Hasidic rebel

The saga of Shulem Deen, who was expelled from the Skverer Hasidim after he stopped believing in God

Hassidic Jew (photo credit: ANDREW KELLY / REUTERS)
Hassidic Jew
(photo credit: ANDREW KELLY / REUTERS)
IN THE first scene of Shulem Deen’s arresting new memoir, the author is summoned to a tribunal made up of his fellow Skverer Hasidim. He’s been accused of heresy – a sin that carries the punishment of expulsion from the community.
Deen had been struggling with his faith for years and, as he writes, it wasn’t a single transformative moment that caused him to stop believing in God but rather “a process, a journey of inquiry and discovery of beliefs and challenges to those beliefs. Of uncomfortable questions and attempts to do away with them, by brute force if necessary, only to find that was not possible, that the search was too urgent and necessary and giving up was not an option.”
Deen’s affecting account of faith lost, the latest entry in the subgenre of the exfrum memoir, is also a standout for its skill and compassion. Compared to fellow writers like Leah Vincent, Deborah Feldman and Shalom Auslander, Deen’s doubts surface at the relatively old age of 18 when he becomes engaged to Gitty, whom he will meet only once before their wedding.
Although Deen was born Hasidic, his parents were ba’alei teshuva, originally hippies and Beatles fans, whose Judaism Deen describes as a mix of Satmar anti-Zionism, Breslov mysticism and their own brand of humanism.
Brought up in Borough Park, Deen was invited to one of the Skverer rebbe’s tisches, or open houses, in New Square, a Hasidic enclave 30 miles north of New York City, at the age of 13, and ended up on his own in a dour, dark yeshiva run by the group in Montreal.
Even by Hasidic standards, the Skverers were considered extreme – a stringently observant group that had “a provincial piety that was uncommon among American Hasidim.” Corporal punishment was common in Skverer schools where students, who pored over Talmudic tractates for years, could barely read and write English. The highest achievement for a Skverer Hasid was to collect welfare and food stamps in order to continue studying for the rest of his life.
New Square, so named after a clerk misheard New Skverer as New Square, has its own set of rules enforced by patrols that keep tabs on residents’ modesty and piety. Yeshiva students caught with forbidden musical cassettes or a secular magazine can be wrapped in a prayer shawl and beaten. Deen is quick to point out out that this modern-day Hasidism is not the original Hasidism of its founder the Baal Shem Tov.
When first formed in 18th century Europe, Hasidism was an idiosyncratic movement of Jewish renewal. As Deen writes, Hasidism “had come to liberate the Jewish people from a worldview ossified under centuries of legalistic arcana, Hasidism came to eschew the artificial and the pretentious and the formulaic. To raise the spirit of the law over the letter of it and to find infinite layers of that spirit.”
Threatened by the Enlightenment and assimilation, the Hasidic movement moved to the right in the 19th century and then turned further inward after the Holocaust.
The romanticism that characterized the Hasidism portrayed by Martin Buber, Elie Wiesel and Abraham Joshua Heschel was supplanted by the principle that everything that is new is automatically forbidden by the Torah. In New Square this meant that radios, televisions, computers – anything that brought the outside world into the enclave – were prohibited.
During the early months of his marriage Deen feels disembodied, as if he is living someone else’s life. But with the birth of his first child, a daughter, he finds some succor. Four more children follow in quick succession and like the majority of New Square residents the family lives below the poverty line. With no discernible skills, Deen takes on work as a substitute yeshiva teacher. In his spare time, he teaches himself computer programming and studies for a GED, a test that grants a high school equivalency diploma to successful examinees.
Against the background of all this industry, Deen’s doubts begin in earnest as he questions the all-encompassing role of the rebbe in Hasidic life. “Where exactly lay the rebbe’s greatness?” he asks. It’s not a far leap for Deen to realize that misjudging the rebbe could also mean that he has misjudged God too. He begins to wonder, “Would I have accepted the existence of God, if I hadn’t been raised with it? Would I believe in the Torah as his word? Would I have chosen to be Orthodox? To be Hasidic? To be Skver?” He initially seeks the answers to these questions in secular books. In his local public library he reads the encyclopedia in the children’s section, perched on a small orange plastic chair in his Hasidic garb. He sneaks a radio into his house and listens to advertisements and talk shows with the reverence he once reserved for prayer. “I was like a visitor from a different era encountering our modern one, captivated by its very mundaneness.”
Each change, each step away from the Skverers both frighten and horrify Gitty.
Deen’s double life takes off when he secretly purchases a computer, fulfilling his long-time dream of becoming a writer.
For the first time in his life, being online also gives him access to non-Orthodox Jews.
He writes about this heady combination of tasting freedom and encountering the forbidden in a blog called “Hasidic Rebel.”
In the beginning, he blogs about internecine skirmishes in the Hasidic community.
But then his writing turns personal and he blogs about his wife, his children, his job as a computer programmer outside of his insular Hasidic world. The more he writes, the more readers he attracts. Other bloggers take notice and link to the “Hasidic Rebel.”
At the same time Deen is blogging, he also hides non-kosher restaurant receipts from Gitty and keeps a television set under lock and key in his home to protect his children from his growing heresy. He is no longer praying in the synagogue on Saturday mornings, instead taking refuge in the basement of a school building with other men whose faith is also eroding.
The tribunal expels Deen from his community.
His initial impulse is to defend himself. However he realizes, “This was a community of the faithful, and I was no longer one of them.” Nevertheless, Deen tells the rabbis that his expulsion is not “a straightforward matter,” an observation that reflects the powerful complexity of this memoir.
He and Gitty try to stay together in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Monsey.
But the exile from the Skverers and her family is too much for her and the couple separate. The divorce is initially amicable.
Eventually, though, a battle for his children ensues and Deen realizes that not only has he lost legal custody of them, but, one by one, they have been turned against him.
In Deen’s skillful hands this memoir never becomes one of revenge, nor does it slip into voyeurism. Rather it is a compelling, probing narrative about a man who has no choice but to retreat from a life that feels claustrophobic and inauthentic to one for which he painstakingly has “to build a new value system.”
It’s also quite possible that Deen wrote this book for his estranged children who, perhaps someday, may come to him with questions of their own about their father’s very human story.