Confessions of a Hasidic rebel

In ‘All Who Go Do Not Return,’ which won this year’s Prix Médicis for non-fiction, Shulem Deen describes his transition from ultra-Orthodox Jew to atheist

This file photo taken on December 5, 2017, shows US author Shulem Deen posing during a photo session in Paris. (AFP Photo/Stephane De Sakutin)
This file photo taken on December 5, 2017, shows US author Shulem Deen posing during a photo session in Paris. (AFP Photo/Stephane De Sakutin)

PARIS (AFP) — “My life, that is to say one of my lives, stopped in 2007 and another began.”

That year, Shulem Deen was banned from the ultra-Orthodox community of which he was a member, leaving behind his five children and thirty years of codified existence.

The reason for his eviction: heresy, which inspired the title of his memoir “All Who Go Do Not Return,” which this year won France’s Prix Médicis for non-fiction.

In his dense yet modest narrative, the 43-year-old tells how as a teen he joined the Skver Hasidic group, which in the 1950s moved its headquarters 50 kilometers west of New York City, as its Ukrainian-born rabbinical leader judged the Big Apple to be too decadent.

At 18, with a scruffy beard and payos to match, Deen married a women he had spoken to for all of 10 minutes, had children without much knowing how, and tried to make ends meet while working odd jobs.

New Square, a village in Rockland County, New York, is home to the Skverer Hasidic group. (Uriel Heilman/JTA)

Despite the prohibitions of his community, Deen was gradually introduced to radio, television, and the internet, which opened him up to another world and fascinated him.

As his questions on matters of existence and marriage grew, so too did his transgressions. He started a blog (aptly named “Hasidic Rebel”) and came to realize he had lost his faith.

“When you live in a fundamentalist religious community, there is an answer to everything, there is a system that leaves no room for doubt,” he told AFP during a visit to Paris in early December.

Deen then become a “heretic,” with a rabbinical court determining his fate one evening and thus making him an outcast.

His mother and siblings, all of whom are Orthodox Jews, still support him and have read his book, which “helped them understand” his decisions, he said.

On the other hand, his five children have cut ties with him, unable to side with a father with short hair and who no longer wears the traditional garb. He has little hope of seeing them again.

This is a wound he prefers not to expound upon, insisting on the universal dimension of his book.

Now living in New York City, Deen has swept away his past, although he continues to keep a number of highly symbolic objects, such as his prayer shawl, the tefillin he received at his Bar Mitzvah, and his shtreimel — the fur hat sported by ultra-Orthodox Jews.

“They are in a box under my bed,” he said, before bursting into laughter. “I don’t know why I keep them. It must be sentimental.”

The author now sees himself an atheist and no longer keeps kosher, observes Shabbat, or speaks Yiddish.

“I’ve never regretted my decision to leave, although there are some aspects of my past life that make me nostalgic,” said Deen, who in his book describes the rituals of the Orthodox world, and a communal life punctuated by celebrations.

“It took me some time to accept I wasn’t going to find [outside] what I had there,” he said.

Before and after: Shulem Deen as a Skverer Hasid, left, and a modern secular Jew. (Photo at left courtesy of Shulem Deen; at right, by Pearl Gabel/via JTA)

Deen went on to approach Footsteps, a group counting some 1,400 members that helps those leaving New York’s ultra-Orthodox communities, a topic addressed in the recent Netflix documentary “One of Us.”

Unsurprisingly, Deen’s story has caught the eye of producers and he has received several offers to adapt it to the big screen.

“We discuss it, but it doesn’t make me happy. Writing this book was an artistic project,” Deen said.

“It isn’t necessary to share my story with the whole world. For that I have friends and a shrink.”

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