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Dana’s version of the ancient Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness is a move to Crown Heights, where, for the price of $975 a month, she procures for herself a room in Bernice Court, an apartment building a mere six blocks from 770 Eastern Parkway, former home to Menachem Mendel Schneerson and central headquarters of the Lubavitcher movement. Included in the rent is a roommate: “Cosmo,” a Soviet-born 30-year-old ultra-Orthodox rabbi in the throes of his own crisis of faith. (Cosmo, Dana informs us, is not her roommate’s real name, and, like Chad, the choice of alias is revealing, suggesting a resemblance to Cosmo Kramer, the vaguely sociopathic but utterly charming neighbor on “Seinfeld.”) Cosmo looks not entirely unlike Brad Pitt (coincidentally his favorite actor), works at a copy shop while he waits for his American citizenship papers to arrive, practices jujitsu (“it’s just like sex, only without the sadness!”) and questions his commitment to Judaism.
He is also just the thing Dana needs. And — what do you know? — she is just the ticket for him. Cosmo takes Dana to a Shabbat dinner at the home of the neighborhood’s best cook; she takes him to a Thanksgiving dinner — his first — at a Lower East Side art gallery. And while Cosmo takes to eating (raw) bacon and dreaming of meeting “a shiksa with a nice rack,” Dana enrolls in a program for Jewish women who don’t feel quite Jewish enough, known as a “Yeshivacation.”
But, eventually, Dana’s Crown Heights sojourn must come to an end. Having, one assumes, amassed enough material for this memoir, she yearns to return to Manhattan, her version of the holy land, but not before she and Cosmo swear to be friends forever. (Dana invites any and all available and interested readers to email her should they be interested in dating Cosmo. Something to consider if you happen to be “a shiksa with a nice rack.”)
By memoir’s end, Dana is no longer a blonde, nor is she godless. Instead, she is Carrie Bradshaw if Carrie Bradshaw were an aspiring tzadik — a firm believer in a happily-ever-after made of equal parts Old Testament and “Sex and the City.” Having traveled between the Boom Boom Room and Machon Chana, the Jewish women’s school in Crown Heights, Dana self-identifies as “a Jew, as a New Yorker, as a girl from Pittsburgh, as a journalist and as about a hundred other things.” What binds these identities together is the sort of commitment to storytelling that sends a resolutely secular 20-something fashion-and-gossip writer to live in one of New York’s least fashionable neighborhoods. Sometimes a trek through the wilderness is just the thing to bring you closer to God, and sometimes a stay in Crown Heights is just the thing to get you a book deal.
Yevgeniya Traps is a doctoral candidate in English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.