The Rumpus Interview with Shulem Deen
In 2005, 30-year-old Shulem Deen was summoned to a nighttime meeting with religious leaders in his small Hasidic Jewish enclave of New Square, in upstate New York. The leaders of the Skver Hasidic sect informed Deen that rumors were swirling around that he was a heretic, and had violated the laws of God and the Torah. The tribunal officially expelled Deen from the village and the Hasidic sect where he had spent his whole adult life. He was forced to sell his house and move his wife and five children out of the area as soon as possible.
Thus begins Deen’s gripping memoir All Who Go Do Not Return, detailing his sixteen years with the Skverers and his loss of religious faith, which eventually cost him his community and family. Deen’s memoir is a fascinating glimpse into a largely unknown world regimented by religious ritual, the absolute word of the rebbe, and yeshivas where corporal punishment is commonplace. Residents in New Square who challenged the rebbe could be subject to violence or vandalism of their property.
Deen was drawn to the Skverers as a fourteen-year-old from Borough Park, Brooklyn. Led by a dynastic rebbe, the Skverers reject such modern influences as radio, television, and computers. The social ideal for men is to become Talmudic scholars, studying obscure religious texts full-time and raising large families.
At eighteen, Deen experienced his first religious doubts, when he was pushed into an arranged marriage with a young woman to whom he was not attracted. Then, Deen began to work in New York City as a computer consultant. At home, he travelled down the slippery slope of listening to the radio, reading secular library books, and buying a computer and a television, appalling his devout wife.
Deen started going into New York City alone late at night, exploring the bars and clubs and realizing that he did not believe in God. Addressing his many ongoing questions, Deen started a blog in 2003 called “Hasidic Rebel,” which became a surprise hit on the Internet. Deen and his wife divorced in 2007, and his former Skver community turned on him, raising money to attack his child-custody rights in court, effectively taking his children from him.
Deen, now forty, spoke with me in the decidedly un-gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood of Gravesend in a vintage 1970s diner.
The Rumpus: Why did you decide to write a memoir of your life with the Skverers?
Shulem Deen: I started writing in March 2010. Writing a memoir as the most natural thing to do for a first literary project, especially for an unknown with no connections. I knew it was something I could do well and sell. Part of me felt that I needed to wait a few more years, to gain some distance from something that was really painful, but I had an opportunity to write the book. I had a really good agent, Rob McQuilkin. There is an expression in Yiddish, “What’s for certain is for certain.” I had an agent willing to represent me, and we sold it on a proposal to Graywolf Press.
Rumpus: Why do you describe the Skverers as one of the most extreme Hasidic sects?
Deen: What makes them stand out? The number one thing is that they are the most insular. They have a whole Hasidic village of New Square that is closed off. There is only one way in and one way out.
I think this should be clear: there are a fair number of larger Hasidic sects. There are the Satmars, the Vizhnitzers, the Belzers. They are essentially of the same cloth, with no ideological differences. There are the Lubavichers in Crown Heights, who are in a world of their own.
The Skverers have little contact with other Hasidic communities. New Square’s population is 8,000. There are 20,000 to 30,000 Skverers in Brooklyn and Israel.
Rumpus: Were your parents born into Hasidim?
Deen: My mother’s joke was that [the] shul she didn’t go to was Orthodox. She grew up in Queens. My father’s family was completely secular, from Baltimore. They both came to Hasidim in the late 1960s. They had gone out to San Francisco, the hippie environment, the Summer of Freedom or whatever.
Rumpus: You were pulled into the Skverers at a tisch, which is literally the rebbe’s ceremonial dinner on Friday night. How were you drawn in?
Deen: I remember reading the humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow on the hierarchy of needs, the concept of the peak experiences that humans feel. These events tend to be seen as moments of prophesy, that people interpret religiously, but they are essentially psychological phenomena. In hindsight, that’s what I felt at the tisch. It went on for years.
The tisch itself means “table.” It’s the shabbat meal, but it is the rebbe eating his meal. It started in the villages of Europe, where the rebbe’s followers would eat their own meals on Friday then would go to the synagogue and watch the rebbe eat his dinner. There would be singing. Now that the rebbes have thousands of followers, the sects have developed systems of bleachers surrounding the meals. You can see tisch on YouTube. The followers eat the rebbe’s leftovers. It’s kind of gross, but that’s what happens.
