The Punk Rock Queen of the Jews: A Memoir

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By – April 22, 2024

Chef Rossi, also known as Rossi, is the own­er and exec­u­tive chef of The Rag­ing Skil­let in New York City. She’s per­haps the per­son one would least expect to write about the Hasidic world and Crown Heights — which makes her new book, The Punk Rock Queen of the Jews, so delight­ful to read. 

Set in the 1980s, this com­ing-of-age mem­oir fol­lows Rossi (née Slo­vah) through her child­hood, where she nev­er felt like she fit in with her tra­di­tion­al­ly Jew­ish fam­i­ly. She knew she was attract­ed to girls, and she gen­er­al­ly rebelled against the norms expect­ed of her. At six­teen, after leav­ing home, liv­ing in a motel, par­ty­ing hard, and even­tu­al­ly get­ting picked up by the cops, Rossi was dri­ven by her par­ents to Crown Heights to stay with a Lubav­itch fam­i­ly and attend a women’s sem­i­nary until she turned eigh­teen. Her par­ents told her that if she ran away, the fam­i­ly with whom she was stay­ing had instruc­tions to call the police and have her sent to reform school.

Rossi’s world went from punk rock and drugs to long skirts, mod­est cloth­ing, and liv­ing the life of a ba’al teshu­vah. She writes about both the hypocrisies in the Hasidic world and the beau­ty of it. She resents the restric­tions placed on Ortho­dox women but is inex­plic­a­bly drawn to the rebbe. She writes, I had the sense that, in this com­mu­ni­ty, where I was most­ly treat­ed as invis­i­ble, the Rebbe might some­how see me.” Her time in Crown Heights was far from easy: she details her strug­gles to find a new apart­ment and have enough to eat, her rela­tion­ships with abu­sive men and unavail­able women, and an encounter with the rebbe himself. 

After leav­ing Crown Heights when she turned eigh­teen, Rossi moved to Man­hat­tan to start her life anew, work­ing in kitchens and fig­ur­ing out her rela­tion­ship to Judaism. Read­ers may wish for more expo­si­tion about her life after she left Crown Heights, but what we do get paints a vivid por­trait of New York City in the 1980s and 1990s. The city back then was grit­ty and dark, but also mag­i­cal and edgy. The art and club scenes were noto­ri­ous, and Rossi cap­tures it all with the wide-eyed won­der and prac­ticed non­cha­lance of a young woman try­ing to fig­ure out where she belongs.

But Rossi’s mem­oir is much more than all of that. It is also a tale about heal­ing and love. About deal­ing with pain caused by fam­i­ly, reli­gion, and trau­ma. About learn­ing to love our­selves, find­ing com­mu­ni­ty, and open­ing our­selves up to love. And it is about for­give­ness, of our­selves and oth­ers, how­ev­er that might look.

Jaime Hern­don is a med­ical writer who also writes about par­ent­ing and pop cul­ture in her spare time. Her writ­ing can be seen on Kveller, Undark, Book Riot, and more. When she’s not work­ing or home­school­ing, she’s at work on an essay collection.

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