I have a friend who was once summoned to the principal’s office in his son’s Jewish day school. His son apparently had stopped praying during communal morning prayers. He attended the compulsory prayer service but refused to pray. “This is a problem,” began the principal, “prayer is a religious obligation.” “I think you misunderstand my son,” replied my friend. “He is being religious precisely in refusing to pray to a God he doesn’t believe in.”
Many of us unconsciously think we understand faith, or piety, even if we were not taught about it in school or do not live inside it. We are often taught that faith is generally good but too much of it is generally bad. We then choose the degrees to which we separate ourselves while still trying to remain connected to its roots. As the Jewish joke goes, “Everyone to the left of me is a heretic, and everyone to right of me is crazy.” But what if we err in our orientation? What if we modern Jews are a spiritually dis-oriented people?
These were some of the thoughts I had as I read Shulem Deen’s arresting new memoir All Who Go Do Not Return. On a surface level it is a beautiful and tragic story of a young man who grows up in the world of Satmar and Skverer Hasidim in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and New Square, New York, an ultra-Orthodox enclave in Rockland County about an hour from New York City. He tries to be a productive member of the community until he realizes he doesn’t believe in its values, then in its religion, then in its God, and then he questions his belief about anything. Yet throughout this process he remains deeply reflective and honest and conscious. It is the story of the slow birth of a heretic; not a heretic who seeks to distort religion or create another one, and not a heretic who views himself in any messianic light. Rather, a heretic of the everyday, the heretic of the everyman, one who comes to own the term apikoros (heretic) not as a label of defeat but as an exercise in piety. Whether this leads others to follow suit is another matter. That is not his intention. His intention is to live honestly. And as Bob Dylan sang in “Blonde on Blonde” in 1966, “To live outside the law you must be honest.”
So, this is really a book about honesty. Honesty and its price. Heresy and its price. Because living outside the law in that way either makes you a crook or, if you are honest enough, can make you pious. I am not saying Deen is “pious” or that he even seeks piety. But that really is the deeper level of the story, his story, but also many of our stories.
The book begins dramatically with a rabbinic tribunal in New Square where a group of rabbis come to the painful decision that Deen is a heretic and therefore must leave the community. We don’t think that these things happen today, but they do. And so the reader immediately has a sense of vertigo. But Deen doesn’t allow us to get angry at the tribunal, sneer in righteous indignation, and say “how can these people do such a thing? It’s so medieval.” Deen’s telling of the story makes us feel sympathetic to the rabbinic council because Deen himself seems sympathetic, albeit disappointed. That is, these rabbis have a job to do, and that job is to protect the boundaries of their community, however they are defined. Deen has stepped outside of those boundaries and he refuses to deny it. Thus they are taking appropriate action. He wishes it would be otherwise, but he doesn’t protest except to plead for his wife and five children. But honesty has a price, heresy has a price. Like the young Spinoza, Deen accepts that price. He really has no other choice.
As a child, Deen was known as Shulem Ari, named after the great 16th-century kabbalist Isaac Luria (known as the Ari) who was one of the mainstays of Deen’s father’s spiritual life. His life and his choices are born in part from his knowledge of his parents’ unorthodox past. Both came from outside the Hasidic community and entered into it in the late 1960s as part of the American counter-culture. His mother’s story is a fairly conventional early story of a ba’alat teshuva (one who returns to tradition). His father’s is a bit more complicated, and important, yet Deen chooses to conceal most of the details, devoting just a few pages of the book to it. But the reader wants to know: Who was this man, especially since he seems to play a major role in Deen’s life, even as he died when Shulem was 14?
I knew Shulem from the time he was about 6 until the age of 13. His father was my teacher. From that time on I had not seen Shulem until we met again about four years ago when he was already writing his memoir. But I remembered both the child and his father quite vividly.
