Living the Dream: Staying Authentic with Another Memoir from RFH Grad Rossi

Does the world really need another memoir?

It’s a question with which famed New York City caterer, author and playwright of The Raging Skillet known as Rossi — we’ll get to her real name later — grappled. Originally, the wild child and Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School (RFH) graduate of a different kind figured the answer was a hard “Yes.” After all, when it’s all about how a gay Jewish punk rock queen plucked the jewels out of her own crown, who could resist?

After ingesting too many opinions like a bad bowl of matzo ball soup — as if there could be such a thing — it was Rossi’s healing try at third-person fiction writing of her story that opened a buried crown-induced wound leading to a full-on bleed-out. It was when she doused the wound in hydrogen peroxide’s purifying sting that its authenticity got an air-out healing in what became her second memoir — The Punk Rock Queen of the Jews.

After all, she figured, the world could really use a good dose of what it takes to pull those jewels out of the crown of a 1981 Crown Heights experience as a not-so-good Jewish girl. Who couldn’t use a story of endurance and hope simmering under a heap of authenticity?

So, the second Rossi memoir, sans recipes and the more silly, albeit unbelievable, misadventures, was launched last week with a reading in New York. Now Rossi is coming home again to the Rumson-Fair Haven area with a reading, signing and gathering of hometown friends and townies at River Road Books in Fair Haven on Thursday, May 2, from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m..

Why would the renegade return? Because home is where the story started — the good, the bad and the never really ugly, just authentic. There’s that word again. It bears repeating. Think of it as a not-so-subtle hammering into the hardest of got-to-get-it heads.

This memoir? Well, it tells a less comical story. It hones in on inspirational with a lot of coming-of-age twists all stemming from a cumbersome youth spent in Rumson, raised by very un-Rumson parents and a wild streak strong enough to blaze her own kind of un-preppie trail. That was the unbeknownst trail that ended up taking the 16-year-old rule-breaking, rebellious punk rock runaway, via her parents’ kidnapping, from Rumson to “a Chasidic rabbi — a ‘cult buster’ known for ‘reforming’ wayward Jewish girls” — in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY.

Why tell it when everyone knows at least one story of rebellion already? Because someone out there needs to hear this one. Also, many wanted to hear it. “That part of the first memoir (The Raging Skillet) I had always kept G-rated,” Rossi said in a recent chat. “But on the book tour it was something that people always wanted to talk about … I’d hear, ‘You were what? Shipped off to the Chasids? Tell us more about that. For real?'” Oh, it was for real alright.

Real. So the second memoir is very much for real — painfully so, bawdy dark comedy included. It’s all about that authenticity — the re-telling of a chunk of Rossi’s raw, stinging, even funny reality that could inspire anyone trying to live their best, most grounded life with a big ol’ gutsy grin. To know Rossi is to get it, smile and soar with it as she did. What better way to get to know her even better than in this memoir? It’s all about taking the fear away with what’s really real.

And it’s that dark, unbelievably believable reality she gave a little peek into in the first memoir that left readers wanting to dig down to the burrowed roots of it all — that crown. So Rossi started shoveling to the ugly with a smile, knowing there was a diamond gleaming somewhere in the dark, dingy Crown Heights crown that needed to be unearthed.

“It’s not a funny story,” Rossi said. “I mean, it’s not Sylvia Plath dark, but I’m a funny person, so it’s told with humor interjected. Now that I am secure in my life situation, I trace everything back to that era. Yes, it’s cathartic. But, more so, I feel strongly that so many women are stuck in these situations because of extreme religion, oppressive situations that are just not them. They’re stuck in lives dreaming of being free and their authentic selves. I hope those women get courage and hope from the book — enough to climb up and out.”

But Rossi had to be able to uncork the time capsule that held the jewels in order to spill her story onto those 324 pages meant to inspire. And, so she had heard, probably too many times, that the memoir rage is dead, unlike the skillet, and buried, too.

Deciding to write this story just didn’t come easy as with any memoir. Never mind the whole point of view tussle. In the recesses of her rebellious mind, Rossi said she heard her family saying, “Don’t do it if it’s bad for the Jews.” That, she said, was ingrained in her. “So, that’s why I didn’t do it. I worried that people would become anti-semitic. And she didn’t want that kind of hate to fester inordinately. Here’s where the honor came in.

The raw sort of rant scribbling of the roughest of first drafts started years back when Rossi decided to go to her father, who she says was a “shitty father,” in the final years of his life to embrace him, understand and heal from those not-so-great ’80s. The move to the end-of-life care for her father was one that she said turned into “an honor.”

“He cried,” she recounted. “Everything was getting to be too much for him. He had no one to trust. It broke my heart. So, here I was, the black sheep daughter and the only one he now trusted. We swept in like a SWAT team, separated him from a criminal accountant and made sure he was in a great place. It really was such an honor that he let me in and allowed me to be there and help him. It got to the point where I’d walk in to his place and he’d smile and say, ‘Hey, there’s my girl.’ With that experience, it was like a giant cork came out.”

