Moving Forward: Author Speaks About Leaving Hasidic Community

Photo courtesy of Graywolf Press.

Imagine making a choice that would never allow you to see your family ever again.

Shulem Deen, award-winning author of his memoir “All Who Go Do Not Return,” spoke about his experience of choosing to leave the Hasidic Jewish community without understanding the consequences—losing contact with all five of his children.

The Resnick Lecture Series commenced its theme of the fall semester, “Jews and Modern Memoir,” in the Lecture Center on Sept. 7.

When asked, Deen describes Hasidism as a world that “gives you meaning, life, purpose, and community without having to question it.”

Prior to leaving, Deen had faced situations where he should have had a choice, but because of the community in which he was born, that was not the case.

Deen was associated with the Skverer Hasidic movement, located in the Village of New Square in Ramapo, New York.

One of the practices in the Hasidic community is at the age of 18 a matchmaker will eventually come to your parents with a marriage proposal.

Deen had lost his father at the age of 14 and his mother was not part of his life after that as she was still grieving the loss of her husband. As a result, two family friends stood in as Deen’s guardians.

He had never met the girl or knew anything about her before they got married, and that made Deen anxious.

“This was the first time I had to make a serious choice, but I couldn’t make the choice,” Deen said.

Following his marriage, Deen made friends with a gentleman from Monsey, New York, whom he named Chezky in his memoir, who introduced him to secular ways.

Libraries fascinated Deen; seated in a little orange kids chair he found reading encyclopedias and books on religion eye opening.

Discovering libraries and books on the secular world influenced Deen’s decision to leave the Hasidic community.

When the time came to officially leave his wife argued with him that his “ways were psychologically harming his children” and he would not be allowed to have contact with them.

“There were people in my community who were insistent that I do not have a relationship with my children,” Deen said. “The reason is because I was once a member of the Hasidic community and I chose to leave. In their ideology, they believe it would be harmful for my children to see me.”

Organizer of the lecture and emeritus professor Gerald Sorin chose this semester’s theme and guest speakers based on the memoirs he read. His goal was to find people who left the Hasidic community and wrote about it.

“Deen has given us an inside look at a commu nity that is hermetically sealed,” Sorin said. “Only insiders can tell us what goes on and [Deen] left that world and decided to talk about it.”

Deen ultimately left the Hasidic community because of the lack of free will he had. He was once stuck in a world where the choice was always made for you.

For a long time, Deen’s children were the most important things in his life, but he hasn’t seen them in a long time.

Since leaving, Deen has only seen his five children in passing. He was not invited to his two daughters’ weddings or his sons’ bar mitzvahs. However, Deen knows that one day his children will reach out to him and he hopes to be there when they do.

“Choices are things we have to do, we have to think about in our lives,” Deen said. “I’m living a life I want to live; I’m happy I made this choice.”