Monday, February 9, 2015

"I Respect It, but I Do Not Agree with It" A review of Shulem Deen's Memoir- All Who Go Do Not Return


As a child, on the rare occasions when I passed through Boro Park or Williamsburg, I was always so fascinated by the chassidim I saw. Although they were Jews, they seemed so strange, exotic, and, I must admit, scary. I viewed them as monolithic and never thought about whether we shared anything in common despite our obvious differences. In recent years, through general and social media, I have come to know a number of current or former chassidim, including some from the more closed and extremist groups, Satmar and Skver. I have learned what should have been obvious, that in so many ways, we are not really so different from one another.


In the past few years, a number of former chassidim from these communities have opened up about their stories and the reason why they went “off the derech” or OTD. Some have started to speak of the books they have written as a genre. To me, this term is unfortunate. It lumps together various individuals, and their stories, as if they are all the same . Although, until recently, I had not read any of these books, I was familiar with the stories, and I thought I knew what to expect when I picked up Shulem Deen’s memoir, “All Who Go Do Not Return”. Instead of a tell-all style, complete with salacious details, Deen has written a book that was so powerful and insightful that I could not put it down.


Deen grew up in Boro Park, the son of chassidic parents who were baalei teshuva. His father, who was not fully a member of a particular chassidic community, and whose persona seems to permeate the book,  was thoughtful, intelligent and kind, traits that Deen himself seems to have inherited. His father’s openness to the outside world, expressed in his outreach to those who were religiously observant, as well as two extensive libraries, one religious and the other secular, seems to have given Deen a healthy curiosity and sense of individuality. His father’s early death was the first of many tragic moments in Deen’s life.


In the book Deen describes his decision to become a Skverer chasid, his serious religious and less than serious general studies education, and his engagement, at the age of 18, to a woman he does not know. As he describes these various experiences and the painful events to which they lead, the reader notes that even where there might have been justification for resentment and recrimination, that Deen consistently takes the high road. He manages to describe the difficulties of marriage and the challenges that a couple who have no knowledge of sexuality before the day of their marriage, with a level of modesty, while still powerfully conveying the difficulties that he and his young bride Gitty faced.


As he develops his story, he shows how his questions about the ways of the community in which he lives, as well as his uncertainty about the foundations upon which his marriage is built, lead him to start asking more serious questions about his beliefs and worldview. Scared to express his growing doubts to almost anyone, he stays in his marriage and community, while he and Gitty become the parents of five children, three girls and two boys. As he begins to open up to the outside world, at first due to his need to support his growing family, his doubts continue to grow. Despite Gitty’s willingness to tolerate, and occasionally even join in exploring some of her husband’s forays into the modern world, his integrity and self-awareness make it difficult for him to pretend he is still the believing chasid whom he appears to be on the outside. Even as he seeks answers to his religious doubts, first in the books of a friend who works at a local yeshiva for baalei teshuva, and later, through the library and internet, he is unable to find satisfying answers to his questions.


Ultimately, things unravel as he is forced to move out of New Square after the community learn of his doubts, and, despite trying to makes things work, he and Gitty are unable to save their marriage. Tragically, despite his and Gitty’s efforts to create a situation where their five children split time between their parents, one by one his children refuse to spend time with him. The book finished with Deen’s transition into a secular life, where he manages to pick up the pieces, despite the depression that comes from losing his connection to his children. He powerfully tells of his efforts to find in the secular world, what he misses from the religious world. Without going into the details of these efforts, I read them with a lump in my throat.


So how might those of us who remain in the world of observance that Deen left, approach his story? One approach, which has become all to common, is to try and find the biographical reasons that led him to lose his faith. One recent review did this by focusing on Deen’s baal teshuva parents. This approach, while predictable, is unfortunate, as it serves as a way to push off whatever discomfort that his questions might raise. It also frees us from having to ask whether our community is sometimes at fault in the way that we deal with our most intelligent and sensitive members.

As I read the book, I couldn’t help but think about what our community might be like if there more people like Deen’s father. Early in the book, Deen powerfully conveys the story of the night that he, as a young boy, accompanied his father to a speaking engagement. He watches as his father interacts with secular Jews who are so different from the Jews that Deen knows from Boro Park. As his father enters the room, he notices that the men and women are sitting together. He asks them to sit separately by gender and then says “I would like to say that I understand and respect the desire avoid such separation. But I do not agree with it”. Deen watches as his father repeats several more times “I respect it, but do not agree with it”. As I finished the book I thought back to this scene, and began to wonder what a community that took such a position might look like. A community that would have passionately strong beliefs, while recognizing with respect, that no matter what we do, not everyone within our midst can or will share these beliefs. A community that would allow even those who go, to return, even is just briefly, to spend time with those whom they most love.

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