Review: “All Who Go Do Not Return,” by Shulem Deen

Shulem Deen can remember the moment he finally lost his faith. He was at home, wrapped in his prayer shawl, saying the morning prayers. This alone was a sign of his waning devotion. Deen lived in New Square, an all-Hasidic village in New York, and in New Square, men were expected to pray at the synagogue. But by this point in his life Deen was praying mainly out of habit and to avoid angering his wife, and, as he stands in his dining room, listening to the sounds of his five children getting ready for school, a thought comes to him, the conclusion to years of questions and doubt: “I no longer believe in any of this.”

All Who Go Do Not Return is the story of how Deen lost his faith and what happened afterward. The journey to this point is long, because for Deen, a Skverer Hasid, belief in God was not a matter of private opinion, but the foundation of every aspect of life. Aware of the consequences of unbelief, Deen drags on for years without fully accepting that he no longer believes in the tenets of the Skverer brand of Judaism:

For a long time, I had tried to deny it. A mere sinner has hope: An Israelite, although he has sinned, is still an Israelite, the Talmud says. But a heretic is lost forever. All who go do not return. The Torah scroll he writes is to be burned. He is no longer counted in a prayer quorum, his food is not considered kosher, his lost objects are not returned to him, he is unfit to testify in court. An outcast, he wanders alone forever, belonging neither to his own people nor to any other.

Deen is a searcher. He doesn’t stop asking questions once they become difficult, and, once he realizes that he no longer believes, he is unable to act like he still does. Tensions arise—first between Deen and his wife, Gitty, and then between Deen and the leaders of New Square—and by the end of the book Deen is living on his own, ostracized from the community and cut off from his family, severed from the world he had lived in his whole life.

Deen’s book is one of several memoirs by ex-Orthodox writers that have come out in the past few years. Others include Shalom Auslander’s Foreskin’s Lament; Leah Vincent’s Unchosen; Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox; and Leah Vincent’s Cut Me Loose. Tablet Magazine called the ex-Orthodox memoir “New York Publishing’s Hottest New Trend,” and I can attest to the strength of this phenomenon anecdotally: In Teaneck, where I live, all ten copies of Deen’s book are checked out from the public library, and have been since they came out months ago.

Part of the appeal of these books is excitement of peering into a deeply mysterious, cloistered world—American, but as distant from mainstream American culture as it seems possible to be. Even to the Teaneck audience—Modern Orthodox, familiar with the rituals of ultra-Orthodox life—Hasidic communities are insular enough as to seem deeply foreign, and fascinating. And no community is as insular as New Square. “New Square was a place that even extremists thought too extreme,” writes Deen, “where even fanatics shook their heads in dismay.” In New Square, even the radio was considered impure. People had cassette players, for Jewish music and lectures, but “when the device came with a built-in radio tuner, there was a standard procedure for it: Krazy Glue the switch into the tape-playing position, paste a strip of masking tape over the station indicators, and put the antenna out with the next day’s trash.” Deen’s first major transgression is to listen to the radio, and he describes the amazement he felt listening to the most mundane parts of American life: traffic reports, commercials for car dealerships, a talk show about Alan Dershowitz. When his wife learns, she is livid: “It starts with radio, and the next thing you know, you’re eating trayf and driving on Shabbos.” And she turns out to be right. Once the seal is broken, Deen’s appetite for information about the outside world only grows: he reads secular books at the library, he gets a television, eventually he gets a computer, too.

Ex-Orthodox memoirs are remarkable as a human drama, too: leaving an ultra-Orthodox community means leaving the family and community that has enveloped you since birth. In this respect, Deen’s memoir is far better than any of the other ex-Orthodox memoirs that have been published so far, in part, because Deen is a better writer than the other memoirists. More importantly, Deen is a deeply sensitive observer of the world around him and of his own mind. Ex-Orthodox writers tend to be—understandably—bitter, and their books tend towards the garish exposé: vindictive, focused on those aspects of their communities that are hypocritical, ignorant, and cruel. Deen, too, writes of the intolerance of the Hasidic world, but he writes with understanding and openness. He was a pious Skverer for long enough to understand what it’s like to believe fervently. When word gets out that students in the yeshiva have been watching TV, Deen joins the other young married men in interrogating suspect and ransacking rooms. “It was up to us to stop it. To take up the spear of Phineas, and smite the evil within those who blasphemed within these sacred walls.” Deen’s ability to write without condemnation is a great virtue of the book.

