Feature Stories

Conversation with…Shulem Deen

 

By Cindy Mindell

Shulem Deen is a former member and current board member of Footsteps, the only organization in North America that assists people who wish to leave the ultra-Orthodox community. Based in New York, Footsteps provides a range of services, including social and emotional support, educational and career guidance, workshops and social activities, and access to resources, that help former ultra-Orthodox Jews transition into their new lives.

In his early 30s, Deen was labeled a heretic and asked to leave the New Square Chasidic village in the Rockland County, N.Y. community where he lived. His wife and five children stayed behind. He chronicles his journey in his memoir All Who Go Do Not Return, for which he recently won the National Jewish Book Award. Deen will speak at Temple Beth El in Stamford on Friday, Jan. 29 and at the Mandell JCC of Greater Hartford on Sunday, March 13.

Recently, he spoke with the Jewish Ledger about his unusual and arduous journey.

 

Q: You grew up speaking mostly Yiddish. How did you learn to write in English and decide that the time was right to write the memoir?

A: I was a big reader, a voracious reader as a kid. I spent huge portions of my childhood wandering around Boro Park in Brooklyn, looking for things to read. I would spend hours in the Judaica stores, places like Eichler’s, which sells religious texts [and Judaica], but they also sell English books released by Orthodox publishing houses. I would just read and read and read. I had a period of about 10 years when I did not read any English. From age 14 to 24, there were no English books: I was in yeshiva and then I was married and there were no English books or newspapers to be found and there was no one to speak English to. In my mid-20s, I had a sort of reawakening to the English language and I started reading again and found again this thirst for reading. That’s how I learned how to write and how to use the language.

I read a lot of books on writing and I had to give myself an education. I wrote an essay for the Jewish Book Council, “Making My Own MFA.” I’d never been to college. I spent one semester at Rockland Community College after I’d left New Square but I didn’t like it and chose in the end not to continue. So I don’t have the kind of exposure – not only that I hadn’t been to a creative writing program, but I hadn’t done the basic reading that most people do in high school and college literature classes. The benefit that I had was now I was reading with an eye toward seeing how it is done – not just to read the book but to read the book as an aspiring writer, trying to understand what the author did here as an artist.

In the end, [I realized] that almost all of it comes down to your voice and allowing yourself to speak from a place that’s authentic. That took a long time for me to find. I almost had a feeling of euphoria when I realized that it is my voice that will create this book and my voice is something that I had – I didn’t have to learn it, I didn’t have to go to a college class to find my voice, because my voice was in me and all I had to do was bring it out.

It’s difficult to make a decision to write a memoir. I was hoping that I would write novels. But my agent wanted to hear my story. It was obvious to him – and now it’s obvious to me – that I was supposed to write a memoir. It also has to do with the way art and commerce intersect: if you want to write something and you actually want it to be published and for people to read it, there are certain considerations. In my case, I realized that it would make a lot more sense for me to start with a memoir as my first book. It was a hard decision and I do not regret it. I was not sure about how I was going to deal with sensitive issues regarding my ex-wife and my children. I was not sure what I was going to do with all my anger – I had a lot of anger and a lot of bitterness towards particular individuals within my past community and towards my ex-wife, who had done what I consider to be really unconscionable things in the process of me trying to maintain a relationship with my children. But in the end, it just came down to me saying, “I want to be a writer and I want to write a book and this is a good story and if I can tell anything well, I can tell this well.”

I started in February 2010 and finished in February 2014.

The book does not set out to tell anything but my personal story. It does not make broad claims about Orthodoxy. I have a disclaimer at the end that says that this book is not an argument against Orthodox faith. The truth is that I respect people of faith and I have a lot of appreciation for the place I come from.

 

Q: You write that your parents were hippies who came into Chasidism as young adults. How did that happen?

A: My mother was closer to the Chasidic world: her broader extended family was Modern Orthodox. My parents claimed that they were raised Orthodox but not Chasidic but that they became Chasidic. The truth was that my mother was probably barely observant and my father was very far from Orthodox – he grew up in Baltimore with very little connection to practicing Judaism. He was an idealistic hippie type but also a very strange and brilliant person. But they kept this information from me. He told me that he was raised Haredi – ultra-Orthodox – but not Chasidic, so that would explain why he spoke English more than Yiddish.

The language in our home was a mix because as siblings we spoke to each other in Yiddish but with my parents we spoke English. My parents seemed different but their difference did not seem to be because of their religious background but just because they were different. Most of my classmates were grandchildren of Holocaust survivors from Hungary. But we were not; my parents were American, as were my grandparents. My grandparents had been dead even before my parents met, which was why my parents were able to present us this narrative that they had always been more or less religious.

My father died when I was 14. When I was in my 20s, I suddenly began getting information from my mother. I had started going to the library and reading the encyclopedia and reading about music and art and literature and technology for the first time. One day, I came back and I told my mother that I was reading about these things. I had read about the Beatles and I went to the library and found some cassettes of Beatles music and brought them home and listened to them. Later, I said to my mother, “Have you ever heard of the Beatles?” and she said, “Yeah, I’ve heard of the Beatles: I was at the airport when they came in 1964 to be on the Ed Sullivan Show.” So she was one of those screaming girls in the “Beatlemania” era. I would discover little things about the outside world and sometimes I would tell her that I was reading about it and she would say, “Yeah, that was in my past life.” These were the kinds of things I could speak to my mother about but I could not speak to her about issues of faith…and I’m not able to speak to her about them to this day.

