The Hasidic World Through the Eyes of a Jewish Heretic

In his page-turner of a memoir, former Skverer Hasid Shulem Deen traces his years-long journey away from faith and family.

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“All Who Go Do Not Return,” by Shulem Deen, Graywolf Press, 288 pages, $16

In May 2012, tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews gathered for a mass rally at New York’s Citi Field stadium to protest the “evils of the Internet and the damages caused by advanced electronic devices.” The Internet has torn apart families, said a letter published in the Haredi press ahead of the event. “It all happens because of [the Internet], and something must be done so they won’t be hurt.”

The story of Shulem Deen, author of the new memoir “All Who Go Do Not Return,” is exactly the kind of thing the rally’s organizers feared. A former Hasidic Jew, Deen lost his faith through a years-long process of increasingly questioning his belief system, with radio, television and the Internet playing a starring role in the process. Today, the 40-year-old founder and editor of the Unpious website — a “platform for voices and views generally suppressed within Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox publications” — lives in Brooklyn, estranged from his ex-wife, children and former community, a Hasidic rebel adjusting to a once-alien world.

In his page-turner of a book, Deen traces his slow transformation from devout Jew to nonbeliever. Starting with his expulsion from the Skverer Hasid community in New Square, New York, at the age of 33, he takes us back in time, from growing up Hasidic in Borough Park to his arranged marriage to Gitty at 18 and the births of their five children — though not necessarily in that order. The volume is the latest of several memoirs by formerly Orthodox Jews, such as Leah Vincent’s “Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood,” published last year, and Deborah Feldman’s “Unorthodox,” which came out in 2012.

New Square is home to some 7,000 Skverers, followers of the Hasidic dynasty founded by Rebbe Yitzchok Twersky in the mid-19th century in Skver (in present-day Ukraine). Deen was not born into a Skverer family. As a 13-year-old student at a Skverer yeshiva in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, he attended a Rebbe’s tisch (a traditional communal meal) in New Square, and the experience of euphoric mass prayer led to his eventually moving to the town at 16, to study at yeshiva.

For those not au fait with the spectrum of sects that make up the U.S. Hasidic population of some 200,000, Deen explains the differences. The Skverers, in their tall peasant boots worn on the Sabbath, are known for being pious and ascetic. Bratslavers, meanwhile, were “the misfits from within our world, and known for attracting misfits from without.” Satmars were “arrogant and superior and bombastic and proud ... they were the winners, and it was good to be a winner.”

Deen takes the reader into this intriguing, closed world that few outsiders get such an intimate look at. He tells us what it was like to marry a girl he hardly knew. He takes us through his struggles to find work outside the community (he tried teaching and other odd jobs, before getting hired at a trade magazine) after years in a religious education system, and everyday life lived mainly in Yiddish. At the same time, he traces his own intellectual journey, increasingly asking those dangerous questions that the rabbis had always warned him about.

What things prompted his questioning? “They were so many and varied that they felt simply as life,” Deen writes. “Not a single moment of transformation but a process, a journey of inquiry and discovery, of beliefs and challenges to those beliefs, of uncomfortable questions and attempts to do away with them.” Once Deen began it, the process was unstoppable.

The book’s title is a nod to the biblical reference to a woman of loose morals: “All who go to her do not return.” As Deen writes, “So said the rabbis of the Talmud regarding heresy.” Deen was ordered to leave the Skverer community in New Square with his family after being branded an “apikorus” — a term from the Mishna meaning Jewish apostate. There were rumors that he was no longer praying, that he was speaking ill of the rebbe and that he influenced another young Skeverer to move away and go to college. While some of the rumors were unfounded, what was undeniable was that he no longer belonged in New Square’s “community of the faithful.” His deviations were not minor ones, but were seen as heresy. This, Deen explains, was unforgivable.