I once said to my teacher as a joke that we don’t care about germs because we eat the rebbe’s leftovers. My teacher said, “We absolutely do care about germs, but there are no germs in the rebbe’s food. There are no germs when you pass the rebbe’s food.”
Rumpus: Could you describe the seven-minute meeting that led to your arranged marriage at eighteen to your ex-wife Gitty? Were you both scared?
Deen: In hindsight, Gitty was a lot more scared than I was. She was more nervous. I was terribly disappointed. I was like, “I don’t want this.” Years later, I realized what was going through her mind. She felt like she was being assessed. I felt I was going to be okay. I knew I wasn’t going to come out of the meeting with anyone saying, “Oh, he’s not really for us.”
I don’t describe Gitty in the book. This book was difficult for me to write. One way to see the book is as the story of a fifteen-year marriage that didn’t work out. I started with the bezdin, the rabbinical court, kicking me out. After that, I spool back not to my childhood, but to my marriage, where I am told, “This is the girl.” I am supposed to spend my life with Gitty, but I don’t really want to, and I don’t really know what to do.
Rumpus: Despite being surrounded in New Square by families with as many as twelve kids, your wife became pregnant, but both of you had no idea how the baby would get out of the womb. What did you think?
Deen: I had absolutely no clue. I thought somehow the abdomen opened up. Somehow the baby would come out.
Years later, when my eleven-year-old daughter asked where babies came from, I told her, ”They come from the mother’s belly. The baby is in from the mother’s belly for nine months.” I didn’t get more specific than that. My wife looked at me from across the table with such a scowl.
Rumpus: How did your religious beliefs start to fall apart?
Deen: Meeting my friend Chezky was where it started in 1996. We argued about blind faith and rational belief in God. We started watching movies together. It was funny how two grown men were so enamored of the comedy Beethoven. I got my laptop in 2000, and started watching three movies a night. Titanic blew my mind. I had never experienced anything like Titanic. People make fun of it for the schmaltz, but for me, it was everything.
Rumpus: After you trained as an IT consultant, a headhunter set up an interview with Bloomberg LP. What was your experience?
Deen: My English wasn’t great, but it was passable. I taught myself how to put a tie on through the Internet. Imagine the greatest amount of anxiety you could have and multiply that by one hundred. The anxiety was almost humanly unbelievable. At Bloomberg, I was being assessed on a personal level. I was sitting face to face with someone thinking, Do we really want a Hasidic? What’s with the payes? (Hasidic side curls devout men wear.) Why can’t you wear a suit? I had all these crazy thoughts about how I was being perceived negatively. I think my perceptions were not completely wrong. People have preconceptions about Hasidic men. I wanted the job, but part of me knew I could not survive there. The stress would be intolerable. I was relieved when the recruiter told me they were going with someone else.
I wound up with a very good job at an Orthodox-owned company. The owner was not Hasidic, but he had two other Hasidic men doing computer work for him. He liked hiring Hasidim because he could pay them less, because they had no college degrees. Hasidic men can be very geeky because Talmud study is obsessed with small details. You don’t know what obsession means until you meet a Hasidic scholar. You start paying attention to the meaning of single letters.
Rumpus: How was it writing about your failed marriage?
Deen: It was challenging because my ex-wife did not ask to have a book written about her. I am not in touch with her. I had to be really careful. In the book, I tried not to say anything really unkind. My feelings for her are not very positive after everything that went down. It was not a good marriage.
At the same time, as a human being, Gitty is exceptional in many ways. She’s a phenomenal mother. I hope that comes across in the book. She’s soft-spoken and gentle. She was very kind and was a devoted wife. She was very bitter about that. She had spent fifteen years being a very faithful wife, doing everything expected of a wife in a Hasidic marriage. The problems started when I started to change. After all her devotion, I was going to take off, going into the real world and saying that I did not believe in this. “How dare you change your view?” she said. “How could you stop believing after everything I have done?” My becoming a different person was a betrayal.
Rumpus: You and your wife had an amicable religious divorce, but the Skver community then helped finance a nasty custody battle. Your daughters stopped talking with you. How did you view this situation?
