Rebecca Dana crash lands in Crown Heights, teetering on her impossibly high heels, sporting micro skirts and skimpy shirts, a walking strutting invitation for censure by the local Hasidic Chabad Lubavitcher police. The Lubavitcher sect prefers its women to be covered – not even an elbow should be visible – and, while we’re at it, religiously observant, which while nominally Jewish, she emphatically is not.
What will happen in this dark clash of cultures (within the same culture)? Will frumpy Hasidic women start sporting Louboutin heels? Will Rebecca rediscover her pintele Yid (spark of Jewish identity)? Did I mention her landing pad is shared with a hunky Russian rabbi, cheap rent being the catalyst? Will the relationship between this fashion journalist and her roomie blossom into something more?
Remember your identity crises of yore? Well, Dana falls into a dark hole here when her perfect boyfriend of 4 years jilts her, claiming she’s not “pretty enough.” Her perfect life crumbles around her. She no longer has the koyach (strength) to write fluff pieces about $4,000 shoes, speculate about Tiger Woods’s mistresses and go clubbing till the wee hours. The high life has lost its appeal, for the moment anyway. So off she goes on an impulse to farthest Brooklyn. What was she thinking?
This is a woman whose bible is Sex and the City; she worships Carrie Bradshaw. A self-described nerd, daughter of two chemistry professors, once she discovered fashion, she never turned back. As soon as she was able, she hightailed it out of Pittsburgh and moved to New York City; breathing in that great air from the subway grates, she was in heaven. With her job at the Daily Beast, she asked for nothing more.
Now here she is spending Shabbos inhaling the warm scents of challah, genuinely liking the Orthodox women she meets and figuring out that for some of them, this life with its many rules and prohibitions is exactly what gives them peace – they know what their role in life is, they do not have too many options. She starts to ask herself why she is so superficial – shouldn’t she be off in Africa saving starving children?
Cosmo, the rabbi, meanwhile is foaming at the bit. He turns to jujitsu and becomes a fanatic, toning his body so that he vaguely resembles Brad Pitt. He shaves his beard. He longs to play bass again with a band. He starts chomping on raw bacon and coveting cheeseburgers and all kinds of trafe (non kosher) food. He accompanies Rebecca to Manhattan parties. He seems to like what he sees of the big wide world – oh no!
Dana’s account of this year in her mid-20’s is charming and entertaining and told in the breeziest of tones. She pulls no punches about her failings as a perfect human being, embracing finally who and what she is: “. . .if I could have back all the minutes in my life I’ve spent thinking about how I look, it would be enough time to earn a Ph.D. . . . A coat by Alexander McQueen is art. To wear these things is not just to feel fancy but also to feel joined, however superficially, to something beautiful. . . .I love stuff. I’m a girl in America in the twenty-first century, and damn it, a pretty dress makes me feel alive.”
Yet she also admits she has always felt like “a smooth cylinder with no parts for joining.” The year in Crown Heights highlights for her, among other things, the importance of finding a “community of meaning,” those who share your ups and downs with you, who appreciate who you are at this very moment, not who you are striving to become.
Dana’s writing can be lovely: “Someone once told me that every time you relive a memory you change in small but irrevocable ways. So the more times you flash back to that one thing he said or that time you took a long drive on a spring afternoon when the forsythia was just blooming, the more the moment evolves in your mind. To me, this is the sweet magic of love, that no time is static, nothing is fixed. It doesn’t begin in one place and go from there. Instead the whole sprawling mess of it shifts and changes over time. So the story of forsythia writes and rewrites itself over and over, as does every moment before and after, smoothing and refining itself in a larger context, shading and coloring all the corners of memory until your whole life is something softer: a photocopy of a photocopy of the original. First we write love stories, then they write us.”
This tale of two cultures holds lots of possibilities and I’m not sure Dana fulfilled all of them for me. The ending seems a little tacked-on and rushed. She tells us Cosmo often said humorous things – guess I missed that?! The bio says she’s married now – what?!! – she brought us all the way through this year and didn’t spill the beans? I guess you get used to being in on someone’s thoughts and life and all and hurt when suddenly you miss the best story of all! So hurt.