In 2005, Bensonhurst resident Shulem Deen found himself banished from the town of New Square, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish township in Rockland County, New York. His crimes–reading non-Judaic books, listening to the radio, and generally flirting with technology–all seem like innocuous aspets of a secular life in the 21st century. But to the communal court of New Square, a council of Rabbinical scholars who served as the town’s governing body, any foray into the outside world constituted sin, and therefore made Deen a heretic.
In truth, Deen was doing more than just tinkering with the dial on his radio. He had been blogging under the guise of the Hasidic Rebel–a website he set up in 2003 that chronicled his gradual questioning of faith and spiritual erosion–something he had kept deeply private for several years. To the communal court, Deen had immersed himself in a world that stood in direct contrast to the insular and infallible tenets of fundamental Judaism, and was therefore made to leave. Even though the court possessed no authority in a true legal sense, Deen knew their mandate was law in New Square.
“If I was going to stay I would be the subject of physical violence,” Deen says, noting the often precarious state of being persona-non-grata in a culture forged on spiritual militance.
Deen soon found himself living the life of a quasi-religious fugitive, dragging his wife and children, who didn’t want to uproot their lives, to another Hasidic town, where they’d ostensibly start again. His family soon became familiar with a gradually unfolding narrative of chaos and anxiety, an atmosphere that would later sever their ties, and leave Deen alone in a world he had never before navigated.
Deen’s journey into that secular world is the subject of his new memoir, All Who Go Do Not Return. It’s a searing account of loss and self-discovery that encompasses his transformation from a 19-year-old Hasid who could barely read English to a popular blogger and self-taught computer programmer, motivated by his hunger for personal knowledge.
Although 2005 marked Deen’s personal year of exodus, and a touchstone for his new life, previous years hint at the crumbling of his old world’s foundation. He would later see a secular existence–one rife with scientific inquiry, rational thinking and an affinity for technology, emerge out of the rubble of his former faith. It started when Deen was 19.
“Somehow I opened up to the world and it started with little glimpses,” he says, reminiscing about a dial-operated radio that he used to listen to while his wife slept. “I was really, really, mesmerized by the most mundane aspects of [radio], like the commercials and the traffic reports.”
But Deen’s fascination only grew from his witching-hour listening sessions. Even though this behavior worried his wife, the radio soon gave way to the public library, which later gave way to the Internet.
The Internet, which Deen says “opened up a real world” for him, became the kind of illuminating footpath he needed to find direction amid his rampant self-doubt. Online, he could connect with people with whom he’d have no commonalities, but who were also Jews.
“I started encountering people who called themselves Jewish, but who practiced in a completely different way and it was just mind-boggling to me,” he says.
Although the chatrooms and online forums proved something of a milestone, Deen wasn’t fully convinced that they’d lead him away from the heritage that defined him. For a time, even after conversing with secular Jews, Deen was “still convinced our way was right,” but it wasn’t until he confided in a friend that he began to see the flaws in Hasidic ideology.
After Deen and this friend debated rationalist interpretations of Jewish history and science–schools of thought that attempt to ground biblical narratives within some sort of empirical framework—Deen knew that his belief was running thin, and that scared him endlessly.
“I was afraid my faith would erode, because that’s what I had been taught–if you get into the logical side of all this, it’s not going to work. Your faith will be gone, and I was really afraid of that because my faith was important to me,” he says.
But by 2002, Deen’s worldview had turned completely around, and when he started thinking “in rational ways,” he started to devise “all these ideas about how this biblical narrative could have been invented.”
So Deen took to the Internet, and started the blog that would ultimately sabotage his entire existence. When he was banished in 2005, Deen and his family moved from New Square to Monsey, another Rockland Country hamlet with a strong Hasidic presence, but things were never the same.
“We all felt really uncomfortable, my kids were never able to make friends on our block, my wife was never able to make friends there,” he says of Monsey. Deen’s wife and five children slowly slinked away from him, and later moved back to New Square, where they’d soon fully distance themselves from him.
While he was living in Monsey, Deen “tried to keep outward appearances,” for his children, but their gradual suspicion of him, combined with a legal petition Deen’s wife filed in family court, soon ripped the children entirely from his grasp.
Deen was granted visitation rights for only two hours a week, but gave his children the option of not coming at all, since their distant body language and reticence gave him the impression that they wanted no relationship with their Dad.
Deen slunk into a great depression. “For fourteen years, fatherhood defined me in a very real and meaningful sense,” he says.
“When you lose a loved one that’s still alive, that’s a very difficult thing to deal with. They’re still alive and they live thirty miles away from here, and they were everything to you.”
Although Deen wouldn’t necessarily say he’s found inner-peace in the eight years since his children cut him out of their lives, his experience of self-discovery isn’t all for naught. He’s been able to forge online relationships with thousands of Hasids who currently live in a state of perpetual spiritual questioning, just as he once did.
He says “there are hundreds, or perhaps thousands who are still wtihin the Hasidic community now who I’ve gotten to know who live with this anxiety because they’ve also come to these conclusions.”
And Deen’s mémoire can be seen as both an expose of the inner-workings of Hasidic life, but also a tale of courage that recounts a man’s journey against insurmountable difficulties. Deen hopes it can serve Hasids who feel stuck within their culture, and who might want to break out, or at least explore life on the other side.
“I want people to be aware of what life is like in the Hasidic community,” he says.
“The degree to which men, old people, young people, kids, grownups are deprived the power of being able to determine the course of their own lives, that affects every person in the Hasidic world.”
Follow Sam Blum on Twitter @Blumnessmonster