Dovid Din (David Deen) was born in Baltimore in 1941. He attended Johns Hopkins University and left before graduating, traveling in the mid-1960s in a converted school bus with a group of hippies in search of land to establish a commune. They somehow ended up in Winnipeg, Canada, where Dovid met a young rabbi named Zalman Schachter (later Zalman Schachter-Shalomi) who was the director of the Hillel at the University of Manitoba. While his friends moved on, Dovid was taken by this young rabbi and stayed in Winnipeg becoming Schachter’s secretary for a number of years. It was here that he entered into serious Jewish practice. Dovid then moved to the Bay Area, where for a time he managed the second iteration of the House of Love and Prayer founded by Shlomo Carlebach. This period of his life is briefly documented in Aryae Coopersmith’s book on the House of Love and Prayer, Holy Beggars: A Journey From Haight Street to Jerusalem. He met and married his wife Bracha and both moved to Far Rockaway, Queens, where Dovid enrolled in Yeshivat Sh’or Yashuv, known then as “Freifeld’s yeshiva” after its founder Shlomo Freifeld, a yeshiva that catered to newly religious Jews. Over time he attracted a small following of younger students taken by his meticulous piety and his free-form and universal interpretations of Kabbalah and Hasidism. The family eventually moved to Boro Park, Brooklyn, and for a short time to Meah Shearim in Jerusalem.
In Boro Park, Dovid established an institute called Bnei Hekhola (“Children of the Palace,” after an Aramaic liturgical poem by his son’s namesake, 16th-century kabbalist Luria). He taught widely, attending many New Age and ecumenical religious retreats and for a short time studied with Ewert Cousins, a professor of Christian theology at Fordham University. Dovid died, possibly from complications from anorexia, in 1988 at the age of 46. There is, of course, much more, but this is enough for the story.
I say that Deen’s parents play a role in his heretical journey because in some way they were outsiders to the world in which he was an insider. That is, while they lived among the Hasidim and certainly were Hasidim, there was always a sense of marginality about them, and that marginality must have felt odd to a young boy who was born into a world his parents adopted but never fully absorbed, nor were they absorbed by it. I was part of the circle of young men and women who lived Hasidic lives on the margins of that urban Hasidic enclave in Brooklyn. In many ways we were more Hasidic than those born into it, at least spiritually, in that we chose a myth and dove into it without the sense of irony that one often inherits through indoctrination. We were truly “converts,” Augustinian in our passion and aspiration for piety.
In this sense, Deen’s father Dovid was unique. His devotion was exemplary, and not in any conventional Hasidic sense. I would say he most resembled in my mind a kind of Franciscan Hasid. He tested his faith in many Franciscan ways, walked alone in the wee hours of the morning in the Bowery among the truly forgotten, gave away all of his money, literally emptying his pockets, to a man with no legs on West 4th Street at 2 a.m., walked through very bad neighborhoods with what seemed to be little fear. His weekday morning prayers took three hours, evening prayers one hour. In between, a few sessions of meditation. I know this because I did some of that with Dovid. Deen’s father’s piety also had another side. He was notoriously rigid and stubborn, rarely worked (his devotional schedule didn’t give him the time), he never had money to pay his bills (bill collectors chased the family wherever they went), he was not a very responsible parent, although a loving one. So, Deen grew up with a role model whose piety was unwavering yet who lived a life of both overt and covert marginality, was irresponsible, and even in his piety, cleverly deviant.
What Dovid knew in regards to traditional sources, and how well he knew them, is a matter of conjecture. What is not in doubt, in my view, is the creativity of his mind and the wellspring of insight that drew people close to him. His community was not really the Hasidic enclave where he lived but the outside visitors who came to learn from him. Jews, non-Jews, spiritualists, Sufis, monks, priests, Reform rabbis, wayward Orthodox rabbis, hippies, artists, academics, riffraff of various kinds. They entered his world, and he made them feel as if there was something there for them. And that it was there because he made it so. Was it authentic, learned in any traditional way? Not necessarily. That was not the point. He was a channeler, one who could make you feel the profundity of what he said whether it was banal, mistaken, or even incoherent. In short, he was one of the few people I have met in my life whose most significant and also most problematic trait was his charisma. His brilliance was his imagination and his focused devotion. His dark side was simply part of that. Perhaps unknowingly, the younger Deen absorbed all of it, but it would take this Hasidic boy years to realize and understand his extremely complicated inheritance.
