An Unorthodox Jewish View

Shulem Deen (Courtesy of Beth Tfiloh)
Shulem Deen (Courtesy of Beth Tfiloh)

At 42, Brooklyn-born Shulem Deen could fill a book with his tumultuous tale of having grown up within the insular world of the Skverer Chasidic sect before, as he terms it, being cast out and cut off from everything he knew.

Deen has done just that with his memoir, “All Who Go Do Not Return,” published in March 2015.

Deen has been using the launch of his book as a platform to continue speaking out about the issues he addresses in print and was invited to discuss his life at Beth Tfiloh on Wednesday, Oct. 26 to a packed audience intrigued by his unique but not altogether singular take on the Jewish  Orthodox community.

According to a 2016 survey by Nishma Research, many formerly Orthodox Jews feel they were similarly alienated from their community when — like Deen — they began expressing doubt about some of their culture’s core values, including those involving the status of women.

“I’m not necessarily the hero of my story,” Deen confessed to the JT. “I wrote about things that I’m not necessarily proud of; I wrote about acts that were not necessarily legal. I was a husband, a teacher, a father, and I wrote about how I was not exactly an exemplar of those things.”

Explaining that he had always wanted to be a writer, Deen admitted that he  realized at a point after his break with his sect that “a nobody without an M.F.A.” such as himself would only end up with a novel “languishing in obscurity” if he were to somehow get one published.

After telling his personal story to a friend of a friend who happened to be a literary agent — who confirmed that a novel from a first-time “nobody” writer wouldn’t do well on the market — Deen was told he should give his own memoir a shot.

“I really came to the memoir with the sense that this would be the wisest thing I could do if I wanted to be a writer,”  Deen said.

shulemdeencoverPutting himself on the line  was in some ways relatively easy for Deen, who revealed he has been in therapy on and off for the past 13 years, elaborating that much of this medical assistance was based on whether or not he could afford it at the time.

Subsequent to his departure from his community, Deen struggled financially as a computer programmer barely making ends meet. There was a difficult divorce, there was a custody battle, there was an everyday coping with his own sense of “haves versus have-nots” that connected him with others going through such tumult.

This connection gave Deen something of a purpose and larger sense of self-worth.

“I wanted to engage with material that would make people laugh, cry, feel something,” he said. “This is what I feel is the purpose of art: to create something that will give another human a kick in the tuchus, to move them. And I think the only way I can do it is by writing.”

Deen also feels strongly about the necessity of a kind of “warts and all” telling of such dire tales as his, opening up in a surprisingly and refreshingly forthright manner during his interview.

At one point, he admitted that his lack of circumspection may have been based on his “just having gotten back from the gym.”

As provocative as some see his book controversial in its similarly raw depiction of the Chasidic community, Deen was certain to add that he wrote his book without “intended malice” toward his former sect.

His book was written in a “more temperate tone,” he said, noting that before he left it, he found the community detailed to be one he embraced greatly and which uplifted him … prior to his eventual discovery  that there was another world outside of the which had reared him.

Today a secular Jew still feeling a sense of connection to the culture overall, Deen concluded that the reason he could be so honest about his experience without relegating his material to a simple binary of “good versus evil” is that “I am forthright because I’m not a bull———-.”

Such “brutal” rawness led to a thin pallor of controversy hovering over Deen’s presentation  at Beth Tfiloh.

“There were definitely some rumblings,” said Pikesville resident Michon Zysman, who attended the event and has been a member of Beth Tfiloh for the past four years.

shulemdeen2Zysman, herself originally affiliated with the frum community when she was younger, said there were audible gasps from some members of the audience, which she said was denominationally mixed.

When Deen spoke about his frustrations about how, of his five children, the three girls could speak and write English fluently, whereas the two sons who had been studying in yeshiva 12 to 14 hours a day could not, Zysman said a few in the audience were visibly shaken.

“He’s obviously very articulate,” Zysman said, adding that from her own personal experiences, she understands why he would be “pushing back”  in some ways on his former community.

“It was only an hour,” she said. “And it wasn’t as though people were saying, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe he said that!’ But he certainly wasn’t holding anything back.”

Though Zysman said that Deen’s caustic bluntness makes him someone she’s not exactly sure she’d like as a person, his story — “which is not unique; I think it happens a lot” — was one that made her go home and read his entire book over the subsequent weekend.

“This [event] struck a note, and I really do believe it’s  because a lot of Jews have issues and questions and doubts, and they found it interesting to see how someone else approaches this issue,” said Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, who has been with Beth Tfiloh for the past 38 years.

“Quite honestly, I did not hear those gasps,” he said.

“Perhaps that’s because I was too busy agreeing with him. I take pride in the fact that Beth Tfiloh is open to  diverse opinions and that there is always something to learn even from those with whom we may disagree.”

“I’m really happy I went,” Zysman said. “I think it’s great Beth Tfiloh did it. I can’t picture another congregation in this area doing something  like that.”

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