Shulem Deen was a man in his 20s when he felt bold enough to slip unseen into a public library. Like the inner-city African-American boy in Philip Roth’s “Goodbye, Columbus” who, on a visit to the Newark Public Library, first sees Gauguin’s striking paintings of exotic Tahiti, a world cracked open for Deen.
On a tiny chair in the children’s section, the Skverer chasid made his way through the World Book Encyclopedia, encountering Einstein, Egyptian hieroglyphics and Elvis Presley for the first time.
His debut memoir, “All Who Go Do Not Return” (Graywolf), is the latest work in the new and deepening literary tradition of brutally honest works by ex-chasidim about leaving their community. Through these books, the reading public is guided inside the cloistered worlds of chasidic life. Whether that cloistered world has been changed — opened up, if you will — by the growing number of these works remains a point of debate.
Deen is the poet laureate of ex-chasidim. His sentences flow with originality as he unveils his story with passion and sensitivity. Readers will be surprised to realize that he is largely self-taught, that most of his schooling was in Yiddish.
While “All Who Go Do Not Return” is a story of leaving, his is not the voice of someone in exile, looking back. Rather, Deen writes as a traveler, looking around and deeply noticing all that he missed in the outside world, yearning for knowledge and experience.
It is also a heartbreaking book, as Deen — at least for the time being — is no longer in touch with his five children, three daughters and two sons who range in age from 13 to 20. That’s not his choice, but a complicated outcome of family court, his ex-wife Gitty’s desire to shield them from his heretical ways, community pressure and the children’s absorption of communal norms of conformity. He writes of losing their hearts. Still, Deen is respectful of Gitty and the Skverers. Readers may hope that his children get to read this book and come to understand their father and his love for them.
Since Hella Winston’s groundbreaking study, “Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels,” was published in 2005, there have been many books published by people who seem like they stepped out of her pages. Deen’s book belongs on bookshelves alongside the compelling and much-discussed memoirs by formerly fervently Orthodox writers including Shalom Auslander, Deborah Feldman and Leah Vincent, and Anouk Markovits’ novel “I Am Forbidden.”
Just out last month is a film, “Felix and Meira,” about a young chasidic married woman drawn into a romance with a non-Jewish French Canadian and into a world outside of her restrictive Montreal community. It’s a gentle film, with images that linger. Meira’s loving husband is played by Luzer Twersky, a former chasid who grew up in Borough Park and left that world seven years ago.
And coming in July is a new memoir by Judy Brown, who in 2010 penned the young adult book, “Hush,” under the pseudonym Eishes Chayil (woman of valor) for fear of backlash in the chasidic world in which she grew up because of her depiction of sexual abuse within the community. Brown’s “This Is Not A Love Story” is her story of growing up in a family with six children, including a brother who is afflicted with a medical condition they don’t understand. Told in the voice of her younger self, Brown, who has left the chasidic community, although she remains religious, presents an insider’s view of family and communal life, with a questioning spirit.
Alan Brill, a professor in the graduate department of Jewish-Christian studies at Seton Hall University, points to an earlier tradition of chasidic rebels, like Isaac Joel Linetzky (1839 – 1915), a Yiddish writer born into a Chassidic family in Podolia, Ukraine. His novel, “Dos Poylishe Yingl” (“The Polish Boy,” 1869), satirizing Chassidic life in coarse and colorful language, appeared in 30 editions, the last in Kiev in 1939. The sequel was published under the evocative title “Der Vorm in Khreyn” (“The Worm in the Horseradish”).
Brill also mentions stories of people who went to the home of the poet and author Y. L. Peretz in Warsaw: “They came in as chasidim and left as secular Yiddish authors, writing accounts of the changes in their lives.”
Perhaps the ongoing appeal of these works has something to do with the fact that some Jews see their own family’s more traditional pasts in the characters’ strict lifestyle. The memoirs about leaving touch on extreme transformations and complex questions of faith, theology, tradition and family that many struggle with, albeit in different permutations.
“These are coming-of-age stories, but the writers are not teenagers but adults trying to understand the world we live in,” says Twersky, who is a writer as well as an actor. “Before, we had other people telling our stories. Now we are able to speak in our own voices.”
For him, acting in the film “Felix & Meira” was cathartic. “You go back to a place where you were and try to understand it. As an actor you can’t judge your characters. You have to believe in what they believe in at the moment.” He says that he now understands the place he came from in new ways, although he remains critical.