And the story of what really happened in Crown Heights spilled over in page after page of stream of consciousness scribbling. The honor experience all these years later had unleashed the good in her story — somewhere in there.

“It all came out,” she said. “There were some wonderful people and really dark and terrifying things. So, instead of pain, I had to put myself in loving place to write it so that someone would read it, but would understand, as I did, that I met some terrible people, but they weren’t reason to hate the jews. There was inspiration in it all. There was good and humor. That took work.”

That work came from all that digging into the core to find those jewels in the Crown Heights experience.

Then there was the point-of-view tussle and triumph. Call it an authenticity epiphany. The first pass, after that initial raw spew of her Crown Heights story, Rossi was told to rewrite it as fiction novel.

“I took the whole thing out of first person and put it into third,” she said. When I did that, though, I found I was able to say more things than in first person, as if the story was happening to someone else. So, the whole story unabridged story came out … When writing in third person, terrifying things in the story were exposed. I started feeling really sorry for this Rossi. I thought about it. If that had happened to any other person, I would have had so much sympathy for them. The revelation was that I never had that sympathy for myself until I put it into third person.”

So, when opinions came full circle and her editor ultimately told her that the first-pass third-person fiction bugged her and it needed to be reverted to a memoir, she felt the time was truly right. The story had become all the more relatable once she took the plunge into the pain and wrote about herself from the outside looking in. Relatability. Authenticity. There’s that word again. Bam. It’s from both that the hope can be offered up. That’s why people want to read any memoir, really, unless it’s out of pure celebrity curiosity. To learn. To be inspired.

“It didn’t matter what translation the women whispered to me,” Rossi says in the memoir. “I was hearing my own: ‘You can make it. You can do it. Don’t give up. Never give in.'”

It was all too true, too, to Rossi that successful writers write what they know. And what Rossi knows is pain, perseverance, passion and, mostly, yes, authenticity. She knows that those things can pave the way to the freeing glare of sunshine on the crowing jewels of self-made, undaunted success and inspiration laced with a little humor. How? She lived it, of course, and lived to tell her story in the most appreciative way, honoring each experience along the journey.

“I could almost write a book about writing the book,” Rossi said. “I’ve got my insides all over this. I had spent a lot of time and energy burying that particular time. It was a dark cloud. But I got past it and moved on. So, opening up (the Crown Heights wound) wasn’t so pleasurable, or even healing, until I learned through re-writing the story in the third person how relatable it really was on many levels” — the light seen and lessons learned.

Yes, the light ….
“If I had been invisible, I would have walked away, past the black coats on Kingston Avenue, past the drug dealers and catcallers on Eastern Parkway, past the ugly brown buildings and half-dead trees,” Rossi’s favorite passage in the book says. “I would have kept walking over the distant bridge I dreamed of crossing, and into the bright, colorful lights of Manhattan.” 

So, what’s the literal story behind this morning glory that shone from the dark? What’s the Punk Rock Queen of the Jews journey into the Crown Heights experience really all about?

It’s simple and complicated. Above all, though, it’s a bold. It cuts right to the heart of the hope. And, don’t forget, Rossi’s funny. On a more basic level, “this is Rossi’s wild, queer coming-of-age story. Rossi was taught only to aspire to marry a nice Jewish boy and to be a good kosher Jewish girl,” press for the book said.

But, of course, that didn’t happen. Here’s where it gets to the more complicated …

After the 1980s parental kidnapping to Crown Heights designed to de-program the punk rock, gay gypsy in Rossi, she spent “the next couple of years in a repressive, misogynistic culture straight out of the nineteenth century, forced to trade in her pink hair and Sex Pistols T-shirt for maxi skirts and long-sleeved blouses and endure not only bone-crunching boredom but also outright abuse and violence.”

Then there’s that first-person storytelling of “rich characters, hilarious dialogue, and keen portraits of the secretive hothouse Orthodox world and the struggling New York City of the 1980s: dirty, on the edge, but fully vital and embracing.”

But, don’t take it from me, take it right from Rossi, the not-so Rumson Rumson girl herself in Fair Haven on Thursday. The chef and writer will surely serve up a heaping helping of inspiration behind the story of hope, honor and humor herself, reminding that “no matter how hard things get in life, it’s still not as hard as Crown Heights in ’81.” And her full name will be revealed — in an authentic imitation. Really. Now that’s the true tough one.

Smile. You got this and another memoir from Rossi. Yes, the world needs it.

By the way, that’s Rossi’s very untypical RFH yearbook photo on the cover. Smiling yet?

You can purchase The Punk Rock Queen of the Jews at River Road Books or on Amazon.


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