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In the grips of Jewish fundamentalism: New memoir sheds light on Hasidic community

Book cover of "All Who Go Do Not Return," by Shulem Deen. Photo courtesy of Graywolf Press

 

Book cover of "All Who Go Do Not Return," by Shulem Deen. Photo courtesy of Graywolf Press

Book cover of “All Who Go Do Not Return,” by Shulem Deen. Photo courtesy of Graywolf Press

(RNS) Just a few miles north of New York City, an all-powerful religious leader controls every aspect of his followers’ lives. Accounts detail welfare fraud, educational fraud and even gang violence. Private lives are micromanaged: Matches are arranged, books are banned, and the slightest details of personal appearance are carefully monitored, with uniformity enforced by authorized thugs.

Cult compound?

Fringe Christian sect?

Nope.

New Square, N.Y., home of the extreme Hasidic Jewish sect known as the Skver Hasidim. These details come not from an outside investigative reporter — but from a heretical ex-Hasid, Shulem Deen, in his astonishing new memoir, “All Who Go Do Not Return.”

Hasidism — literally, the way of the pious — began in 18th-century Europe as a movement of Jewish spiritual revival. Although shunned by the religious authorities of the time, it became enormously popular, sweeping throughout Eastern Europe. Centered on personal spiritual experience,  devout prayer (think Pentecostals in Jewish garb) and charismatic leaders (known as rebbes), Hasidism revolutionized Jewish life, especially among less-educated, less-urban populations.

But it quickly changed its character. With the threats of emancipation and assimilation looming, Hasidism turned sharply conservative in the 19th century. Practices ossified, authority was centralized, innovations were prohibited, and any accommodation to modern life was rejected. Today, Hasidim dress like 18th-century Poles.

Unlike far-right Christian or Muslim fundamentalists, Jewish fundamentalists are often depicted as cuddly, harmless and quaint. “Fiddler on the Roof,” which in its original serialized novel form was a sharp satire of religious life, is a good example.

But as Deen describes, in passage after passage, this is myth, not reality. In fact — and here numerous others buttress his account — the tightknit Skver Hasidic community exercises enormous political power to create a world within a world, where the rebbe’s dictates are law.

Deen begins his story in the middle — the night he is ordered to leave New Square under threat of excommunication. The scene is almost Kafkaesque: “rumors” of disbelief, “people are saying” that action must be taken.

But Deen also knows that the community court — unsanctioned by any civil law, but with absolute authority in the village — is actually right. He is an unbeliever.

Yet he can’t just leave. At the time, Deen is married, with five children. If he were excommunicated, they would all be marginalized, if not shunned. Even a move to nearby Monsey — considered ultra-Orthodox to everyone else, but not-quite-kosher-enough to the Skver sect — would be problematic. What to do?

Shulem Deen, author of "All Who Go Do Not Return." Photo courtesy of Pearl Gabel

Shulem Deen, author of “All Who Go Do Not Return.” Photo courtesy of Pearl Gabel

Entranced by the holiness of the Skverer rebbe, in contrast to the “indistinctive and uninspiring” rebbes near his home in Brooklyn — Deen enrolled in the Skver yeshiva and began his life in New Square while in his teens. At 18, he met his future wife, whom he had neither seen nor spoken to before.

The shocking details emerge almost as asides: a rabbi teaching 18-year-olds to “be vigilant” lest their wives lead them into hell (and telling them not to call their wives by their names, but only say “Um” or “You hear”); witch hunts for people suspected of smuggling a radio or portable television into the Skver community; and widespread corporal punishment, both when Deen was a student and, later, as a teacher in yeshiva.

And the contempt for non-Jews. “The kindness of the goyim (non-Jews) is for sin,” Deen quotes the Skverer rebbe as teaching. Even when a non-Jew does a good deed, his real purpose is evil.

Then there’s the poverty.  Most Hasidic men (and nearly all women) are uneducated; they speak Yiddish and disparage the teaching of English. They don’t know math or history; they have no employment skills.

Deen falls behind on rent, has trouble feeding his children, can’t hold a job. Indeed, holding a job is beneath the dignity of a Hasidic man, who, if he is fortunate, should be able to study all his life — while collecting unemployment, food stamps and welfare benefits.

