ABOVE: THE NO-LONGER-BLONDE REBECCA DANA
For many, New York is a fantasy world. In her memoir, Jujitsu Rabbi and the Godless Blonde, Rebecca Dana writes about chasing her big-city dreams—and how them going horribly awry ended up saving her life. A reporter at The New York Observer, Wall Street Journal, and Daily Beast, it seems Dana’s life is perfect: she’s attending fancy parties and in love. Yet her “perfect” boyfriend has been cheating on her for months, and the events she attends for work become increasingly soul-crushing. Moving away from the hustle of Manhattan to shack up with a rabbi roommate in super-religious Crown Heights, Dana goes on a journey of self-discovery. Funny, fast-paced, fresh, and insightful, Dana has crafted a book that is as brash and bold as the city she reveres. With interesting insider knowledge of the Lubavitch community as well as of Tina Brown, the Beast’s famous editor, Dana walks the line between sacrilege and high society with grace and glamour.
ROYAL YOUNG: You talk about a New York that’s already been done so many times, by so many people, and how that translates for people who’ve just arrived in New York and have this big, grand idea of it.
REBECCA DANA: I don’t know what it’s like to arrive in New York now, but when I got here, it really felt like you had just missed the golden era. Everywhere I went, it was like I had just missed the golden era. That’s a funny feeling because I grew up reading about all these different golden eras in New York and I couldn’t wait to get here. I think it’s a broader experience than just my own to arrive at a place you’ve longed to get to and everyone there feels like it’s past its prime. That is New York. It’s so mythologized, and every possible life experience here feels done already. There are so many people living out so many fantasies.
YOUNG: How did letting go of your preconceived plans help you?
DANA: I was a lonely kid. I was an only child. I spent a lot of time in my bedroom, by myself, watching TV, reading books and magazines and thinking about who I was going to be as a grown-up. I got so attached to that fantasy, and that fantasy got so specific that the closer I got to it, the more I grew up, the more I was unable to see the difference between who I really was and who I wanted to be. I think being swung off my predetermined course helped me figure out who I was and what I actually wanted.
YOUNG: I feel like that has happened to me over and over again. Each time I’m angry, and each time it’s so good for me.
DANA: Yeah, at the time I felt discombobulated and shipwrecked and out of my mind. But especially now that I’m out of it, I really see how that disorientation helped me find a better balance.
YOUNG: What did you end up finding out was the difference between the person you wanted to be and how you actually came out?
DANA: When I got to New York, it was all about me. What I wanted to look like, I wanted to wear certain clothes, read certain books, go to certain parties, and I just got so lost in those external details. It’s easy to believe if you fix the outside, the inside will follow. But moving to Crown Heights, meeting the people there and seeing how they see themselves as part of this bigger community and the value they place on family, I didn’t have that. My time there helped me see that what really mattered, what I really wanted, was much less a particular job or outfit but much more the people around me and family.
YOUNG: For a lot of people, especially of our generation there is so much emphasis on how you dress, who you know, what parties you go to. And there is so much loneliness in that.
DANA: Yes. It’s so much easier to land on physical things when there is something missing in your life. You window-shop your way through life, not realizing you’re looking for something deeper, and it takes a while to realize, “Shit, this is not cool.”
YOUNG: [laughs] Let’s completely fucking disabuse everyone of the notion that if you’re always at fancy parties, after awhile, it’s not a very lonely game.
DANA: [laughs] It really is. All I want to do now is sit on the couch and eat burritos with my husband. I would rather do that than go to any fancy party ever.
YOUNG: You have this great line in the book: “The grandeur of living in hope.” That really stuck out to me.
DANA: Cool. Yeah, I try to draw parallels between my very secular religion of New York City and the very traditional religion of my Crown Heights neighbors and my roommate. I really had a devotion to my position in life, which in ways I found were slavish and similar to ultra-orthodoxy. I’m by no means a Jewish scholar, I picked up bits here and there from living in the community. Since the Lubavitchers believe in the Messiah, there is this idea of living in hope. You’re always deferring. I felt like my life would really start when I reached this future date where I would suddenly be the person I always wanted to be. You’re never living in the moment you’re living in. It made me not present in my life, or appreciative of whom I was.
YOUNG: How did your perception of super-religious people change, and how did living among them change your perception of yourself?
DANA: I’m not proud to admit this, but as a secular Jew in New York City, I came into that experience with a lot of built-in prejudice. You see these guys with black hats and side locks and wives with loose fitting dresses and screaming children. I felt ashamed to be in the same religious bucket with people who appear to be living in another century. What I found, of course, was in many respects so different. I met really wonderful women who basically run their families and had really wide interests. Curious, bright, funny and loving. There is an incredible matriarchy that exists in Crown Heights. Every time your prejudices are shot to shit, it’s a good thing.
YOUNG: Do you feel like after all of this you found exactly what you came to New York to find?
DANA: Absolutely. Weirdly, I was derailed but that made my life so much better. The fairy tale is true.
JUJITSU RABBI AND THE GODLESS BLONDE IS OUT NOW.