There are two people the title of Rebecca Dana’s memoir Jujitsu Rabbi and the Godless Blonde, which is appropriate in this book, for it spins around an axis pulled taut between opposite poles. Rebecca Dana, a reporter for the Daily Beast and Newseek, and formerly with the Wall Street Journal, has assembled not only an unstintingly honest exposé of her searching self, but also an étude on such subjects as life lived “in deferment” and the significance of something called “communities of meaning.” This book surprised me; it swept me up with its soulful exploration of faith and virtue.
Ms. Dana begins by laying out in honest terms her ambition to emulate Carrie Bradshaw, the heroine of TV’s wildly successful Sex and the City. Her dream of capturing and living the glamorous life grows out of a middle-class upbringing long on scholastic achievement but short on familial love. When her ideal urban romance falls apart she finds, against all her instincts, an apartment in a Brooklyn neighborhood dominated by an arch-conservative Jewish sect, the Lubavitchers. Hesitantly she moves in with a larger-than-life young rabbi from Russia, called Cosmo. Cosmo is very dramatic about his sex life (it’s a struggle), his grooming (subject to change), and his faith (quickly evaporating). This character and his milieu allow the author to slow down and understand other facets of life, like home and faith.
And here we find the axis on which this energetic narrative spins. Ms. Dana’s attraction to Manhattan’s glitz and glamor must suddenly compete with the appeal of the hearthside joys of family, which are a revelation to her. She shows a very discerning eye when it comes to her new acquaintances; she recognizes the degree to which Lubavitcher women are restricted in their lives, but she can also cull wisdom from scholarly men in the community. From one she picks up the concept of communities of meaning, in which groups hold common values and goals, and use common spectra to measure worth. She also posits that her current need to scrimp and work extra hard for a promised payoff has a direct parallel in the Jewish faith, in which believers defer joy in this life for rewards in the hereafter.
The author even manages to structure her memoir like a novel. Late in the story, her boss Tina Brown organizes a high-profile conference of highly celebrated and influential women, focusing on violence against women. Amid talks given by African women recounting rape and mutilation, seminars conducted by Melanne Verveer, United States Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, and Barbara Walters, Ms. Dana is taken up by how noble and uplifting the gathering is. While imagining what it would be like to go to a picturesque, out-of-the-way corner of the globe to end conflict and free women from oppression, she finds herself seated next to Candace Bushnell, the beautiful and classy creator of Sex and the City. Ms. Bushnell’s attendance at the conference, and her patient suffering of the author’s fawning, unite the book’s two thrusts, and provide Ms. Dana with an understanding and appreciation of her own way forward. The author handles the moment in a very assured and honest way. It’s really gutsy, and it works really well.
Ms. Dana yolks her superior intellect and her no-holds-barred honesty into a powerful team, and the result is a gratifying ride indeed.