Somewhere in the family tree of Carrie Bradshaw and Lena Dunham sits Rebecca Dana ’04, the author of the recently released “Jujitsu Rabbi and the Godless Blonde,” former senior correspondent for The Daily Beast and former editor in chief of the Yale Daily News. “I feel like we have a freakish amount in common,” Dana told me. We are both Pittsburgh runaways. We went to the same synagogue and high school; we even had the same high school role model. (“I’m smacking my head right now, literally, because I feel like he would have been perfect to put in the book,” she said.) A memoir, “Jujitsu Rabbi” fol- lows a girl on her spiritual pilgrimage from the suburbs of Pittsburgh to Manhattan — where she nearly has it all — and then to Brooklyn, where she moves in with a disillusioned rabbi, nurses her First World wounds and re-examines her lifelong priorities.
YB: So, I just want to hear it from someone else: What’s so bad about Pittsburgh, and what’s so great about New York?
RD: When I was a kid, I grew up on a cul-de-sac in a suburb of Pittsburgh, and I was nerdy and little and awkward and quiet, and I spent an enormous amount of time up in my room watching TV shows and reading books and dreaming about my life as a grown-up. It has nothing to do with problems with Pittsburgh, which is a lovely place, actually, and I went to great schools and met great people. It has everything to do with who I was as a kid and the fantasies I had and the future that I imagined for myself. And for whatever reason — and certainly I’m not alone here, there are a lot of people, and perhaps you’re one of them — who were really taken by the fantasy of New York City. And other people have their own versions of it, of going someplace. I think it’s very natural, the dream of being one particular thing when you grow up.
YB: For me, that escape for the past few years has been Yale.
RD: Yeah, Yale was part of it for me also. I think you live in your head as a kid, and everyone to some extent does, but, for me, it was extreme. I spent a lot of time in this imaginary world — you imagine all the steps you’re going to take to get there. And Yale was certainly a part of it. Yale was really far away from my childhood, and I didn’t have a bad childhood, just a boring, lonely, nerdy childhood.
YB: But you do mention Harold Bloom GRD ’56 in the book, and you mention that he taught you most of what you know about love. So what did he teach you?
RD: I don’t know if Professor Bloom even knows that this book exists, and I can’t even imagine what his reaction would be, because we didn’t know each other well at all. I just took a few of his classes and interviewed him and got to know him a little bit extracurricularly. I studied Shakespeare and poetry with him, and just hearing him … he was an oracular figure to me. You turn to whatever you turn to, when you want to understand what you’re feeling, when you want to understand the world and the human condition. You turn to the Bible, or “War and Peace,” or your mother, father or some important figure in your life.
And for me, professor Bloom just filled that hole, you could say. I found him to be so brilliant and so wise and so unbelievably kind, and to have such an enormous emotional depth and generosity about him. I was nobody special at all, and he was so kind to me. It was nothing more than a very traditional student-teacher relationship.
If you called him, he might recognize me. I’ve seen him since I left school, and he’s always recognized me. I’m sure if you asked him he’d have no idea that he had such a profound effect on my life.
YB: You should send him the book. I’m sure he’ll read it in two seconds, with his reading speed.
RD: I’m so terrified to send him the book. My book is so far from Shakespeare, I can’t imagine. … You’re right, though, I should. He’ll read the whole thing before he even opens the cover.
YB: It’s funny that you say that the book is so far from Shakespeare, because I placed it in the vein of the HBO show “Girls,” which is all about reforming Carrie Bradshaw, or seeing the rawer, more Shakespearian side of the New York 20-something woman.
RD: I think it’s a generational response. I love the comparison to “Girls” — I totally worship Lena Dunham, and I think the show is brilliant. I try to deal with similar things in my book. I think we’re coming from different places. Both having grown up watching “Sex and the City” and having it be such a major influence on our lives and on our imaginary lives — on who we wanted to be — and then finding life to be different in big and important ways, we have to contend with the space between. I love “Girls,” and I hope people will connect to my story the way they’ve connected to “Girls,” as a kind of answer, response or kind of updated version of “Sex and the City.”
