“But I Was the First to be Expelled for Heresy” – By Joshua Shanes

Joshua Shanes on Shulem Deen’s All Who Go Do Not Return

Shulem Deen, All Who Go Do Not Return: A Memoir, Graywolf Press, 2015, 288pp., $16
Shulem Deen, All Who Go Do Not Return: A Memoir, Graywolf Press, 2015, 288pp., $16
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Toward the beginning of his celebrated memoir, All Who Go Do Not Return, Shulem Deen recounts an early encounter with his future brother-in-law Nuchem, then a struggling student who, like many young Hasidic men, clearly did not belong in a yeshiva but felt pressured to remain there. The meeting occurred during Deen’s first year at the Skverer Hasidic yeshiva in upstate New York, on a day Deen agreed to partner for Talmud study with the chronically unpaired Nuchem. Nuchem complained that he found the dialectic style of the text bewildering and pointless: “‘Why did the sages ask all of these questions if they already knew the answers?’ he asked, as if the entire form of the Talmud were unfamiliar, as if he hadn’t been studying Talmud since the age of six.” Deen tried with little success to explain the nature of the Talmud as a learning text: “‘It’s a process,” I said, scarcely believing I was having this conversation.” Nuchem, however, was unmoved: “‘Why does the process matter?’ he asked, scowling and indignant….’ Why don’t we just study the conclusions?’”

The Talmud — unlike a legal code — launches students who already know the conclusion of a debate on the same intellectual journey that preoccupied the work’s composers. The experience of this journey constitutes the very point of the text: it offers a window into the lives of those sages from a different place and time, and an opportunity to understand how they arrived at their intellectual destinations. So too is Deen’s memoir — the latest and best installment in a string of tell-all memoirs written by former members of ultra-Orthodox (mostly Hasidic) communities — a journey of enlightenment whose endpoint readers know from page one. “I wasn’t the first to be expelled from our village,” he begins his story, “but I was the first to be expelled for heresy.” The title itself — a biblical adage condemning forever those who choose the path of evil — indicates his terminus and the one-way street that brought him there. (The collapse of his marriage and loss of his children is anticipated but only fully manifests at the end.) As with the Talmud, Deen invites readers into his former world as he retraces his journey — including its many dead ends and roads not taken — from an idealistic young Hasid into a secular, atheistic Jew searching for community and struggling to rebuild meaning in his life.

“What happened?” This is the innocent question he resentfully faces so often in his new skin. “What made you change?” Yes, this is precisely what readers want to know. Tell us everything. It was “[n]ot a single moment of transformation,” he eventually realizes, “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, by brute force if necessary, only to find that this was not possible….” And it is exactly this fascinating process and the world it explores that draws readers in and keeps us hooked from start to finish.

Simultaneously an inspiring story of self-emancipation and a train wreck playing out in slow motion, the tale quickly captivates readers who may find it impossible to avert their eyes from the disaster unfolding in front of them. Deen opens with the denouement, that he would be the first member of his Hasidic village expelled for the crime of heresy, then retraces the steps that led him there, from his entry into the community at age thirteen until his eventual expulsion and beyond. In so doing, he offers a window into an otherwise closed and closeted world of one of the most extremist sects of Hasidic society, the Skverer, and their communal hub, the village of New Square, New York.

Deen eviscerates his former community, whose redeeming qualities seem dwarfed by its flaws. He describes a society rife with corruption, brutality, cruelty (the regularity and extremity of physical punishment by incompetent teachers against small children may shock many readers), ignorance, violence, racism, hypocrisy, and more. No one is spared, from the Skverer rebbe who rules the community with an iron fist on down. He does not pull punches when describing his wife and her family. Deen’s parents, former hippies who became Hasidic Jews in their twenties, are perhaps an exception, although even they seem naïve in their piety, unable to distinguish between the beauty of classical Hasidic theology and the reality of contemporary Hasidic society. The community’s perversion of Jewish law is especially striking. Deen recalls a rabbi’s twisting of the Talmudic dictum to young husbands to “respect [your wife] more than your own self”: “What it really means, esteemed young men, is that we must be vigilant! Respect what she, a woman, can do to a man if he does not remain careful. Let down your guard, and she will lead you into sheol tachtis — the abyss of sinful temptation!” Members of the broader society are revealed to be complicit too. Secular courts are portrayed as corrupt, as judges beholden to their Hasidic constituents subvert the letter and spirit of the law in denying Deen — like many other ex-Hasidim — any reasonable visitation with his children.

