Off the Shelf: Runaway queen

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

It was the title that caught my eye: “The Punk Rock Queen of the Jews: A Memoir” (She Writes Press). The author’s name, Rossi (just Rossi), didn’t seem familiar. However, when looking at her short biography, the title of her previous memoir. “The Raging Skillet,” did. It took me several steps to discover that, yes, I’d reviewed her first book, which discusses her family and career as a caterer. The focus of her current book is not food, though. Instead, she tells of how, after being a rebellious teenager and running away from home, her parents took her to Crown Heights and left her in the hands of a Chasidic rabbi who was said to rehabilitate problem children. It doesn’t spoil the memoir to say he was not successful.

Rossi, whose original name was Slavah Davida Shana bas Hannah Rachel Ross, was born to a loosely Orthodox family. Her behavior as a teenager in the late 1980s was not atypical for youth of that time: she drank, took drugs and dressed provocatively. However, after running away from home and living in a hotel for three months (and continuing what her parents considered inappropriate behavior), Rossi was arrested. Her parents were at a loss for what to do with her and, hoping to change her behavior, dropped her off at the house of a Chasidic rabbi in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. 

Rossi’s parents sent the rabbi a monthly check to take care of her. That didn’t happen. In fact, the rabbi rarely interacted with her; he seemed content to collect the money and leave her to her own devices. He didn’t require her to attend high school so she could get her degree, although she was directed to a teacher who taught young women Torah and how to be Jewish. Her attendance at those classes didn’t last long. While living at the rabbi’s house, Rossi had no privacy: she slept on the couch in the living room and was basically left to her own devices. The rabbi also did not object to her moving into an apartment with friends, even though she was not yet 18. Nor did he seem to care that she had no money and needed to work in order to afford rent and food. (The funds her parents sent him were not shared with Rossi.) 

Most members of the Jewish community in Crown Heights ignored her. The only exceptions were young men who were willing and/or eager to drink or do drugs with her and her friends. Being ignored was better, though, than the men who wanted to sleep with her – whether or not she wanted that to happen. Even though she wasn’t happy living in Crown Heights, she felt anything was better than returning to her parents’ home or being sent to reform school. What she waited for was her 18th birthday, when she could legally be considered an adult and move to Manhattan. It was during this time that Rossi began to realize that she was attracted to women, not men, something completely unacceptable in the Orthodox world and which was not often spoken about even by many in the secular community at the time.

Rossi did have some good experiences: a few members of the community befriended her and helped her survive. She had one opportunity to meet Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson personally and felt a connection. But that didn’t make her want to be more religiously observant. She only began to practice Judaism years later after she learned of an LGBTQ synagogue and found her Jewish home.

Although the Crown Heights community generally ignored her, readers might understand that reaction: Rossi was a threat to their Orthodox way of life, especially the influence she might have had on their children. Not everyone will enjoy reading the chapters telling of her drinking and drug taking. However, she was a teenager and should not have been left on her own. The rabbi who took money from her parents was committing fraud and, even worse, doing nothing to protect her. Her parents were also at fault: they visited and could see that she was living on her own. Why they didn’t question this should bother readers. Her mother also seemed more concerned that Rossi might have non-Jewish friends than about her general well being. The advice Rossi’s mother gives her – you can always trust a man who is wearing a yarmulke – proves not only to be wrong, but dangerous.

Rossi does manage to make a life for herself – professionally, personally and religiously – and, in the course of her memoir, comes to terms with her demons. She also makes peace with her parents, something for which she should be commended. The memoir contains doses of humor, even when she discusses serious subjects. Her work also offers crucial insights parents should consider when relating to children whose behavior and desires differ from their own.