YB: So what ever happened to Carrie Bradshaw?
RD: I think she’s still here. It’s Fashion Week in New York, so you can’t throw a rock without hitting Carrie Bradshaw right now. That woman is a generation older than I am, so I can’t really speak for her. I can say that I worked very hard to get to the life that she lived when she was my age, and in my experience it fell short of what I wanted it to be in a bunch of important ways. I thought, “If I could just be like those women…” And I want to say that it’s not just Carrie Bradshaw — I’m not just a brainless girl who grew up glued to “Sex and the City” — but it’s this whole mythology that you get from reading Tom Wolfe and watching Woody Allen movies. Carrie Bradshaw was not the only prophet of New York City.
All of them together built into this fantasy for me of a very particular life — and I got pretty damn close to that life. I wore the right clothes, I went to the right parties and I had the right job. And I found, in some big ways, that it ended up being unfulfilling for me, or not everything that I wanted it to be.
YB: And that’s what the book is about.
RD: When I talk about the book in interviews, I always think that it doesn’t sound funny at all, and I really wanted this to be a funny, sweet book about a very relatable person — me, I hope I’m relatable — just dealing with being in your 20s and with the life that you dreamed of just come crashing down on your head. At the time I first started writing, it seemed to me like the worst thing that ever happened to anybody. But in fact it turns out to be something that literally everyone goes through in some form. So I’m not special at all. But I just hope the book is a funny story about looking for meaning when your initial dreams about adulthood fall apart.
YB: Do you think the actual process of writing the book was a step, or even a culmination, of that journey for meaning?
RD: Oh, yeah. The process of writing the book was so strange, because I wrote the first draft as I was living it, and I wrote the next draft the next year. I wrote the book in the course of one year, and I revised it in the course of a second year, which is a very weird thing to do because your perspective changes so much. Your life has moved on. Then I revised the book a second time, so that was a third year. It was, all told, three years between getting the book deal and publication day.
YB: I loved the book.
RD: I’m so happy to hear that. Thank you so much. It really is a strange experience to write something so personal and put it out into the world. The writing process is very solitary: I spent a lot of time alone in a room, hunched over a laptop working on this book. And then it’s as if someone flips a switch, and this very personal story — and the process of committing it to paper was very personal — all of a sudden becomes very public.
I did an interview where I compared it to sending your baby into the woods to potentially be mauled by wolves. That’s how it feels. I’ve never felt so vulnerable and so exposed. There’s a beauty in that, and a majesty — there’s a real high in it — and there’s also a real terror.
YB: I hear you’re married now! So how does that not make it into the book?
RD: In the course of writing the book, I met my husband who is the great light and joy of my life. Left to my own devices, I could do nothing for the rest of my life except write books about how much I love him, as cheesy as that sounds. But I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want this book to be about a girl who goes from one guy to another. I didn’t want love and marriage to be the solution, even though in my life they have brought so much meaning and joy, because I think in a lot of books by women, and especially memoirs, the temptation is strong to find an easy solution. And very often love, or a boy, is the solution.
I joked with my husband when we were working on the cover for the book. I was talking about worst-case scenario covers, before I saw what Putnam came back with — and, by the way, I love what they did — and the worst-case scenario was a cartoon girl in high heels with a thought bubble and a man in it. That was my nightmare. I wanted the book to be as authentic as humanly possible. I didn’t want any cheap solutions, I didn’t want any easy answers.
My marriage is too precious for me to write about. I want some things to be private and personal, and that is one of those things.
YB: You end the book with the words, “We’re not fucked … we’re fine.” Are the 20-somethings all right?
RD: Yeah, come on. There are so many problems in this world. We privileged Yale kids who come to New York and have “existential crises” and try to find meaning in our lives — we’re fine. Everyone’s gonna be fine.