Monday, March 23, 2015

The Wandering Jew Redux

Shulem Deen, All Who Go Do Not Return: A Memoir

Shulem Deen found his home among the New Square Hasidim in his teens.They provided him everything a good Hasidic boy wants: acceptance, family, guidance, home. But not answers. Moving into adulthood, embracing an arranged marriage and a lifetime of Torah study, he found millennia-old dogma unsatisfying. And when modernity intruded upon his obstinately unchanging community, his boyhood faith slipped away. So one day, amid ordinary ritual and family life, Shulem Deen found himself expelled.

Hasidim, like Shakers or the Amish, draw admiration and scorn in equal measure from outsiders for their exceptional devotion, besides their rejection of modernity. But like Amish, Hasidic communities are independently governed, and each population enjoys (if that’s the word) unique standards stemming from tradition and reason. Deen’s community, the Skverers, founded by Ukranian exiles during Stalin’s purges, are so conservative that, in Deen’s telling, even other Hasidim find their insularity and single-mindedness forbidding.

Nevertheless, Deen recounts a conversion experience so passionate, it’s hard to doubt his one-time sincerity. Raised among diverse Hasidic communities in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Deen stumbled across the Skverers accidentally, almost lazily. Once there, however, he discovered a people deeply unified behind shared customs, profound mutuality, and Daniel-like refusal to accomodate this world’s influences. Deen elegantly captures Emile Durkheim's assertion that religion emerges, first, to unify the people; God appears in religion, if He does, only subsequently.

What they’re unifying into matters, though, in ways Deen initially misses. The Skverers share an appalling fear-based ethic: fear of outsiders, fear of heterodoxy, fear of their own flesh. As Deen describes the events preceding his wedding, observant readers will feel afraid for him: he lacks vocabulary to identify his own body parts by name, and his elders deliberately obfuscate factual knowledge. Deen’s community so fears change, that any frank discussions produce reflexive primal terror.

This includes important faith-based issues. Though Deen, like all observant Hasidic men, spent years studying Mishnah and Talmud, records of Judaism’s great historical debates (rather than studying, say, algebra or job skills), the Skverers consider all debates closed after Maimonides died. When Deen’s modern experience differs from historical precedent, he cannot manufacture pat explanations. Worse, modernity’s three great temptations—AM radio, a library card, and the Internet—increase Deen’s questions. Blind faith no longer suffices.

In Deen’s description, moving outside faith lacks Richard Dawkins’ beloved Road-to-Damascus conversion to secular clarity. Instead, dawning unbelief is scary, trapping Deen outside his beloved community, lost in modernity’s solitary, nihilistic hinterlands. Lacking the experience secular peers obtained decades earlier, modern life becomes fraught. Deen must negotiate such minefields as job hunting, making friends, and building a life without community support. Meanwhile, his ex-wife demands the kids remain Hasidic, permanently dividing him from his children.

Religious memoirs, including memoirs of agnosticism, never really describe situations as they existed. Deen crafts moments to expose how the Skverer community attracted and embraced him, then how it failed to encompass his growing needs. Therefore, we cannot read Deen’s account as objectively describing what happened. People, including his rebbe, wife, and children, become essentially characters in Deen’s arc; life’s sloppy, chaotic events get reorganized into a plot. Deen admits structuring events into a story.

Within those confines, Deen describes the terrors that accompany losing faith. When one’s community prizes uniformity of thought above all else, knowledge becomes sinful, so we share Deen’s stolen thrill of reading children’s encyclopedias at the public library. When one’s community cultivates a fortress mentality, besieged by vast worldly wickedness, discovering like minds outside undercuts everything else, so when Deen discovers conservative Christians on AM radio feel persecuted, too, he realizes his people aren’t unique.

But where modern necktied atheists proclaim secularism as onerous religion’s antidote, Deen learns, discovering himself means leaving others behind. Though forced into an arranged marriage, he loved his wife, and cherished his children. But they didn’t share his journey. When the Skverers expelled deen, his family tried following him, but ultimately couldn’t. They belonged among their people. He didn’t. Modernity, like religion, requires embracing important ideas, and those who do, must abandon those who cannot.

A Jewish friend tells me ex-Hasidic memoirs have become real hot commodities recently. Though outsiders frequently lump all Jews together, Judaism in today’s society is as fragmented as Christianity, and while some seek religion’s nourishing community, others reject its burdensome bonds. That’s why this book succeeds, because it ultimately isn’t about Shulem Deen. It’s about us, and the frightening, ambiguous, transcendent questions we face daily. In today’s turbulent world, can we ever know certainty again?

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