Book Review

More than halfway through Shulem Deen’s memoir about his struggle with Hasidic Judaism, he speaks to a fellow Hasid who calls him a derogatory Yiddish word. “I see you’re an oifgeklerter,” the man says. “Only an oifgeklerter believes in scientists the way you do.” Deen is called far worse in his memoir, All Who Go Do Not Return, but oifgerklerter, or “enlightened one,” is an example of how Deen’s world of ultra-Orthodox Hasidism and the secular world he begins to explore cease to meaningfully communicate. Deen expresses this in a narrative aside:

An oifgeklerter. An enlightened one. Not a heretic but in many ways just as bad. The heretic declares his godlessness openly, and so the righteous can choose to avoid him. But enlightened ones are deceptive, wrapping their heresy in a veneer of plainspoken inquiry.

This type of plainspoken inquiry is one step in Deen’s ultimate estrangement from Orthodox Hasidism. His memoir reflects this attitude of honest examination. His life is marked by dizzying transformation, yet Deen’s solid prose acts as a steady rudder, moving swiftly and cleanly through a series of calamities and fluctuations.

Deen’s life started on a shaky foundation. Both his parents were baalei teshuva, or secular Jews who embraced religious Judaism as adults. His father, though a loving man, was practically absent from his son’s life. The elder Deen was involved in Jewish outreach, attempting to bring secular Jews to orthodoxy, and he was also a rigorous ascetic, fasting and praying for long periods of time. Deen himself considered his father a saint, but as a ba’al teshuvah, the elder Deen could never find complete acceptance among the Hassidic groups of Brooklyn, though in his early years he did try to belong to the Satmar Hasids. He ultimately decided to forge his own path, which guaranteed that he would never belong.

This curious mix of ardency about a Jewish religious life and estrangement from a Jewish group was passed from father to son. As if in response to his father’s ambivalence, as a teenager Deen attends the yeshiva of the Skver Hasidic sect, known for its insularity and rejection of secularism. But he is not drawn to the Skvers for strictly religious reasons. Instead, as a student with a tarnished record, he simply knows they do not have rigorous entry requirements. But once he is a Skver, Deen becomes entranced by the sect’s rituals of public devotion. At these times, when he is surrounded by tight groups of singing, swaying Hasidim, where everyone is dressed alike and bound by a common devotional cause, Deen feels a part of something greater than himself. His desire to belong is so unlimited that he mistakes the urge for acceptance with religious desire. His early devotion to Skver Judaism is in no way connected with a yearning for God—he is simply aching to belong. Later, this confusion between social acceptance and religious commitment snares Deen in complications and deceptions.

But in his early years in New Square, the Skver village in upstate New York, Deen is not troubled by uncertainties. At first he more or less follows the life of a rank and file Skver Hasid. He enters an arranged marriage. The babies come every year, and Deen must quit studying holy texts to get a job. Entering the secular world of work widens the crack of doubt that has been hidden in him for years. As he learns computer programming, he is exposed to the energetic currents of the Internet’s early days. He communicates with liberal Jews, whose religious notions differ radically from the Skver sect’s. Eventually, he sneaks into a local public library to read books about science, philosophy, and history. He questions the literal religious interpretations of the Skver sect, and starts an anonymous blog where he airs his growing religious disillusionment. The communal solidarity of the Skver that originally led Deen to join the group becomes an obstruction to his freedom. He quickly realizes that there is no room for opposition in Skver life, and in a community without personal privacy, his radical notions make him a suspect person. Secular knowledge supplants his faith in the inerrancy of the Torah, and he becomes an apikoros, or heretic.

All Who Go Do Not Return receives much of its narrative push from the sense that Deen is funneling toward the unalterable decision to leave religious Judaism. Deen’s narrative is steady and dedicated, his keen eye for detail and the drama of his life never bogging the book down in mawkishness or anger. The narrative is brimming with Deen’s strong, even destructive, emotions and impulses, but he does not succumb to angry polemic. Even when depicting unsavory people he makes a good faith effort to portray them as rounded characters. He is also uniquely gifted at interlacing narrative past and present to provide a complete portrait of his complicated, messy life. He does this capably, without getting lost in asides or tangents, and the story always maintains a sense of urgency.

All Who Go Do Not Return illustrates the dangers of radical belief without tolerance. Skver Hasidism thrives on what Nathan Zuckerman, in Philp Roth’s novel The Human Stain, calls “the ecstasy of sanctimony.” As Deen illustrates in many startling incidents, denunciation is a religious virtue in the Skver community; he also shows how conformity to Skver Judaism is enforced through fear, intimidation, and violence. If those methods fail, those who do not conform must leave. Deen’s eventual departure incurs radical costs. Toward the end of this wrenching memoir, he totals this sobering math, factoring the penalties for both blind faith and for secular freedom. In the end, Deen not only leaves Skver Hasidism, but abandons all religious faith. And even more radically, he gives up an entire way of looking at the world. All Who Go Do Not Return stands as a testimony of how to live with our ultimate, lasting decisions no matter what the cost.

About the Reviewer

Eric Maroney has published two books of nonfiction and numerous short stories. He has an MA in Philosophy from Boston University. He lives in Ithaca, New York, with his wife and two children and is currently at work on a novel and a book on folk religion.