He also writes movingly about the beautiful parts of Hasidic life. Unusual among the ex-Orthodox writers, Deen chose to join the community he would later leave. Deen didn’t grow up in New Square, but in Borough Park, Brooklyn, around 45 miles away. Borough Park is home to one of the largest ultra-Orthodox populations in the United States, but, unlike the Skverers in New Square, the Hasidim in Borough Park are diverse. Every Hasid in New Square follows the Skverer rebbe, a descendent of the Rabbinic dynasty founded in Skvyra, in the Ukraine, in the 18th century. In Borough Park, more than a dozen Hasidic groups live side by side—Bobov, Satmar, Ger—and most groups have their own rebbe, and, as a child, Deen regarded these figures indifferently: “They all seemed indistinctive and uninspiring, caricatures of pietistic pretense, each with his gauzy white beard, glazed eyes under thick eyeglasses, blue or white caftans.” Deen’s family didn’t belong to any one of these groups, and Deen, an apathetic student, went to a Skverer yeshiva almost by accident, because he had heard that it had a lax entrance exam.

Deen discovered the emotional core of Skverer life when he went to New Square to attend a tisch, a communal meal in the New Square synagogue, attended by every man and boy in New Square and presided over by the Skverer rebbe himself. He is struck first by the spirit of welcoming. A friend tells him to join the other boys their own age on the crowded top row of the bleachers at the side of the room: “They’ll make room for you. In Skver, there’s always room for another.” They watch as the rebbe’s attendants bring the rebbe food on enormous silver platters. The rebbe eats from each tray, and then his leftovers are passed around the room his the Hasidim to eat, “each morsel bringing untold blessings.” “An elderly man began to sing a familiar song, a coarse and boisterous melody, its simple notes taught in every Hasidic kindergarten,” and soon Deen is swept up in a profound spirit of community:

The crowd joined in, and slowly their voices grew louder, more robust, the song filling the sanctuary. Moments later, the rebbe removed his hand from his forehead and began to pound his fist on the table. The crowd responded, stomping their feet in time to the rebbe’s pounding. Even the brass chandeliers vibrated to the beat of the song. The simple passage was repeated over and over, until the crowd was like a single massive organism screaming its desperate plea: Grant us, grant us, the good inclination! Grant us, grant us, the good inclination!

There, Deen feels for the first time “the ecstasy and the joy” of Hasidic life. There, he decides to become a Skverer.

But the warmth with which the Skverers welcome Deen into their life gives way, years later, to the coldness with which they cast him out. The most affecting moments come towards the end of the book, when Deen—now divorced from his wife and living in a different town—struggles to stay close to his children. Deen’s visitation rights are reduced every year, even more movingly, he gradually loses his children’s affection, which he can feel physically when he hugs them goodbye. “This time, the girls held themselves stiffly, while I wrapped my arms around them anyway, and held them close. I could feel their eagerness to get out from my embrace, to be done. All I wanted was never to let go.” And Deen is, for a while, bereft and alone in the secular world.

Today, Deen is a member of Footsteps, an organization that provides resources to people trying to leave the Hasidic world. Deen was more equipped than most to make that transition: he could speak and write English fluently, while in New Square, English education, always perfunctory, terminates after eighth grade. He had a computer, taught himself to write code, and found a job as a programmer. But even for Deen, leaving New Square meant leaving his family and everything he knew for a world where he had no friends and no community. All Who Go Do Not Return is a story of self-discovery and a remarkable commitment to living honestly. For Deen, living by his convictions and opening himself up to the world meant remaking his entire life with no guidance, and being cut off from the world that had sustained him for thirty years.

 

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