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By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
The Vestal N.Y. Reporter 

Becoming a big city lady

 

It’s difficult for me to imagine anyone taking lifestyle advice from episodes of “Sex and the City,” but the TV show and its heroine, Carrie Bradshaw, served as a major influence for Rebecca Dana. As she notes in her memoir, “Jujitsu Rabbi and the Godless Blonde” (Amy Einhorn Books), the show is what made the Pittsburgh native dream of “someday being a fancy New York City lady.”

At first, her life in New York seems perfect. She has a job writing about fashion, parties and pop culture; a handsome, lawyer boyfriend; and a beautiful apartment. Then her life—at least her personal life—disintegrates and she finds herself in desperate need of a place to live. That’s how the “twenty-seven-year-old nonpracticing Jew, a journalist who spent her adult life pursuing the feminine ideal as laid out by ‘Sex and the City,’” found herself in Brooklyn, the roommate of Cosmo, “an ultra-Orthodox Lubavitch-Hasidic Jew, an ascetic, a practitioner of a faith that forbids an unmarried man and woman from being alone in a room together, let alone living side by side, separated by one thin wall.”

While the setting sounds like a Neil Simon comedy about oddball roommates, the memoir focuses far more on Dana’s life and work than on her connection to Cosmo. She writes about her career, dating and coming to terms with the downward turn of her life (which features excessive alcohol and drug use).

What saves the memoir from being a pity-party is her sense of humor. She also readily admits her faults, even if she doesn’t always see them as detrimental. For example, she notes, “I would not be exaggerating even a little—and in fact I’d probably be lowballing it—to say that if I could have all the minutes in my life I’ve spent thinking about how I look, it would be enough time to earn a Ph.D.” She admits she is vain, but “not cripplingly so. Not to the point I can’t get away from a mirror or where I don’t eat anything or where I lose all perspective entirely and believe vanity is a virtue. I’m vain, and it’s not great, but that’s what it is.”

In fact, it was refreshing to hear her admit that “I love stuff. I’m a girl in America in the twenty-first century, and, damn it, a pretty dress makes me feel alive.”

What the two roommates do share is that their lives are in flux. Cosmo may be a rabbi, but this Russian Jew is looking to shed his religion, starting by taking lessons in jujitsu.

At first, Dana isn’t planning on changing her life, but finds herself influenced by the close-knit Brooklyn Orthodox Jewish community that surrounds her.

Both roommates believe love is the magic bullet that will save them from themselves: “We each felt we needed this thing that was invisible and intangible and seemingly impossible, and we needed it too much—we felt [love] was so central to our plans for self-redemption—that we had no choice but to have faith it would come.”

Cosmo, though, seeks a girlfriend, preferably a non-Jewish one, while Dana’s desire is more vague. What she wants is to “draw a circle around people and call them ‘home.’”

What Dana does finally realize is that she learned the wrong lesson from “Sex and the City.” Her belief centered on this idea: “Fix the outside; the inside will follow.” That led her to study designer clothing, walk on ridiculously high heels and get her nose done. While living with Cosmo, she discovers that she needs something more, something that speaks to her inner self. Please note, that this doesn’t include becoming Orthodox or even highly observant, although Dana does “self-identify” as a Jew, even though she also sees her identity as including “about a hundred other things.”

Sometimes after reading a memoir, I want to meet the author and learn more about her life. This wasn’t the case with “Jujitsu Rabbi and the Godless Blonde”: Dana and I would have little or nothing to talk about since we live in such very different worlds. As a rabbi, my hope is that teenagers don’t treat her or Carrie Bradshaw as role models. Fortunately, though, I enjoyed experiencing her life vicariously; it gave me a chance to be a “fancy New York City lady” without any of the pain.

 

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