s protagonist, Carrie Bradshaw, as role model.
Eight years later, Dana has published her own tale of the city, “Jujitsu Rabbi and the Godless Blonde” (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam), a funny and wise memoir. Some backstory: Several months after arriving in New York, at a party she met “the perfect man for the girl I wanted to be.” He was a tall, handsome lawyer, half-Israeli — a Macabee, as she told her friends — wearing designer clothing, with a great sense of humor and parents she admired. They moved in together and eventually bought a spacious apartment on a cobblestoned West Village street. It was all sounding perfect.
“The sun was always shining, the skies were always blue and we were so ostentatiously pleased with our lot that,” she writes, “had this been a movie, it could suggest only one possible outcome: doom.” She follows this pronouncement with a chapter about her early life when she was nicknamed “Dictionary” by camp friends who found an algebra textbook under her pillow. She felt incapable of faith but terrified of death, and was sent to Hebrew school after asking her parents, who were chemists, about what happens after we die. There, she “menaced the housewives who volunteered their Sunday mornings to be my introduction to ‘God.’” At 13, she had a bat mitzvah, but by then had stopped asking questions. She was bored and lonely with dreams of elsewhere.
Back to the doom. About four years into the relationship, she learned that her boyfriend had been cheating on her. The breakup sent her world crashing down. She was broke, with no place to live. An ad on Craig’s List led her to a sublet in an apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. She had her own room and shared a kitchen, bathroom and mostly empty living room with a Russian-born Chabad rabbi she calls Cosmo (she has changed names and identifying details). She understood that their living situation was pretty unusual for Cosmo too, but he was not a typical rabbi. An amateur jazz historian who speaks six languages fluently, he worked at a local copy shop, practiced jujitsu and was waiting for his citizenship.
While the stylish reporter and the Lubavitcher with a “white skullcap the size of a dinner plate bobby-pinned to his head” didn’t appear to have much in common, they were both only children, low on cash, alone and finding that the rules they’d been living by no longer made sense. When she stopped crying enough to have conversations, the unlikely duo become fast friends (and not more); she introduced him to film premieres and glitzy parties, he took her along to Shabbat dinners. Tempted by things non-kosher, he tasted bacon (pictured on the book jacket). For about nine months, Dana shuffled between her job covering fashion and culture for The Daily Beast, and this mice-infested apartment — she made sure to do her laundry back in Manhattan.
I meet Dana in a Chelsea cafe near her office. The 30-year-old Godless Blonde is now a brunette, and while she’s still not a believer, the experience of living in Crown Heights has influenced her profoundly (as it seems to have influenced Cosmo, who still lives in Crown Heights). Looking back she realizes that even when she was living the dream she had always aspired to and was happier than she had ever been, she had a gnawing sense that it wasn’t everything — “that something was missing, but sometimes it’s hard to distinguish that dissatisfaction from ambition, the thing driving you to do better, to do more.”
Living in Crown Heights, she was at first smug about the chasidic Jews she met, but she came to appreciate their genuine warmth and kindness, even as they saw her as a 27-year-old spinster. At a “Yeshivacation” week, she dipped into Jewish learning, splitting her days between work and classes on prayer, kashrut, challah-making, mikveh and Moshiach. At the end of the week, she was invited to a wedding, where she was struck by the designer finery and recognized the trademark red soles of Louboutins as women were kicking up their heels. She was pulled into the circle by the bride, who whispered prayers and glowed with happiness. For the first time, Dana thought, “a family might be a nice thing to have.”
She felt the longing, not so much for a home fragrant with soup as for solidity. “What I wanted was the essence of it, running like marrow through my bones,” she writes.
“Maybe it’s imprinted in me, this sense of coziness and comfort from religious traditions,” she says in conversation. “I’m not religious at all, but something lit up inside of me.”
The book is at its most spiritual when Dana speaks of seeking a community of meaning, and describes God. She writes, “Call him love, call him a father, call him whatever name you want. It’s the calling that matters, not the response. God is never the thing that fulfills you. God is the name for the hole.”
Dana weaves in asides to Harold Bloom, a beloved professor at Yale; Gershom Scholem’s “Toward an Understanding of the Messianic Idea in Judaism” and her boss Tina Brown. When she found herself seated next to Candace Bushnell at a “Women in the World” luncheon, she gushed about how Carrie Bradshaw had been almost a religious figure in her youth and then, unstoppably, went on about her breakup and wrong turns in her life. Bushnell asked how old she was and when she replied, “27,” Bushnell said, “That’s about right,” as though she had heard this all many times before.
Pretty early on in her Crown Heights sojourn, Dana realized she had a book to write. “I felt so shipwrecked and at first didn’t piece it all together. Cosmo was the funniest person I had ever met.” Always taking notes on her life, she began writing down things Cosmo said. She makes clear that this is not a comprehensive book about Crown Heights, but rather an anecdotal and experiential account. She hasn’t yet been back to the neighborhood since writing the book.
Dana worships Nora Ephron and dedicates the book to her. Ephron’s “Heartburn,” while a novel, was an inspiration, in making a painful life experience funny. “Humor helps me tell some truths,” Dana says.
She’s now married to Jesse Angelo, a media executive, and she has found and is building a community, one that stretches from living rooms in Crown Heights to Tina Brown’s brownstone. She’s still trying to figure out “what it means to have a strong feeling of being Jewish without being observant.” And she’s happier than she has ever been.
Her work life has shifted too. Until recently, Dana was a senior correspondent for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and before that a staff writer for The Wall Street Journal. She’s now doing some freelance journalism, including articles for The New Republic, and also screenwriting and beginning work on her next book, which, in part, grew out of this one.
She’s writing about her experience as a volunteer at the Lillian Booth Home in Englewood, N.J., an assisted-living facility run by the Actors Fund. She’s running programs for the residents, listening to their stories, editing a newsletter and seems pleased to have found “a way to bring an element of service to my life.”
Rebecca Dana will be signing books at a reception open to the public on Feb. 7, 6:30-9 p.m., at the C. Wonder store in the Time-Warner Building, Columbus Circle.