This author is in the spotlight, losing his religion.
Shulem Deen is a former member of an insular Hasidic sect of Judaism, the Skverers. The father of five, who now lives in Bensonhurt, decided he wanted to leave the faith — but not his family — to pursue a career in writing. He shares his struggle to transition into the secular world in his new memoir, “All Who Go Do Not Return,” which he will discuss at BookCourt on March 24.
Vanessa Ogle: What was the most difficult part of leaving the Hasidic community?
Shulem Deen: The most difficult part was making the choice. I had to make a decision — I was married, I had five children, and I had to make this decision and say, “I no longer want to be part of this community.” And that was not an easy thing to do.
I had already been partially out. I started thinking differently. I no longer believed in the principles and the dogmas and in their worldview. I had also been expelled from my community so I was no longer attached to the place where I spent most of my life. I was out intellectually and emotionally and certainly spiritually and somewhat out physically and geographically, so I had to make that final decision to say, “Can I be in this world? Can I accept what this will do to me and my family?”
And in the end, I decided I can — and I have to — because it was really the only option to live something resembling a fulfilling life.
VO: What are some of the everyday decisions others might take for granted that you struggled with when you joined the secular world?
SD: It was a completely new world. You know how sometimes people watch courtroom dramas and they think they can become lawyers? Really, you can’t because you can’t become a lawyer from reading courtroom dramas or watching them. In the same way, you can’t become a secular person just by watching a lot of movies about secular life. That is something that was surprising for me to realize — that I simply did not know what non-Hasidic life was like to live. It took quite a while for me to really adjust to the outside world — the way people lived, the way people speak, the way people engage with each other, they way people buy clothes. It was just a completely new world for norms.
VO: Are you still with your family? Do your children still identify as Hasidic?
SD: My children do still identify as Hasidic. My children live with their mother in the village of New Square, an all-Hasidic village in Rockland County. They remain reverently Hasidic. The central drama in the book is how to maintain my relationship with the children. That is really the most difficult part that I had grapple with — what is this going to do to my relationship with them?
VO: How did your style change and how did your hobbies change when you made the jump to the secular world?
SD: My clothing style — obviously, I no longer wear a long coat and a black hat and side curls and all that. But more substantially, one of the main reasons I wanted to pursue secular life was because I was interested in one of two things. One was a career in academia — teaching, researching, writing, things like that. The other was writing and publishing. I never did get into academia, but I did pursue a writing career. This is the main thing I’ve been pursing since leaving.
VO: Do you think secular people will learn about the Hasidic community by reading about you learning about the secular world?
SD: I think it is important for people to read this book to see how Hasidic society is really formed from the inside. I think people really have a lot of misconceptions about the Hasidic world and don’t really understand why these societies are the way they are. I hope that my book will allow people to see both the good and the bad — but have a richer and deeper understanding of it.
Shulem Deen discusses “All Who Go Do Not Return” at BookCourt [163 Court St. between Pacific and Dean streets in Boerum Hill, (718) 875–3677, www.bookc