Deen finally finds work as a teacher, where his duties involve fraudulently completing progress reports for New York state while not teaching any of the subjects he is reporting on, and collecting government subsidies.

How does it all unravel? Slowly. Deen’s first explorations of the outside world take place in books. The provocative title of his memoir, we learn midway through, refers to books — not just a “woman of loose morals.” His sins are intellectual, not carnal. First, a few Jewish books. Then, a radio. Then, secular books at the library. And then the Internet, where Deen meets non-Orthodox Jews for the first time.

Already, we see the fault lines appear between Deen and his wife, Gitty. Deen protests that his explorations are harmless. Gitty knows he is going astray. And she does not go with him. As Deen’s curiosity turns to skepticism turns to doubt, Gitty watches him fall “off the path” and eventually decides she’s had enough. They separate, then divorce.

Now it’s time for the spoiler alert. Deen loses everything: his wife, his children, his family, his friends, his community.

And his faith. Even before his expulsion from the community, Deen finds he can no longer pray, can no longer believe the stories he’s been told. “What is the meaning of right and wrong when there is no guidance from a divine being? … What, then, was the point of it all?”

He finds his way, somewhat, but “All Who Go” does not end happily. Yes, Deen founds a popular blog for ex-Hasidim, gets a job, finds his way in the secular world. But there’s a hollowness to his new life and a bitter sadness over the loss of his children. Not only does Gitty get sole custody, the entire community warns them against him. Even his few-and-far-between visits become unsustainable; his children shut him out.

All this unfolds against a backdrop of institutional Jewish indifference. The multimillion-dollar Jewish federations do nothing for these communities, other than distribute charity — usually through the Hasidic power structure, thus reinforcing its control. Footsteps, an organization helping ex-Hasidim navigate the secular world — job training, GEDs — remains a small and independent outlier. (Deen is now a board member.)

Despite numerous sex scandals; exposes in The New Yorker, The New York Times and The Jewish Daily Forward; widespread power abuses; and nauseating episodes such as the herpes epidemic spread by Hasidic mohels (ritual circumcisers) who insist on sucking the blood directly off of circumcision wounds, the mainstream Jewish establishment is silent. Partly this is out of fear, and partly out of the peculiarly American Jewish notion that Jewish fundamentalists are better Jews than the rest of us.

Meanwhile, politicians are terrified of Hasidic voting blocs. Hasidim now control the East Ramapo school district, which includes New Square, and are starving secular schools (almost all black and Hispanic) to enrich their own religious academies.

Deen’s harrowing story, then, is also an indictment of those who are standing by and allowing it to be. To many, the Hasidim are quaint throwbacks, their lives pious scenes set to the tune of “L’Chayim” and “Sunrise, Sunset.” But to those trapped inside the Hasidic world, the tale is not comedy but tragedy. And there is often no soundtrack at all.

(Jay Michaelson is a columnist for The Daily Beast and author of “God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality.”)

YS/MG END MICHAELSON

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Jay Michaelson

22 Comments

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  • There are almost NO fundamentalists who are “cuddly, harmless, or quaint”. Whenever someone catches the social diseases of fundamentalism or megalomania, they have already over-identified with their god or gods.

  • Lewis – that is ridiculous. Yes, I will agree that many Chassidim and Ultra-Orthodox are ‘anti-Gentile”. But to allege that ‘this’ is the reason that these beliefs are the ‘root of Israeli Jewish racism’ is beyond absurd. First of all, the vast majority of Jews in the U.S. are NOT Orthodox at all. Many are secular, and the rest of us are mostly Reform or Conservative which are NOT anti-Gentile. These are the Jews, btw, who marched with MLK, were very active in ALL progressive movements, no matter what group they helped. Then, in Israel, there are even MORE secular Jews, as a percentage than here. And the secular Jews there have a lot of antipathy against the Ultra-Orthodox. Read some true books.

  • This article misses several important points:

    First, the Skver group is a tiny sliver of the Jewish population. It is about as representative of Jews in general as snake handlers are representative of Christians.

    Second, having been Jewish for nearly 70 years I have never heard of the “peculiarly American Jewish notion that Jewish fundamentalists are better Jews than the rest of us.” Where is survey which shows such a view is widespread? Or is this simply the author’s view?