Deen grew up as a consummate insider, a Hasidic boy from Brooklyn right out of a Chaim Potok novel. And yet his father both was and certainly was not a conventional Hasidic father. Dovid barely knew Yiddish, his spoken Hebrew was passable, he had a worldliness that included a rejection, even repulsion, of many of the values of his neighbors, even as he romanticized them. Yet he was venerated as a pious man, even among those who hardly knew him. I do not mean “pious” like Uncle Izik is “pious” because he goes to shul every morning and gives a lot of charity. I mean ascetic pious, Tibetan Buddhist pious, Benedictine pious. It was a piety that excluded one from its purview, a solitariness that made you feel his body was a way station.
There is a touching and painful scene in Deen’s book where he describes the last time he saw his father. Deen was leaving for yeshiva out of town and he was late. He went to say goodbye to his father who was then deep in his morning prayers, close to the 18 benedictions called the silent or standing prayer. According to Jewish law one cannot disrupt the flow of the prayer at this juncture. But of course, circumstances arise when a short disruption would be warranted. Not with Dovid. Deen enters his father’s prayer room and calls him. His father would not turn to face his son. Rather, without facing him, and with closed eyes, he lightly reaches out his hand to touch his son who is departing. That is all. Deen describes this as if his father then simply “went elsewhere.” Again we have the initial impetus to react disapprovingly. But the storyteller knew what had transpired. The final meeting, although they didn’t know it then, a nonverbal somatic moment of pious honesty, his father communicating to him, “I love you, but I love this just as much.” Maybe Christianity was right to keep its monks celibate.
I was once traveling with Deen’s father from Israel to New York and we missed the flight while standing with our tickets at the gate because Dovid refused to take off his tefillin before the final Aleinu prayer (which does not require tefillin). The attendants were pleading with us to hurry, and I turned to him and begged him to finish up, but he simply ignored us as if we weren’t there. Exasperated, the flight attendants simply closed the doors and left us. He never showed any remorse, never defended himself or apologized. “We need to look for another flight,” he calmly said. We took a later flight through Paris and then got stuck for more than two days in the Paris airport because of a strike, eating only raw peanuts and water (because of dietary laws). We couldn’t leave the airport because we had no money.
So, for Deen to bury himself in New Square, the most separatist enclave with one of the most cloistered and also embracing communities, is kind of a choice of convention as if to say, maybe in there lies the piety without paradox, maybe in there one can really be accepted. And he was. And he flourished. Until his inheritance kicked in.
In Deen’s book, there is little metaphysical reflection, Talmudic hair-splitting distinctions, defensive justifications. Deen just realizes, as naturally as a flower opens to the morning sun, that he no longer believes. He did seek counseling and rabbinic advice. But even as he tells those stories it is without passion, in a perfunctory manner. He tells of a friendship with a young man his age who teaches in a yeshiva for newly religious Jews in Monsey who gives him books on science and philosophy written by Orthodox men who claim to have come up with proof of God and the truth of Torah. None of them quench his thirst because his thirst is not intellectual, it is existential. He is not looking for proof. He knew what it was to believe, from New Square and from his father, and thus he knows what it is not to believe, also from his father. And he knew what he had to do. The question was only whether he was strong enough to do it.
And as one reads, one witnesses a gentle but determined young man try to dig himself out of the dishonesty of belief (after having lost his faith) without hurting those around him. He slowly did things such as secretly buying a television (forbidden in New Square), eating non-kosher food in the city where no one knew him, transgressing Shabbat when everyone was asleep. He tried to bring his reluctant wife around, gently, but also firmly; one cannot compromise on true nonbelief. To some extent, his wife acquiesced but she knew she didn’t share his journey. She believed, that was where her piety lived. He was never unfaithful to her, that was not what this was about for Deen, this was not a pleasure journey. He loved his wife and he knew she deserved better. Unlike his father, who would not look at him to say goodbye because he was too deep in prayer, Deen suffered to try to make her happy. But of course that was impossible. His compassion he inherited from his mother.
