Thursday, May 18, 2017

One Who Went

Autobiography is a suspicious genre at best: generally speaking, the very last thing most people should be permitted to do is to tell their own stories. For one thing, people almost by definition tell their own stories from their personal vantage points, presenting as obvious truths details that others would see entirely differently. That must seem like an obvious truism, but it’s not that easy to keep in mind as you read along, enthralled by the story being told and forgetting to remember that every story, even the compelling one you are being told by the talented author of the book you are reading, has another side…and would sound entirely different if someone else were telling it, the author’s spouse, for example, or one of his or her parents, or one of the police officers the author is accusing of brutality. Nonetheless, it’s a popular genre. And one of the most popular of its sub-genres is constituted of exposés by escapees, by people who have escaped from…somewhere. From prison. From slavery. From a cult. From an oppressive home environment. From an abusive marriage. From a horrific boarding school. From somewhere!

Some of these books specifically chronicle their authors’ successful escape from the religious cults that earlier on had claimed their total allegiance, books like Jenna Miscavige Hill’s Beyond Belief or Carolyn Jessop’s Escape, both of which were New York Times bestsellers. And then there is a whole sub-category of Jewish authors who write about their “escape” from the hasidic (or super-frumm non-hasidic) communities in which they either were raised or ended up living.

There are a lot of these books, mostly by women. Leah Lax’s Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home, Hella Winston’s Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels, Leah Vincent’s Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Childhood, Judy Brown’s This Is Not a Love Story, Chaya Deitsch’s Here and There: Leaving Hasidism, Keeping My Family, and Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots are only some of the better-known examples, but there are others out there as well.  Some of you may have seen the only recently-made Yiddish-language movie I know of, Adam Vardy’s Mendy, which details its protagonist’s unexpectedly uninteresting journey from his insular community in Brooklyn to a community of hasidic escapees in Manhattan. The movie was irritating, actually—not well written, not well acted, and not particularly compelling. But at least it was a man’s story…which made it almost unique. (I suppose I will probably eventually read Shalom Auslander’s Foreskin’s Lament once I get past the vulgar title and the even more vulgar book jacket illustration. Or maybe not.)

And now I have just finished reading Shulem Deen’s memoir, All Who Go Do Not Return, the author’s account of his painful decision to leave the Skverer hasidic community in New Square, New York, and to re-invent himself more or less from top to bottom even though his decision ultimately cost him not only his marriage and his community, but any meaningful contact with his children as well. But rejection by his neighbors did not herald rejection by the reading public and the book was almost incredibly well received. It won a National Jewish Book Award in 2015. Far more improbably, it was named one of Star Magazine’s “Fab 5 Can’t-Miss Entertainment Picks.” And more improbably even than that (which is saying something), it was named one of the “forty-three books to read before you die” by the Independent, one of Britain’s leading online newspapers.

It is a painful read, and particularly for those of us who come to the topic with our own set of complicated biases and preconceptions.

Like many of my generation, I grew up imbued with a strangely idealized conception of the hasidic world, one developed without the benefit of having ever met an actual hasidic person or visited a hasidic community or synagogue. They were everywhere in my childhood, those people. The walls of one of best friend’s parents’ apartments featured a series of decorative plates, each emblazoned with the image of a sole hasid dancing in apparently ecstatic prayer. My own mother once needle-pointed a pillow cover featuring in silhouette some hasidic men holding open books. In the same vein but even more popular were pictures on black velvet, not of dogs playing poker, but of hasidim engaging in some sort of raucous discussion, presumably about some holy matter, and gesticulating dramatically with their hands.  During my two summers at the UAHC Eisner Summer Camp in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, the words “hasidic prayer service” were used to denote a service without real (or any) liturgy—one more akin (I only realized years later how funny this was) to a Quaker meeting than anything a real hasid would recognize—in which people were asked to sit quietly in each other’s contemplative company until someone thought of something to say, something like the Shema or a line from a popular song. And, of course, there were the two volumes of Martin Buber’s hasidic tales that served as the basis for a thousand divrei torah at camp and back home in Junior Congregation as well.

