Writer Rebecca Dana clearly holds a special place for Pittsburgh in her heart, albeit colored by a good dose of Jewish guilt.
“It’s so fun to see the 412 area code!” the 30-year-old now-Manhattanite enthusiastically tells the Chronicle as the interview begins; her recollections about “tormenting” her Hebrew school teachers back in the day at Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill (“please make sure you write how badly I feel about that,” she stressed) come a bit later.
The O’Hara Township native’s recently published memoir, “Jujitsu Rabbi and the Godless Blonde: A True Story,” is a very funny account of her journey of self-discovery, as circumstances propel her from living the life she dreamed of as a child in Pittsburgh — perfect New York job, perfect boyfriend, perfect apartment, perfect clothes — to finding herself platonically sharing a tiny apartment in the heart of Chassidic Crown Heights with Cosmo, a disenchanted rabbi who works in a copy shop and looks to Dana to help him practice his jujitsu.
“This is the first time I’ve ever physically assaulted a man of God,” she writes in the prologue to her book, “and I have to say, it feels excellent.”
Dana’s Pittsburgh roots, while firmly planted in the Jewish community, did not propagate into a life of faith, making Crown Heights about as far a destination from her comfort zone as possible.
While Dana attended Hebrew school, then the School of Advanced Jewish Studies through high school here, she never really connected with the religious part of being Jewish, she said. Her parents, who have since left Pittsburgh and moved to Minnesota, were not particularly observant, but nonetheless required her to attend Hebrew school.
“There was a feeling we had that this is what Jews did, and we were not in a position to question what Jews did,” she said. “Judaism was not so much a warm embrace for me as it was just the thing that we did.”
No, Dana did not want to be cooped up in Hebrew school for hours each week, and so she fought back.
“I was a little bit rebellious as a kid, and very skeptical,” she said. “I’m the child of chemists, so it’s in my DNA to question things, to question religion. I never bought faith; it never rang true to me. I really feel bad, but I took it out on the nice women who were teaching me.
“There was a P.A. in the office of the old Temple Sinai, before they did that major renovation,” she continued. “I remember sneaking out of my classroom and trying to be the voice of God on the P.A., but then I was intercepted by a weary and much abused teacher at the school and made to go back to class.”
That inauspicious beginning to Dana’s Jewish education could not have foretold what she would discover in the Lubavitch community of Crown Heights years later.
“As a secular Jew, and a journalist, I’ve encountered the ultra-Orthodox a lot in the news. I’ve read a lot about them, I’ve encountered them in New York casually and on the subways. But like a lot of my peer group, I was uninformed and instinctively had negative feelings about them,” Dana said.
Before living among them, she dismissed their culture as “retrograde,” “backward,” “against women,” and “not modern,” she said.
“I felt bad for the women, with their wigs on and lots of children, and being very young. The things I aspired to and dreamed of were not even in their universe. They seemed to represent everything I didn’t want, and nothing I did. I instinctively pitied the women.”
But once Dana actually spent time with the women of Crown Heights, what she found instead were women who were “thoughtful, engaged, very smart, lovely and generous,” she said. “They were better informed and more worldly than I expected. The women there were making conscious decisions about the lives they lived. And most surprising of all was that they were genuinely happy.”
“For them, it really worked,” she said.
While living in Crown Heights did not strengthen Dana’s faith, or persuade her to increase ritual observance, it did change her in a most profound way, she said.
“I had always pursued a very specific idea of grown-up life in New York that was honed in my youth in Pittsburgh,” she said. “The mythology of New York for me was very specific. It was glamorous. I would wear fancy shoes and go to fancy parties. But in Crown Heights, I noted where the women found fulfillment in their lives: in their husbands, in their children and in their community.
“Community for me was not much of a thing. Neither was family. I am an only child, and family was not on my horizon as a goal or a dream. But it dawned on me, that this should be at the center of my life: family and community. I give the Lubavitchers a lot of credit, the way they orient their lives. For me, that was really transformative. I’ve gone from a person who was focused on her identity as an individual to a person who strongly identifies with community. It was a stripping away a bit of narcissism.”
Dana is currently is working on a second book and a couple of screenwriting projects.
She is also now a brunette.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)