(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.
Fringe Christian sect?
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?
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