Monday, August 22, 2016

All Who Go Do Not Return by Shulem Deen

This was a fascinating memoir by a man who was raised in an Ultra Orthodox Hassidic community but left the community after losing his faith.  It provides us with a glimpse at a world which is generally closed to outsiders' eyes.

Shulem was raised by relatively open minded parents who had turned to religion later in life and thus still maintained some connections with the "outside world".  His father taught religion to secular Jews which was frowned upon by the more dogmatic members of his community.  His father also suffered from some sort of mental illness which led to an eating disorder.  He eventually died when Shulem was about twelve.

Although Shulem had always attended Orthodox yeshiva, following his father's death he became much more observant and embedded in the small Skverer Hassidic community.  The Skverers live predominantly in a small shtetl just north of New York City known as New Square.  There they live in relative isolation from the rest of the world and are governed by their own religious rules.  While some work outside the community, most do not.  The children are barely educated in English or other secular subjects and are ill prepared to live outside the community (presumably the point - it keeps people in).

At 18 Shulem was married off to a girl he had met for five minutes and in not too long they had five children.  While Shulem was never sure about his marriage, he was devoted to his children and worked very hard to try to support the family.  At first Shulem worked as a Hebrew teacher, but he became increasingly disillusioned with his life a he realized no one had ever taught him how to support the family he was expected to have.

As he became more disillusioned he explored computers, radio and eventually television - much to the horror of his wife.  He also became a self taught computer programmer and managed to secure a job in New York (working for an Israeli diamond broker).  He also started to lose interest in God and religion.

The final straw for Shulem's community was when he encouraged a young doubter in the community to apply to college.  As a result Shulem and his family were thrown out of the community.  They moved to a somewhat more open Hassidic neighbourhood and for a time were able to make the marriage and family work.  But eventually his wife could not abide his increasingly secular ways and the couple divorced.  He had generous visitation rights with his children at first but as the girls got older (and presumably more and more influenced by the religious extremists) they refused to see him and his ex-wife was able to leverage the secular court system to limit his access rights.  I found this perhaps the most disturbing - the community pooled its money to fight him in court until he was eventually worn down.  The severing of his ties with his children was quite heartbreaking.

In the end Shulem lived a relatively secular life amongst others who had backgrounds similar to his.  He was more at peace but not necessarily happy due to his lost relationships with his children.

I recommend this to anyone who has an interest in the inner workings of a very secretive segment of society.

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