Shulem Deen remembers the first time he dared question the religious status quo of the chasidic sect in which he grew up.
He was 13 years old and a matchmaker proposed he be paired with the daughter of Chaim Goldstein. Young Shulem wondered what his bride-to-be, Gitty, was like. Why couldn’t he at least see a photo of her? He was told she had many younger siblings so was good with children and came from a fine family, but still he thought, “Was this the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with? I don’t even know her.”
Deen, a former member of the insular, Yiddish-speaking Skverer sect, said, “The freedom to live the way you want to live is denied. To us a free Jew was a sinful Jew, a wicked Jew.”
For Deen, this “profound denial of choice” created years of resentment while he lived in a closed community that rebuffed all forms of modernity. The Skverers are “fiercely protective” of their cultural identity, choosing to have little interaction with the outside world, said Deen. Computers were forbidden and he had never listened to the radio or watched TV. The sexes are completely separated; men walk on one side of street and women on the other.
Today Deen is on the board of Footsteps, an organization assisting former members of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community assimilate into mainstream American society. He also authored the 2015 National Jewish Book Award winning memoir, “All Who Go Do Not Return.” On April 26 he spoke to a crowd of almost 500 at the Douglass College Center in New Brunswick about struggles with faith, family, and community growing up in in one of the most insular chasidic sects. He was the guest lecturer at the annual Abram Matlofsky Memorial Program of Rutgers University’s Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life.
Deen, now a columnist for the Forward, said that when his match was proposed his friend suggested they visit the Skverer Rebbe in the community’s village of New Square in Rockland County, N.Y., because, his friend said, the Rebbe has “a way of knowing things.” According to Deen, the Rebbe’s “eyes lit up” when he heard the teen had been matched to Gitty, assuring him it was a wonderful union. Still, unsure of even how to inquire, Deen stood there and silently pondered the main question he had: “Can I say no?” Yet he stayed quiet, and later when he and Gitty met with the Rebbe, “he gave us a piece of chocolate cake, said ‘mazel tov,’ and 10 minutes later we were engaged.”
Concerned about forgoing his religious obligation and what refusing a match might do to his siblings’ chances of finding a mate, Deen married when he was 18.
“Fear prevented me from exercising choice,” he said.
One day his friend Chezky, known in Yiddish as an “alt bokher,” or old bachelor — he was 22 — told Deen he had gone to Monsey where people were listening to a baseball game on the radio, and referred to it as a “really important” game.
“We wanted to know what this really important game was all about,” said Deen. “We wanted to know what about a baseball game animates so many Americans.”
A baseball game seemed harmless enough, even though the Skverers refer in Yiddish to TV as “the profane vessel.” Deen had only seen television at his mechanic, when he brought his car in for oil changes, the station was always in Spanish.
The pair secretly set out to find a TV to watch, as it turned out, Game Seven of the 2001 World Series between the Yankees and Arizona Diamondbacks. He and Chezky drove around Rockland County and finally located a hotel clerk who let them to watch in the lobby.
This foray into modernity proved to be a slippery slope for Deen. Chezky next said he had a tape of a movie and they watched, “Beethoven,” three or four times in fascination, about an adopted Saint Bernard puppy. Gitty warned him that Chezky was a bad influence, but soon Deen was secretly putting on headphones and listening to the radio at night mesmerized that there “was a mattress sale in Paramus and traffic on the BQE into Brooklyn.”
Then he discovered the forbidden public library where he was exposed, for the first time, to art, music, technology, and comparative religion. A startled Deen learned that other religions, and even other Jews, didn’t share his religious beliefs. Soon he taught himself skills to get a job working with computers in Manhattan.
“I don’t remember when it happened but at one point I realized I don’t believe what my community believes,” noted Deen. “I live in a place, New Square, where there is no room for dissent or nonconformity.”
He realized he was lying to his wife, children, and friends. Yet, he knew nothing about living on the outside and by then had five children who needed two parents and whose future ability to be matched might be tinged by the stigma of divorce.
Deen said he remains “profoundly Jewish,” goes to synagogue “from time to time,” and studies texts, but doesn’t conform to any denomination. He feels a connection to other Jews through shared kinship, ritual, liturgy, and history.
However, he cannot bring himself to say Kaddish because “it speaks of a God that I can’t relate to.”
While Deen doesn’t regret leaving the Skverers, and remains close with his mother, who now lives in Jerusalem, and siblings who are still part of the sect, he is estranged from his children, who were turned against him by the community.
“I suffered a very high price because, in the end, I lost my five children.”