  • Hasidic Judaism developed in Russia, Poland and eastern Europe. This was an area of extreme antisemitism and persecution. The. Orthodox churches still have not gone through the equivalent of a Vacitan II.

    If you read the entire post, you will discover that Hasidism began as a revolutionary movement. It became ossified over the centuries. I am not orthodox but I still read Hasidic writings and Torah commentary. They always have a unique and insightful take.

  • In 1913 Ukrainian Orthodox Seminary students vandalized and attacked the Jews in the village of Kishniev on Easter morning. They murdered 49 Jews. Nothing Jews could have done or believed would have stopped this, They were convinced that Jews had murdered Jesus. Nothing they believed about Jews had anything to do with what Jews really believed. They didn’t know or understand Jews or Judaism. Jews cannot stop hatred of Jews no matter what they do or believe.

    Judaism does not teach that racial hatred must go on. It teaches the opposite despite centuries of hatred and persecution. I always say that Christianity is a valid way to God even though I don’t believe in it.

  • The Messiah is supposed to bring about universal peace and brotherhood. The Messianic age is supposed to do away hunger and poverty. The Messiah may have started as a Warrior King, but the Messiah evolved into a harbinger of peace and brotherhood. You just need to read Isaiah.

  • “Jewish religion is source of the artificial division of humanity.”

    Yes, before Judaism the world was at peace and there were no divisions of humanity. You know that’s not true. It wasn’t true then and it isn’t true now. Every city-state had its own God and its own King. Each kingdom had its own God which it thought was better than all the other Gods and if you didn’t worship the right God, you were bringing disaster on everyone. Actually, Judaism has had a unifying and a democratizing effect.

    I’ve read the Shema and it doesn’t declare religious war on anyone. You are blaming the victims.

  • I you think the Shema is a declaration of religious war. You are not thinking straight.

    Judaism is not about the worship of Jews, of being Jewish. You are just wrong. You never really respond to my posts, you just go on a completely new tirade. You know that people who convert to Judaism become part of the Jewish people as well as being Jewish religiously.

    Since the destruction of the Temple, prayer, study and good deeds have replaced the priesthood. Rabbis are not priests. They are teachers,

  • Perspective Perspective, this is all from the eyes of a bitter man, which cannot give one a complete and honest view. As is the rebellious kid complaining on everything their parents do, some wiring’s of some brains are just simply tangled.

    Need to hear from the other side too.

  • I don’t like typing on my iphone. Ha shem means the name in Hebrew. Ha means the and shem means name. Some Orthodox Jews use it because they think that God’s name is too holy to use except in a real prayer. It has nothing to do with anything else.

    I have no idea what you mean by worshiping God through the priesthood of Judah’s instructions. Their hasn’t been a priesthood since the destruction of the second temple.

  • Jews certainly don’t believe that God is a Jew. God is not human so how can God be a Jew?

    The rest is just to silly to respond too, since you see manipulation and lies everywhere even where they don’t exist.

  • Judaism has survived for a long time and it will survive you. I have given reasoned arguments, but of course they pass you by. I wonder whether I should respond to you at all or ignore you. Something obviously has happened to you and your obsession with Jews and Judaism is your way of coping.

  • I’ve given “no that’s not true” responses, because it isn’t true. I don’t have the time or energy to devote a sick individual who hates Jews and Judaism for his own reasons. I’m assuming that you are sick and not just an antisemite, although I could be wrong about that. I have nothing more to say to you. You are not worth the effort.

  • One last comment. I wasn’t even commenting about your anti-Zionism. I was commenting on your ridiculous comments about Judaism’s Egyptian origins and the rest of the comments about Jews and Judaism.

  • I am a Zionist, but that does not mean that I agree with everything the Israeli government does. I do speak up when I disagree or don’t approve of Israeli actions. I don’t talk about it with you, because you would just use it as ammunition that Israel ought not to exist at all.

    The rest is nonsense.

  • So quick to rationalize -or excuse – jewish dysfunction and criminality….even if it means portraying judaism in a mostly false way. Halakah and hasbara is obviously secular, too….or, the secular/religious divide is mostly a smokescreen for jewish ethnocentrism. ..take you’re pick..!

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