New memoir shows nuances of chassidic and secular life

Shulem Deen

There can be a certain voyeuristic pleasure in reading accounts of those who’ve left extremist religious sects.

This is evidenced by the popularity of memoirs like Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots (2012) and Leah Vincent’s Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood (2014).

These books offer the alluring prospect of gaining an unfettered, if subjective, glimpse into a world ordinarily sealed off by stringent codes of propriety and ideology and, somewhat perversely, the chance to be absorbed without consequence into a society governed by zeal.

This said, Shulem Deen’s new memoir All Who Go Do Not Return, (Graywolf Press)  chronicles the writer’s life in and eventual expulsion from an insular chassidic Skverer community, leaves the reader with few illusions about the challenges, but also the joys, of ultra-Orthodox and secular societies.

Shulem Deen, as he was then.

From a liberal Jewish perspective, the environment depicted shows Jewish law taken to radical, sometimes cruel, extremes.

And yet, Deen, now 40 and a secular resident of hipster Brooklyn, writes of losing his faith, and ultimately his family, without demonizing those that came to shun him or romanticizing modern life.

Of the clandestine drives he used to take from the Skverer village of New Square, outside New York City, into Greenwich Village, he mused, “Here too, I was sure, there were unhappy lives, stalled careers, loves lost…Here too there was the need to conform, with social codes just as arbitrary and stifling. Yet I would return, again and again, drawn to the mystique of freedom.”

A genuine believer for years, Deen started out as a disaffected adolescent, the product of a chassidic family that he vaguely portrays as not quite stable – where the book disappoints is in Deen’s choppy references to his childhood and nuclear family.

Raised in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighbourhood, Deen tried to conceal from his cheder teachers what he perceived as the humiliating fact of his father not allying with any particular chassidic group – neither Breslover, Satmar nor Skverer.

At 13, Deen chose to attend a Skverer yeshiva in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (from which he was eventually expelled for truancy) because “they weren’t very selective and administered no entrance exam.”  

He was later sent to a yeshiva in Montreal where the Satmar rabbis nearly kicked him out for insolence, but gave him a second chance after he begged for forgiveness.

Deen then committed himself to a life of piety and scholarship and was permitted to re-enter the Skverer yeshiva, where he studied before attending the group’s flagship institution in New Square.

Known for its rigidity, the Skverer sect originated in Ukraine and reassembled post Holocaust in the village of New Square, where Skverers comprise most of the less than 10,000 chassidic inhabitants.

Skverers live highly regulated lives dictated by their rebbe, speak only Yiddish and scorn modern technology.

Even as a wayward teen, Deen was transformed by a spiritually uplifting New Square tish – a Shabbat gathering involving singing, dancing and eating food passed from the hand of the rebbe. He writes:

 “Here was the ecstasy and the joy. Here was all that I had been told we Chassidim once had and lost. ‘The teaching of the Baal Shem Tov have been forgotten,’ the old rebbe of Satmar had famously said, but here among the Skverers, they appeared not to be forgotten at all.”

For nearly two decades Deen was, outwardly at least, a conscientious member of the Skverer community, but over time he was assailed by doubts -– about the primacy of the rebbe, the legitimacy of the Torah as the word of God, the restrictions placed on accessing contemporary sources of information and the lack of secular education available to Skverers, which made it nearly impossible to earn a decent wage. 

He described the awkwardness of being pressured, at 18, to marry a woman he’d only met for seven minutes.

Upon confessing his reservations to his “groom instructor,” he was told, “A wife is not a friend. A wife is not something to think about excessively…A wife is there to assist with one’s service to God, nothing more.”

Deen doesn’t pin the dissolution of his faith on a single event, but describes a years-long process of surreptitious exposure to outside influences – radio, television, the Internet, books – and of coming to view the Bible as a text that “had the markings of human rather than divine authorship…Beautiful, intricate, layered in poetry and metaphor and heart-stopping drama, but human nonetheless.”

He writes eloquently of desperately wishing his beliefs would return despite realizing that, “like a broken porcelain dish, the piece might be glued back together and the dish might hold for a while but soon enough it would break again, along that very same crack.”

After finally getting a divorce and leaving New Square, Deen’s newfound sense of freedom is tempered by the sorrow of losing his children, who appear to be influenced by community members to sever contact with him.

Even in his most painful recollections, Deen deftly captures the nuances of both his old and new lives, treating his nostalgia for the faith that once anchored him with no less reverence than the pleasures he finds in modern society: secular education, friendships, dating and writing professionally.

At a Shabbat dinner with fellow ex-Orthodox friends, Deen describes a moment of elevation similar to the one he experienced at his first Skverer tish, evoking the bittersweet experience of his transition:

“Soon we were singing, banging fists on our host’s table in time to Chassidic songs from our youth…about the God we did not believe in and the Torah we did not follow. The songs were still beautiful, and we rose and rested our hands on another’s shoulders…We’d made our choices and were proud of them and, despite the challenges, lived with few regrets.”