This was when I was in my 20s and my mother wasn’t deliberately keeping any secrets. She wasn’t keeping secrets at all. She always maintained that there wasn’t much to say, but she speaks happily about growing up in Queens and what life was like. But the extended family there was Modern Orthodox, so it was open but they were very traditional.

 

Q: Do you miss anything from your life in New Square? Are you in contact with your family?

A: The world that I came from had a lot that I really loved but I couldn’t remain there only because they do not allow people like me to be both in and out. If they were the type of people who allowed you to be a person who is secular, non-believing, and still be welcome in their shul and still be welcome to participate in what goes on there – and be welcome not only to visit but to be part of the community, there’s a good chance I would have stayed. But they don’t allow it and so I had to leave.

But there was so much that is wonderful about that community. There are lots of issues in the Haredi community – ideological problems, economic problems, social problems. But, fundamentally, it is a community that has so much inner beauty: it is warm, it is hospitable, generous… I had very deep friendships, some of which I have been able to maintain. But I do miss holidays and I miss my family; I don’t have a relationship with my children. When you feel trapped in a community like this, you forget how much you enjoy these things – being warmly embraced and always taking part in ceremonies and doing holiday things and getting together on Shabbat — and you feel that you need to get out; but I would get really torn up for a long time when holidays came around. Now it’s been eight years, so they don’t hit me with that kind of force anymore at all.

I have one sister and two brothers. They’re all still within the Chasidic world. I was very fortunate that my siblings are the kinds of people who do not reject a family member for going his own way so we are all still fairly close. I speak to my siblings pretty regularly; we get together.

I live in Crown Heights, a neighborhood in Brooklyn that is now gentrifying – there are some nice bars and restaurants and that’s why I moved here – but it also happens to be the headquarters of the Chabad Lubavitch community, so every now and then, I’ll go over to their synagogue. I was there for Simchas Torah – I’ll stop in and get a little bit of the holiday feeling. These are things that I miss and I’m able sometimes to get a little bit of it back. Every now and then, I’ll go into Boro Park and I’ll go to a rebbe’s tisch. I don’t go to New Square, which is the place I spent most of my life in.

 

Q: What has life been like for you since your book was published?

A: The last nine months since my book came out have just been extraordinary: the experience of writing and publishing something, and then having it so well-received across the country. All I hoped for was for a couple of readers and that my friends wouldn’t find it too boring. I hoped my mother would like it. I did not expect that it would do as well as it did and I certainly did not expect that I would be going around and speaking to so many different communities. To see all these different communities has been an experience for me because I did not know what Jewish life was like outside of New York. I had no idea. I’d never been to St. Louis or Chicago or Detroit or Atlanta; I wasn’t even aware how central JCCs are in the life of Jewish communities outside of the New York area. So, it’s been really eye-opening and interesting and satisfying. I’m a writer and I’m hoping to write more books. If the National Jewish Book Award will help me towards that end – connect me to more people and give me more opportunities to do more writing – that’s all I need; that’s all I ask for.

 

Q: How did you get involved in Footsteps?

A: I was a member. I originally came in mid-2007. I knew I was going to be leaving the Chasidic community soon, so I came to see what they had to offer. I didn’t need that much. They were able to provide tutors for me to learn English and math but I already knew English and math. I had had a career as a computer programmer for over a decade and that was also self-taught. At that time, they were a very small organization and they did not have a program to help people who were in court fighting for custody and visitation rights. They did not have their college scholarship program yet. They were a support group, a place where you could drop in and speak to others.

I realized that there was something else that I needed from them: I was incredibly lonely. I did not know a single person who was in the secular world. It’s like moving to a strange country and not knowing a single person there. My workmates had seen me change. I’d never socialized with them because I was always the Chasidic guy — and now I was not Chasidic. I think they were just freaked out.

Sometimes, on Friday nights, I would be extremely lonely and I would just drive into Manhattan and walk around and look at what other people were doing. It was very sad, when I think back on it: I was just looking for human connection while having absolutely no idea where to find it. I would stop and speak with homeless people. I found a place that had AA meetings every Friday night and I would just go there and listen to people’s stories about getting over alcoholism because I needed someplace to go. Eventually, I realized that I should check out whether one of the Footsteps events might be fun. They were going to have a Passover potluck and so I went and met an amazing group of people.

One of the things that I realized was that lots of people come to Footsteps and the immediate need might be something more specific – they need help getting into college, they need help with their career, they’re going through a divorce and they need help in court. But the much deeper and more pervasive need is to connect with other people who have gone through this and will know where you’re coming from. They know where you’ve been and they know where you’re trying to go. There’s something incredibly valuable about that.

It’s not necessarily the most sellable point. Lani Santo, the executive director, can go to the board every quarter and say, “We’ve had this number of people we’ve helped in program X and this number of people we’ve helped in program Y,” but it’s a lot harder to say that this number of friendships were formed and this number of people helped each other out. I think that’s an incredibly important part of what they do and it’s genuinely lifesaving. That’s not hyperbolic: people go through periods of very serious depression when they realize that they’ve gone away from their old community but it doesn’t look like they know where to go from there. They feel like they just can’t do it alone. There have been, unfortunately, a number of suicides within our community and I know with absolutely no doubt that without Footsteps there would be a lot more.

 

Comments? email cindym@jewishledger.com.

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