Deen: People post-divorce have complicated feelings. With Gitty, it was difficult to be in touch with me. She didn’t want the divorce. I wasn’t innocent. We would fight on the phone, specifically about finances.
Gitty got the community involved, because she was angry and bitter. People on her side fundraised. I don’t blame Gitty for feeling the way she did, but it was absolutely scummy for those around her to take this up as a religious war against me.
They didn’t want me to see the kids. My kids were told I was not part of the family anymore. My son told me, “Mommy said you want to put us in public schools. Mommy says you don’t keep kosher.” Clearly, she was telling them things.
Rumpus: The end of the memoir is grim—you lose contact with your children. How did you handle writing this?
Deen: I struggled with that. I wanted to give the book a happy ending, but I realized it doesn’t have one. Now I don’t see any of my children. The youngest boy is thirteen. He no longer wants to come to visits anymore. I found freedom, but what did I lose? If I knew I was going to lose my children, would I have wanted this freedom? I would have tried to do things differently.
There is always the hope that I’ll reconnect with my children, but there is no possibility that I will ever get their childhood back. I’ll never have them as children again. That’s gone.
My oldest daughter has been married for two years. I wasn’t invited to the wedding. I spent the night of the wedding crying. I may never have a connection with this daughter.
Gitty and I had no legal binding agreement. I had no idea that the legal ramifications over custody could be so devastating.
Rumpus: What was your experience when you were pushed out of the Skverers and entered secular American society?
Deen: If you grow up in a third world country and come to the US, you may not understand the language, but jeans are jeans anywhere. You have probably also had exposure to the art and culture of your home country. The Hasidic world is just so different. It is like coming from a third world country in so many ways because you are really underdeveloped. There is little appreciation for anything artistic or creative. Hasidic boys don’t even get much an education in writing in Yiddish. There is a great body of Yiddish literature from Europe, but boys are discouraged from reading literature, for it is seen as frivolous or the books are not Hasidic enough. You are supposed to be studying religious texts.
Rumpus: You joined Footsteps, an organization for ex-Hasdim and ex-Orthodox Jews, after you left the Skverers. What did the group do for you?
Deen: Footsteps is an incredibly important organization for people who leave Orthodox communities. I try to downplay the effect that Footsteps had in the first years I was out, but I was devastated when I first left, to a degree that is very hard to describe. Footsteps holds events and helps people get GEDs. Without them, I don’t know where I’d be. I serve on the board now. Footsteps is a lot bigger now than it was.
Rumpus: In 2010, you started a web magazine called Unpious, which allowed questioning Orthodox Jews and people who have left their Hasidic communities to tell their stories. Why?
Deen: For people to be able to tell their stories, whether they are in a Hasidic community or leaving it, it was important. There was no really good platform. I could guide this and could set it up. The level of writing was more than just blogging. We had a sort of community. It took a lot of work and was exhausting. I have stopped accepting submissions.
Rumpus: There have been other books by ex-ultra-Orthodox Jews, such as Shalom Auslander’s biting memoir Foreskin’s Lament and Leah Vincent’s Cut Me Loose. How did you develop your own voice?
Deen: I am the first male ex-Hasidic author. Shalom Auslander is ex-Orthodox, which is different. It was initially hard for me to find a voice because I had very little exposure to good literature. I read American classics, like Salinger and Hemingway. I read some memoirs, like Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life. Frank Conroy, a director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, had this wonderful memoir called Stop-Time. With the voice, I struggled. I didn’t want it to be a tell-all; I didn’t want it to be maudlin. I wanted it to be my voice. It feels self-indulgent and narcissistic to comment on my personality, but I am generally perceptive and insightful. I try to find moments of levity when things are difficult. I am open with my experiences. I share and sometimes overshare.
The book is fairly true to who I am as an individual. I am going for a level of honesty. That was fairly difficult. I had to peel back the layers. There were moments when I said, “I am not being honest enough.” I had to go back and revise. I am not a saint. I know that there are people who are not going to like me. They might read the book and think that I was not the best husband, that I was not always nicest husband to my wife. Coming to accept that writing an honest book means that I might be judged is difficult. I felt that was how it needed to be.
Author photo © Pearl Gabel.