Brill, who closely follows the demographics of the Jewish community, says that nobody has any statistics about the number of people leaving chassidic life. When asked about whether people are also exiting from religious communities like Lakewood, N.J., which are fervently Orthodox but non-chasidic, he says that they are, but not to the same degree.
Brown points out that the chasidic community has quadrupled in the last generation — recent studies show that Borough Park has the highest birthrate of any New York City neighborhood — so that it makes sense that the number of people leaving is also larger. She says it’s natural that some would want to articulate their experience.
As to whether the chasidic communities are changing, Brill says, “I don’t think they change, in a direct sense of becoming more sensitive, more open, or more responsive. I do think these communities have a sense of what the [World Wide] Web brings into their world, how easy it is now to learn about the outside world. There’s greater awareness.
“There are a combination of things going on now,” he continues. “Abuses are being exposed; there are problems of pornography, incredible materialism — seeing how other people live. Real knowledge is available. You have to publicly buy a newspaper, but here the knowledge of what’s going on in the world is [privately] available on your phone. They haven’t come to grips with that yet.”
Twersky believes that he and his fellow chroniclers are indeed having an impact. “We are poking massive holes in the narrative: We are told as kids that if you go out, you’re going to end up in jail, or in rehab, that life will be horrible. The rise of this community is to inspire other people — kids, teenagers, people with kids — to think, ‘I can go out and make it. I can live the life I really want.’”
While Deen, the founding editor of the website Unpious (where he published distinguished work by a number of ex-chasidim), is indeed sad about what has happened with his family, he is not a broken man; rather, he is alive with possibility. In an interview, he shares his ideas with a thoughtfulness that belies how long and deeply he has been considering belief and reason, family and community, and building a new value system. After he married at 18 (he had met his wife for only a few moments before they agreed to wed) and had children, he lost his belief in all that he had been taught not to question.
This wasn’t the book Deen intended to write. He had in mind to write a novel, but his agent convinced him that it would be easier to sell a memoir. He says that he’s always had the impulse to write — as a teenager, he used to write in a florid rabbinic Hebrew and then in Yiddish. Early in his marriage, he published some essays in Yiddish. After sneaking a radio and then a computer into their home in New Square, he discovered the world of blogging in 2003 and attracted a huge audience to his (anonymous) “Hasidic Rebel” blog. Eventually, he was expelled from the Rockland County town as a heretic.
The memoir’s narrative skillfully goes back and forward in time, with flashbacks to his childhood and more innocent times. As a young student when he first visits New Square from Brooklyn, he is struck by the intensity, piety and warmth of the place, and the modesty of the people who seem less interested in remodeled kitchens than the chasidim he knew in Borough Park. Now, he recalls how he was truly uplifted and even ecstatic in his prayer life among the Skverers and he says, “Nothing in the secular world so far has been able to move me with that intensity.”
He no longer prays, but enjoys occasionally going to non-Orthodox synagogues, “connecting to a sense of peoplehood, mystery and culture.”
Deen says that one of the questions he is most frequently asked is whether leaving was worthwhile, whether he’d do it again
“Was it worth it? Absolutely. I’m happier, more fulfilled, I have a wonderful network of friends,” he says.
“Would I have done it if I knew I would lose my children? No I would not. That was too much to bear and I would not have been able to consciously take that step. But perhaps if I was better prepared, the outcome would not have been inevitable, and I’d like to think I’d have had the courage to undertake that battle, because living a fear-based life, lying and hiding to yourself and everyone around you, is no way to live.”
Deen now lives in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, and is on the board of Footsteps, an organization that helps individuals in different stages of leaving Chassidic life, providing much-needed counseling in job skills and education, along with a new sense of community. “Footsteps has saved lives in the most literal sense,” he says.
Basya Schechter, a musician and composer who leads the group “Pharaoh’s Daughter,” also grew up in the chassidic world and left it many years ago. She now serves as music director of Romemu, a progressive, egalitarian synagogue on the Upper West Side, and is studying to be a cantor.
She notes that people have been telling these stories through films and documentaries for the last 20 years, and more recently through memoirs. “Every story is so different, each journey is so individual.”
“I love the genre. Every time another book or movie comes out, I feel it is a triumph of a voice being heard.”