An unplanned encounter with AOL.com almost 20 years ago lit the spark of curiosity that ultimately led Shulem Deen, 41, a former hasid, to his current path as a secular Jew and professional writer.
Discovering that he had an insatiable appetite for knowledge and wanted to explore a more expansive worldview, Deen started reading books with ideas that went beyond the strict boundaries of the Skverer hasidic movement in which he had been living. He even paid visits to the library and borrowed videos from Blockbuster.
“I also began doubting,” he said. “I realized that my faith was based on premises that I could no longer consider sound.”
Deen writes of that journey of faith, doubt, and discovery in a memoir, All Who Go Do Not Return, which The New Yorker called “the most lyrical but also the most searchingly spiritual of the ‘ex-frum’ memoirs.”
Deen will discuss his life’s journey at Shabbat evening services at Temple Shalom of Aberdeen on Friday, Dec. 18, and will answer questions following the oneg.
“I was a member of the Skver hasidic community, located in New Square, a part of Rockland County, NY, and I was happy in that world. I found it warm and embracing. I was married, and my wife and I had five children before I left the community,” Deen told NJJN in a phone interview.
In the mid-1990s, the Internet was still “pretty much in its infancy,” he said. He acquired a computer to help him teach Talmud to young students. “I thought the word processing application would make me more effective,” he explained.
At that point, said Deen, the Skverers had no prohibition against computers, which they viewed as appliances, not as gateways to secular culture.
“Along with the computer, I received a trial membership in AOL. I put the floppy disk into the machine, and was stunned as I realized what was possible. People in their own homes and offices could carry on conversations with others — strangers! I was instantly intrigued and drawn to new levels of learning that previously were unavailable to me,” Deen said.
By the time Deen was 30, community scrutiny led to his expulsion from the Skverers. “We moved to Monsey, NY, and tried to make a go of it with another hasidic group, but my wife wasn’t comfortable and wanted to return to New Square,” he said.
The subsequent divorce agreement allowed Deen a weekly visit with his children, but, he said, “As they grew older, they withdrew from me. They wouldn’t converse. They wouldn’t eat my food.”
The children made it clear they no longer wanted to see him, and he acquiesced. It has now been several years since he had direct contact with his kids.
Meanwhile, it wasn’t simple for him to integrate into mainstream society. “Yiddish had been my primary language, and I even had trouble talking to people,” he said.
A turning point came when Deen discovered Footsteps, a not-for-profit organization based in New York that provides educational, vocational, and social support to people who have left or want to leave fervently Orthodox and Orthodox Jewry.
Basing its programs around the slogan “Your life. Your journey. Your choice,” Footsteps offers social and cultural events; one-to-one counseling; dating, relationship, and sexuality groups; and informal shmooze sessions. Deen is now a board member.
He is also a successful freelance writer, whose work has appeared in such publications as The New Republic, Salon, Tablet Magazine, and The Jewish Daily Forward.
Now single and a self-professed atheist living in Brooklyn, Deen is on tour promoting his book. Although he no longer has any synagogue affiliation, he continues to identify himself as Jewish, and sometimes even attends services.
Asked why he went public with his story, Deen said one of his goals when he left the hasidic world was to become a writer. “All Who Go Do Not Return is a literary project, not an act of therapy, even though the content is intensely personal,” he said.
Using the word “passionate” to describe his interest in helping people in hasidic communities to leave “if this is what they want,” Deen said, “I believe strongly in free choice.”
He added, “I absolutely support and sympathize with people who like that lifestyle.”