Deen divides his tale into four parts. Part 1 narrates his journey into the realm of Skverer Hasidism, from the religious awakening that led him to join the sect at age thirteen through his adolescent education (such as it was), marriage (sealed after having met his bride for seven minutes), their first children and his early attempts to make a living. The latter was a continuous and oppressive struggle, as it is for most Hasidim. Deen’s candid description of his and his wife’s sexual ignorance even after their wedding is simultaneously hysterical and horrifying, while his description of social patriarchy confirms many outsiders’ worst suspicions. Part 2 describes the transformations caused by his discovery of radio, the library, and ultimately the early Internet, while Part 3 follows his and his wife’s attempt to make their family work despite his new lifestyle. His description of his very cautious search for fellow closeted heretics is eerily reminiscent of gay men and women fearfully searching out others, fearing the worst repercussions if discovered. Along the way he meets an ex-Hasid (Chezy), now an adherent of a Lithuanian outreach-style Orthodoxy, who tries to convince Deen that his faith was rationally grounded and encourages him to consider this version of Orthodoxy. Deen explores but ultimately rejects it, realizing that its alleged rationalism was no less grounded in leaps of faith. Part 3 ends dramatically with Deen’s wife wanting a divorce, and the book closes, in Part 4, with her decision — with the community’s support — to cut him off from their children as he attempts to rebuild his life in the outside world. The memoir reeks of verisimilitude, in part due to his frank revelations of intimate details about former community members, his in-laws, and above all his wife. Yet Hasidic society is not portrayed as monolithically awful. We catch glimpses of its beauty, of the benefits of belonging to this tight-knit community, and of his yearning to fill the void left by his expulsion through singing old songs, spending time with other former Hasidim, and most likely the very act of writing this memoir. Deen admits that he misses aspects of this lost world and that he would have stayed within it if only to have remained with his family. But ultimately he describes not only a lost faith but a loss of faith in a community — despite its attractive aspects for those who believe (and even for some who secretly don’t) — that is corrupt and unholy.

Deen’s main weakness — one perhaps endemic to any autobiographical venture — is his own exculpatory self-presentation. He admits his faults at times, most directly in the epilogue, but he is the hero and victim of this story, a suffering servant on a quest for an authentic life. True, he acknowledges his wife’s suffering and her correct analysis of his creeping secularization — that his use of the television and the Internet would lead him steadily into the abyss of heresy — but one can hardly blame him for exploring. He sought not hedonist pleasure but honest living. Nevertheless, his pressuring his wife against her will to join him in these violations of both custom and law strikes this reader as quite problematic, a violation of which Deen himself seems unaware even as he reflects on the events from his current vantage point.

He is thus the tragic hero of this story, most obviously in regards to his children. I do not doubt for an instant his love for his children, nor the fact that they were poisoned against him by his wife and her New Square supporters. But he portrays himself as such an ideal father — loving, devoted, self-sacrificing, and singularly dedicated to them — that one thinks more of fiction than real fatherhood, in which even good people experience failed parenting moments and extreme frustration. The exaggeration is understandable considering his loss of his children, all of whom were turned against him by his former community and family. But it does undermine a narrative otherwise strengthened by its realism. Ultimately, Deen seems to agree — like Spinoza — that his sect was right to expel him, recognizing that a heretic is a danger to a closed community, yet insists that they committed an unforgivable sin in destroying his relationship with his children.

The book lacks the humor and charm of one of the earliest of the recent wave of coming-out stories, Sholem Auslander’s Foreskin’s Lament, and it differs dramatically from recent film productions like Fill the Void that transcend the foreign aspects of ultra-Orthodox society to tell human stories filled with sympathetic characters. Auslander also sharply criticizes his former community, but ultimately his is a far funnier and less tragic tale. But then again, Auslander escaped his community while single, and married a woman — out of love — with a similar biography with whom he is joyfully raising their children. Deen’s journey to salvation, in contrast, is ongoing. Yet, paradoxically, his memoir is both a less angry (other than on the issue of his children) and more nuanced presentation of his former world. The public airing of his journey and grievances that began with his blog “Hasidic Rebel” years ago continues today on various social media, including his current blog “Unpious.” Both beautiful and heart-wrenching, Deen’s memoir offers outsiders a rare glimpse into this foreign world while sharing a fascinating and personal voyage of self-liberation.