The loss of faith

Growing up, Deen knew little about the world outside his Hasidic milieu. Throughout the book, we see his interest in the forbidden grow, a dark secret that weighs on his conscience and on his marriage. An illicit radio in his home “was just the beginning.” Deen had bought a radio cassette player soon after his wedding, and instead of supergluing the radio switch closed and removing the antenna, like other Hasids, he left it untouched, a temptation on top of the refrigerator. He graduated to watching movies and buying a computer and arranging for Internet access, which he eventually used to write an anonymous blog called “Hasidic Rebel.” He also started eating nonkosher foods — a turkey and Swiss sandwich from Starbucks, a quick dinner from an eatery after work in Manhattan. He bought a used car and drove to a public library, where he spent hours in the children’s section reading an encyclopedia. He had not read secular books since before his bar mitzvah, when it was still allowed, and was fascinated by Archimedes and by Einstein, by Elvis Presley and by Egyptian hieroglyphics. He continued to visit the library, moving on to encyclopedias in the adult section.

Many of the book’s most poignant passages highlight this distance from the mainstream world. In one scene, Deen describes a resume-writing session at New Square for men struggling to feed their growing families. “What is this, rezemays?,” asks one of Deen’s friends at the session. Certainly the fact that the writer, who once didn’t know what a resume was, has penned a memoir in English is an impressive feat.

Deen’s driver’s license photo often elicits unwanted questions from strangers. Comparing the full-bearded face in the picture to the clean-shaven man in front of them, they ask, “What happened?” The answer to this question is complex, though by 2002, when he was 28, Deen no longer thought of himself as a believer. “When was the moment I became an apikorus?,” he wonders. There is no simple explanation, and his memories, he writes, “are full of contradictions.” As such, there is something about his loss of faith that reads like a transformation that “just happened,” like something almost inevitable.

Not that Deen skimps on the tension and strife that losing his religion caused for those around him, or the inner grief that left him dizzy. Deen’s wife, Gitty, whom he married having neither met nor spoken to her during the six months of their engagement, is a constant presence, always upset and uncomfortable with his transgressions. Gitty knows of his deviations, though often after the fact. Still, her character is somewhat of an unknown quantity throughout the book. While the memoir is of course Deen’s story, Gitty comes across as quite a two-dimensional character. A fuller picture of her, with more of her perspective, is lacking, something that Deen himself acknowledges in his author’s note.

Furthermore, while Deen is very critical of many aspects of the Skverer way of life — the insularity, the brutality of teachers who use corporal punishment, the bullying tactics that are used to keep community members in line, the financial troubles of many New Square families — he seems less critical of the position of women in Skverer society. As a woman, I may be more sensitive to this element of the story, but I sensed that while Deen describes marriage rituals and his teachers’ warnings to “shield your eyes” from women after he reached bar mitzvah age, he has little empathy for the women at the other end of that averted gaze.

Another major character in the book that seems to have been skimmed over somewhat is Deen’s father, who died when Deen was 14 and at a yeshiva in Montreal. Deen’s parents were ba’lei teshuva, newly religious Jews, who became Hasidim. He describes his father’s devotion, an ascetic lifestyle of little sleep, little food and much Torah study. It was so extreme, in fact, that his mother attributed it to anorexia nervosa. In the book’s epilogue, Deen asks what his father would have thought of his path in life, and answers it with the conviction that he would have continued to love him fiercely. One gets the sense that Deen’s father is a larger actor in his drama than the memoir gives him credit for.

The book is also somewhat anthropological, probably the result of Deen trying to balance his desire to get his painful experiences on the page with trying to satisfy the average (non-Hasidic) reader’s voyeuristic urges to peek into this insular world. He guides us through detailed descriptions of rules and regulations, as he himself undergoes the rites of passage of a Hasid’s life, like a gonzo journalist in hindsight. He talks us through, for instance, the lessons from various rabbis ahead of his marriage at the age of 19 on how to fulfill his husbandly duties, what days of the week the young couple should have sex and how they should go about doing it. However, because he is doing this after the fact, after his loss of faith, these descriptions sometimes seem self-conscious, as if his writing has absorbed the understanding of how fascinating and strange this closed world is to outsiders. It is as if he is saying, yes, look, it is bizarre and peculiar and outmoded, isn’t it?

Although the memoir is moving and vivid throughout, it comes into its own toward the end, when Deen describes his falling-out with his children and his heartache over his estrangement from his beautiful faith. His emotional vulnerability here really gets across that this is an ongoing story. Deen’s children, aged between 6 and 14 at the time of his divorce from Gitty, still don’t talk to him, at one point saying they believe he wants to “turn us into goyim.” Deen has taken a step into another life and the grief of leaving it all behind, while feeling like he had no alternative, is still raw and real.