Strange but true story of jujitsu rabbi and the godless blonde

What happens when an educated, secular journalist experiences a horrible breakup, finds herself broke and ends up living with a jujitsu-practicing atheist rabbi in a Hassidic neighborhood in Brooklyn?

Sounds like the perfect plot for a novel, but Rebecca Dana’s hilarious “Jujitsu Rabbi and the Godless Blonde” is not fiction. When the disgruntled fashion reporter is forced to seek shelter in Crown Heights solely for its affordable rent, her life changes dramatically.

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

Rebecca Dana photo/terry gruber

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

JTA: Give a quick elevator pitch on what the book is about.

Dana: The book is the nine months I spent living in the Lubavitch Hassidic 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.

JTA: Tell us about your struggles in the book.

Dana: 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 (the fictional) 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.

JTA: Why is there no religious conclusion or moment of self-discovery?

Dana: 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.

JTA: Was your time in the Chabad community part of your spiritual journey?

Dana: 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.

“Jujitsu Rabbi and the Godless Blonde” by Rebecca Dana (288 pages, Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, $25.95)