June 14, 2017
Before and after: Shulem Deen as a Skverer Hasid, left, and a modern secular Jew. Photo at left courtesy of Shulem Deen; at right, by Pearl Gabel

In 2005, at the age of 31, Shulem Deen was excommunicated from the Skverer Chasidic community of New Square, N.Y., where he lived with his wife and five children.

His crime? “Heresy.” Like in the Middle Ages.

In the early pages of his award-winning 2015 memoir, “All Who Go Do Not Return,” he gives an accounting of his alleged medieval sins:

“I was speaking ill of the rebbe.

“I was no longer praying.

“I disparaged the Torah and the teachings of our sages.

“I was corrupting other people. Young people. Innocent people.

“In fact,” Deen wrote of the accusations of the beit din, “people were saying I had corrupted a yeshiva boy … so badly that the boy left his parents’ home, and … went to live with goyim in Brooklyn. It was rumored that the boy planned to attend college.”

To secular eyes, Deen’s tale of woe has elements of the ridiculous: Who wouldn’t want a child to get an education? But it is also tortuous, terrible and tragic. To leave religious life, Deen had to forsake everything and everyone he ever knew.

“It was a very difficult year, a very isolating year,” he said of his transition into the outside world. His nonconformity was so destabilizing that friends and family — including his five children — stopped wanting to see him. “I didn’t have anybody,” he told me.

When he recounts this traumatic chapter, Deen says he “left” the Chasidic community even though he was exiled, because, heretic or not, leaving is what he wanted; leaving was his choice.

“I wanted no more than a world in which I was not lying and hiding,” he writes in his memoir. “I wanted the freedom to simply be who I was, without fear or shame. When caught in a world where your very essence feels shameful, life turns into a feverish obsession with suppressing your true identity in favor of a socially accepted one.”

Who among us shares this same “heresy”? It is the experience of all those whose gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation or skin color has deprived them of the right to live with dignity and truth. It is the heresy of individualism. Deen’s crime was that he placed his need for “the mystique of freedom” above family, above community and above tribe.

In a way, we’re all heretics, choosing our communities based on beliefs, politics and values considered anathema elsewhere.

During the Middle Ages, when rabbis were vested with full judicial authority in their communities, so-called heretics were at the mercy of rabbinic courts. Living in 21st-century America, Deen was free to leave totalitarian New Square for democratic Brooklyn without transgressing the law. But there were other consequences.

Outside of a system in which every aspect of existence pivots around community, Deen was plunged into a “soul-crushing solitude.” The modern world and its attendant freedoms —  newspapers, books, television, internet — presented strange, new choices, such as what to do for the first Shabbat on the outside, as if he had breached a prison wall.

“I had nothing to do Friday night and it was really, really depressing,” he said. “I reached out to a guy, not Jewish, who was a reader of my blog and sent him an email, ‘Hey, want to hang out?’ There was something uncomfortable in that for me because it came from a place of desperation, a place of need. I was desperate for contact.”

In New Square, Deen was lonely among the faithful. In Brooklyn, he was lonely with no faith at all.

In the decade since, he has reinvented his life. The support of Footsteps, an organization for frum Jews who leave their communities, was vital. Deen’s fluency in English helped him land a job as a computer programmer, though he gave that up to pursue writing. Still, his children refuse contact.   

Deen’s story is a subject of fascination among secular and religious Jews alike, many of whom are alien to the ways of the ultra-Orthodox. Although we glimpse them in Hancock Park and Borough Park, tell their tales and sing their songs, we don’t know them. And mostly, they don’t want to know us.

“The worst part about the isolation wasn’t that I didn’t know anyone,” Deen said. “It was that I wasn’t quite sure I was a normal person who could get to know someone. I had a feeling that I was different, almost literally an alien. So the idea that I could make friends was a question I had. It was about whether the possibility existed.”

His was the heresy of curiosity, of seeking difference. Questioning. Arguing. Not believing in a literal interpretation of the Bible. The things many of us consider definitional to our Judaism — intellectual life, civic engagement, biblical metaphor, encountering The Other — are apostasy for the Skverers.

In a way, we’re all heretics, choosing our communities based on beliefs, politics and values considered anathema elsewhere. We hide parts of ourselves we don’t want seen. We struggle in shame and in silence with secret heresies that we know others might not understand or accept. 

Yet most of us think, whether we’re believers or not, that by engaging with Jewish tradition we are doing God’s will. That by adhering to the wisdom of our tradition we are attaining, if not holiness, something close to wholeness. Even if our theological understanding demands a more expansive view of the God personified in the Bible, the ideals that God represents — goodness, kindness, mercy, wonder — are qualities we seek.

What would Jewish life look like without Judaism?

“Occasionally, I miss a rebbe’s tisch,” Deen said. “So I’ll put on a white shirt, a jacket and a yarmulke, and go to Borough Park on a Friday night. For nostalgic reasons. Sometimes I feel a little bit moved by it. There are certain experiences I want to connect to again.”

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

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