Even my own parents fell under the spell occasionally, speaking reverentially of hasidim as the ones who would keep the embers glowing even after the rest of us lost interest and moved on.  But, even despite all of this worshipfulness, I don’t recall it ever striking me how odd it was that I hadn’t ever met an actual hasid despite the fact that the great hasidic communities of Brooklyn weren’t more than a thirty-minute drive from Forest Hills and could be visited easily. Nor do I recall it dawning on me that the people on the plates and pillows were depictions of actual human beings who, had anyone wished, could presumably have been easily located, encountered and enjoyed in person.  And so things remained until I actually did meet my first hasid, a fellow my age named Summy (short for Isumar) who occasionally davened at the same quasi-hasidic shtibl in Forest Hills in which I occasionally attended services during my JTS years when I was back home with my parents for Shabbat. (Why I chose to attend services there when I would have been far more warmly welcomed elsewhere is a different issue, one I’ll write about on some other occasion. The other worshipers, at any rate, weren’t hasidim at all—just the rabbi and his innumerable sons were, plus Cousin Summy who occasionally escaped—his word, not mine—from Brooklyn to have what he called “shabbos in the country.” That he thought of Forest Hills as “the country” should have been my first clue that our worldviews were not going to mesh easily. And yet we were, in some sense, friends: two young men who got along and liked each other…and each of whom was familiar with a part of the world regarding which the other was very curious.)

From Summy, I got a clear sense of the “other” side of the story…and it was not at all a pretty picture. Even after all these years, I hesitate to repeat much of what he told me on our Shabbos-afternoon walks. As I think back, I don’t recall it ever striking me to wonder if he was being fully honest with me. (Were there really Manhattan brothels that catered to hasidic young men eager to test things out before marriage? I certainly believed him then, but now I find myself less certain.) Still, that relationship provided me with my first inkling that hasidim were real people who existed in the real world. Since then, of course, I’ve met other hasidic types, some impressively learned and others childish and naïve. But none has ever made the impression on me that Summy did when I was in my early twenties and still trying, albeit not yet too successfully, to figure out the Jewish world and my place in it.

So that is the baggage I personally brought to Shulem Deen’s book. In some ways, his is an unusual story. Born to baal-teshuvah parents in Boro Park, he hardly came from a hasidic family at all…yet he was drawn to the hasidic life to which he was exposed in New Square and, after some dithering, he bought into it more or less holus-bolus. He married as a young man in the typical hasidic style, then went on to have five children in rapid succession. On the outside, he was a “regular” hasid, wearing the whole get-up, sporting sidelocks that if uncurled would have hung down as far as his waist (a point he makes in passing but which stays with me for some reason), expressing public disdain for even the slightly glimmer of modernity that somehow managed to pierce the community’s almost impermeable boundaries. But on the inside, the author was a work very much still in progress. Reading how he first became aware of the fact that anyone, even a hasid, may borrow books from a public library, and how he acquired a radio, then a television (which he kept hidden in a cupboard and only dared watch when his children were fast asleep), and then a computer, his story reads more like a traditional Bildungsroman than a prison escapee’s journal.

The depiction of hasidic life in the book is as unappealing as it is slightly charming. The community really does stick together. And its members are depicted positively as men and women of deep and unquestioning faith. To say that they take their observance seriously is to say almost nothing: these are people who have chosen to subjugate every aspect of their lives to the kind of punctilious religious observance that is the hallmark of traditional hasidic life. And yet…for all they are as strict as strict could be (and the Skverer hasidim are among the strictest in terms of their observance and their standards), they are depicted in the book as harsh and judgmental, as petty and meanspirited, and as capable of remarkably cruelty towards each other. In one of the book’s most shocking passages, the author openly admits to having participated personally in a criminal effort to defraud New York State out of serious sums of money by producing false reports regarding the standards that prevail in one of the community’s yeshivahs. All in all, and even despite the occasional rays of light that shine though, Deen’s is not an attractive portrait of hasidic life and, in the end, no reader will find it even slightly surprising that the author wanted out.

But reading from my personal perch, what struck me was how Deen, for all he was ready to abandon his community and his family, and fully to reject the hasidic lifestyle, was unable to shed his community’s fundamentalist worldview. In other words, his escape was from black to white, from the strictest level of observance possible to absolutely nothing at all: this man whose payos once hung down to his waist is depicted by the end of the book as blithely living outside even the most elemental norms of Jewish life and as having no level of discernible Jewish observance in his life at all. The possibility of living a rich, meaningful, satisfying Jewish life characterized by both intellectual and spiritual integrity seems not to have dawned on the author: he left everything and moved on to nothing without, it seems, even considering that his problem might be with the know-nothing fundamentalism that characterizes hasidism at its least appealing, not with the foundational stuff of Judaism itself upon which every Jewish community from the most to the least liberal rests…including many into which the author could easily fit. 

It’s a good book and worth your time to read. It’s troubling and not a little sad. But it’s also provocative and very interesting. I resisted reading it when it first came out in 2015 for some reason, but a Shelter Rocker recommended it to me the other week and I decided to give it a chance after all. I’m glad that I did!

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