A Peek into the Hasidic World

March 1, 2016 in Library Corner

By Robin Jacobson. 

library cornerWhen I was a small child, my family lived near the entrance to a Hasidic village. Transfixed by the parade of fur hats, black coats, and long beards going in and out of the community, I was thunderstruck when my mother told me that these oddly dressed people were Jews, like us. She made the Hasidim sound like mysterious, distant cousins, and I’ve been curious about them ever since.

Apparently, lots of people are curious about ultra-Orthodox, insular Jewish communities. The Jewish book world is awash in what publishers call “ex-frum” memoirs. Alas, these memoirs tend to have a sensationalistic, score-settling, anti-Orthodox flavor. But there is a notable exception: Shulem Deen’s All Who Go Do Not Return, winner of a 2015 National Jewish Book Award. Intelligent and lyrical, All Who Go transforms Deen’s personal experience into something more universal. The book resonates, as one reviewer said, with “anyone who has ever struggled with doubts and dreams that their family and community cannot accept.” Here are some highlights.

The Skverers

Deen belonged to a Hasidic group called the Skverers, originally from the town of Skvyra in the Ukraine. Today, a large Skverer community lives north of New York City in a village called New Square, purportedly named by a county clerk who misheard “New Skvyra” as “New Square.”

Deen joined the Skverers when he was 13, captivated by the warmth and exuberance of New Square celebrations. Deen’s parents raised no objections although they were not themselves Skverers; they had a loose affiliation with another Hasidic sect.

Marriage and Family

Deen felt comfortable with Skverer life until he became engaged at age 18. The community matched him to Gitty, a girl he had never met, although he knew and disliked members of Gitty’s family. He shared his misgivings with the teacher of his “groom instruction” class. The teacher reassured Deen, explaining, “a wife isn’t a friend,” but merely someone to assist with Deen’s service to God.

Despite this inauspicious beginning, the couple cobbled together a life. Before long, they had five children. Fortunately, because he was competent in English (not typical among the Yiddish-speaking Skverers), Deen was able to teach himself computer programming and land a job in Manhattan. This was a signal success in New Square, where most live below the poverty line and depend on food stamps and other government aid to survive.

Loss of Faith

Gitty appreciated her husband’s success but became alarmed by his increasing fascination with the outside world. Deen surreptitiously listened to the radio, read secular newspapers, and watched movies – all forbidden activities for Skverers. On clandestine trips to the public library, he devoured the World Book Encyclopedia. As Deen began to reappraise Hasidic teachings, a friend steered him to books intended to reconcile faith and science. Ironically, reading these books only deepened Deen’s doubts.

After years of hiding his inner turmoil, Deen finally left the Hasidic world at age 33. He paid an enormous price. Although he and Gitty initially vowed that they would have the “most amicable split in the history of amicable splits,” their relationship turned acrimonious after Skverer leaders convinced Gitty that Deen was a bad influence on their children. Today, Deen has no contact with his children. He was not invited to his eldest daughter’s wedding or to his sons’ b’nai mitzvah. In interviews, Deen mourns for his children, saying that living a life of greater authenticity can never compensate him for their loss. All Who Go offers readers unusual insights, a well-crafted narrative, but definitely not a happy ending.