I mostly read this book for the martial arts. I read a review of this book in the Wall Street Journal the week it was published, and my first thought was that there are a lot of memoirs out there about silly twentysomething women making strange life choices – and I wondered what was so special about this book that warranted a review in the Wall Street Journal. I later learned that Rebecca Dana used to write for the WSJ, so there you go. I thought I might find this book irritating – keep in mind how I responded to Wild – but I read it anyway because it promised a Hasidic rabbi who was also a martial arts devotee. And for the most part, I liked it.
The twentysomething Rebecca Dana is – if possible – even shallower than the twentysomething Cheryl Strayed in Wild. Unlike Strayed, though, Dana knows perfectly well how shallow she is. She wallows in her emulation of Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City and in her tendency to spend hundreds of dollars every few weeks on her hair. Both memoirists describe their cocaine use, but Dana seems to recognize this destructive (and, worse: boring) habit for what it is, whereas Strayed seemed – even at a distance of almost twenty years – to feel that her drug use gave her a certain cache. Dana seems able to see herself at a certain distance, recognize her role in a culture of materialism and decadence, and even though on the surface her move from Manhattan to Crown Heights – from which she commutes by subway to her job in the publishing industry – is less drastic than Strayed’s months-long journey on the Pacific Crest Trail, Dana’s transformation seems more genuine and complete than Strayed’s.
But you probably want to know more about the book, no?
Rebecca Dana was raised in a mostly-secular Jewish home near Pittsburgh, PA. She represents herself as supremely nerdy as a girl, and when she graduated from college and moved to New York, she began a systematic and deliberate transformation into a fashionista in the style of Carrie and her friends in Sex and the City. By twenty-seven she had ensconced herself in a Manhattan apartment with her trophy-fiancé, Chad – until Chad informed her that he had felt compelled to cheat on her because she was only “beautiful on the inside,” while he was looking for a woman who was “beautiful on the outside” as well. The horrible shallowness and meanness of this statement is a little hard to believe, but I do think that there are people out there who embrace this sort of aesthetic – who value sleek bodies and high cheekbones and flat abs and glowing hair and whatever else as ends in and of themselves, not as mere genetic accidents or as signs of hard-earned health and physical fitness that indicate a disciplined and wholesome lifestyle. I am pleased to say that I know very few such people myself – but I do think they are out there, and while Dana might be exaggerating a little bit in her portrait of Chad, she is probably representing him more or less fairly.
Of course she leaves him – and she is left scanning ads for sublets and room rentals in one of the most difficult and expensive real estate markets in the world. She accepts that she can’t afford a Sex and the City-style apartment on her own income alone, so she casts her net farther afield until she finds Cosmo, who is renting out a bedroom in his flat in the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn. Cosmo is a fascinating enigma, and Dana’s characterization of him is the best part of this book. He is a native of Russia and a convert to Hasidic Judaism. He has studied in yeshivas around the world and is an ordained rabbi. He is also beginning to lose his faith and is questioning whether he should remain in the close-knit religious community in which he lives. Instead of working as a rabbi, he has a job in a copying and printing store (you know – one of the places that I will probably always call Kinko’s, in spite of the fact that that chain has been defunct for years). Toying with abandoning his adherence to kosher laws yet not willing to contaminate a kitchen that will probably someday be rented to believing Hasids, Cosmo chows down on raw bacon while chatting with Rebecca Dana in the living room. And, as the title promises, he practices jujitsu, and sometimes he practices his holds and grappling techniques on his new roommate and says things like “[Jujitsu] is just like sex, but without the sadness” (7).
The bulk of this book is the story of the double life Dana lives when she moves into Cosmo’s apartment. She commutes to Manhattan for work in Carrie Bradshaw-style outfits and stiletto heels, often walking home through Cosmo’s scary neighborhood long after midnight. She goes out on dates in Manhattan after work, but back in Crown Heights she joins Cosmo for dinner with his friends, many of whom are Dana’s age or younger but already married with several children. She is just as stunned by the seriousness and dedication of these young spouses and parents as they are by the fact that she is still unmarried at twenty-seven. She also finds their lives terribly Spartan and boring, and she wisely never commits to anything resembling a “moral of the story”; instead, she is willing to inhabit the ambiguity of the many models of adult womanhood that her life offers her. She even enrolls in a women’s course at a local yeshiva, where she studies scripture and makes friends with a number of friendly, welcoming Hasidic women who constantly try to nudge her in the direction of marriage and family.
One of my favorite poems – one of my favorite pieces of writing of any genre, really – is Philip Larkin’s “Church Going.” In this poem, Larkin tries to imagine what will happen in an imagined future when the world becomes so secular that no one remember what churches are or what people used them for (a fantasy that I suppose someone of Larkin’s generation could imagine more readily than someone today, when the world’s spiritual pendulum has swing back in the direction of orthodoxy and evangelical religion). He ends up concluding that people will always be lured back into churches, even if they don’t know exactly what these buildings were once used for. My favorite part of the poem is the fact that he word he uses for what these future churchgoers will be seeking is “seriousness”: “Since someone will forever be surprising / a hunger in himself to be more serious / and gravitating with it to this ground.” For me, “seriousness” is the best word I can imagine for the spiritual impulse, which for me is not so much about accessing lofty things like angels and saints and God but about the attempt to know the physical world – including, of course, one’s own aggravating and confusing self.
This hunger for “seriousness” is behind Dana’s move to Crown Heights and her friendship with Cosmo. Sure, her need for inexpensive housing is what brought her to Cosmo’s front door, but this book (in spite of its silly title and the cover image of a strip of uncooked bacon) is not the joke that it appears to be. While most of the energy of Wild consists of Strayed laughing at her former self and encouraging us to do the same, Dana’s memoir is asking us to look at the hidden seriousness in a person who has chosen to live in Manhattan’s world of fashion and publishing.
I should end on some kind of a remark echoing Chad’s earlier statement about “beauty on the outside” and “beauty on the inside,” right?
Well, there you go. I just did.