Deen found a way: the anonymity of the emerging blogosphere. Under the name “Hasidic Rebel” he began to blog. Honestly. He was able to be in New Square and be honest as a heretic. And no one knew. He began to live a secret and thought maybe this was the answer. Like his father. But both were wrong. He first blogged about mundane matters in the community and then slowly about his loss of faith. Quickly he gained a following; he offered a rare critical window into a closed and exotic world. And then fellow travelers began to sign on. But wait. Wasn’t he living a lie? Like his father, whose past remains shroud in mystery? The honesty on the screen suddenly became dishonest because of its anonymity. “Hasidic Rebel” could not live a long prosperous life in virtual reality. If the journey was to be true, to be honest, Deen had to reveal himself. And so he did, not exactly with fanfare but by not denying the rumors in the neighborhood that he was in fact the “Hasidic Rebel.” It was a name of course, that was perhaps more fitting for his father, albeit in the inverse. Both were rebelling; his father to get in, and Deen to get out. In time, honesty erupted for both, to different ends. Piety, the piety of heresy, surfaced. And thus the tribunal was summoned. “We cannot have this in our community, you must leave.”
The story turns even more tragic after Deen’s divorce from his wife Gitty because that world could not deal with such honesty. There is too much at stake. To be re-absorbed into that world after such a familial rupture his wife and children eventually have to cut ties with him. They had to. That was part of the price. Deen laments that fact, as he loves his children, but he also deeply understands it. He was once there. Augustine in reverse. He loves his children like a father should but he also owns his disbelief like a pious, and honest, man must. In the end, family isn’t everything, not for his father, and not for him. And perhaps not for the rare honest ones among us for whom integrity matters most, whether God hears or not, whether God exists or not.
How does one lose faith? And what does it mean to “lose” faith? Is faith found before it is lost? And why one and not another, why Shmuley and not Menachem? In the modern world, even the Modern Orthodox world, losing faith is not usually the ticket out. One becomes disinterested or distracted. The rituals lose their meaning; the secular part of one’s life seems more compelling. One questions and even disbelieves what one was taught. But that is largely intellectual.
Losing faith, I think, is a much more profound sense of loss. It is not intellectual. It is a deep psychological rupture that can reach to one’s core. And it has a high price. In places like New Square one can lose one’s faith because in places like New Square there really is faith to lose. In places like New Square faith pours out into everything one does. They are proud religious maximalists where separatism and conformity are not circumstance but doctrine. I do not write this with any nostalgia at all; there is an underside to that piety that is seriously disturbing. But it also produces energy and intensity that pluralism simply cannot match. And we all know the line separating piety and insanity has always been notoriously thin.
So, when one realizes there that they don’t believe, no, they don’t BELIEVE!, it is as if the world has ended because in some way, it has. The price begins the moment disbelief replaces belief. Once one internally crosses that threshold yet remains in that world, piety in the conventional sense is dishonest. And dishonesty is painful for one who truly seeks piety. Now it is religion, and not the outside world, that becomes incoherent, whereas for that newly minted heretic only yesterday, or last month, religion flowed through him like a mountain stream in spring.
He is a clever God, the God the heretic no longer believes in. The moment a Hasid doesn’t believe in God, God traps him in a life of dishonesty and makes honesty the only thing worth striving for because it is the one thing you cannot have. And this honesty has a big price, one’s wife, children, home, stability. If you’re not willing to play at those stakes, do not move to a place like New Square or Williamsburg. Because in those enclaves, it is all or nothing. Alternatively, and far too often, it is choosing the life of a spiritual crook.
Deen could have lived the religious lie others in his community choose to live, some of whom he describes in his book. We all know of those inside who really don’t believe but choose to live impious lives wearing the cloak of piety. They choose to stay with their families and the comfort of their lives. They choose a kind of reasonable impiety. They do so for many reasons: Some are afraid, some are weak, or some simply don’t care that much.
In a fleeting scene in the book, one that I think passes too quickly, Deen confesses to his brother-in-law, a Hasidic Jew in Brooklyn, about his non-belief. His brother-in-law listens intently and then says, “But you’ll never leave because you’re too weak.” This is a reasonable assertion because in many cases it is true. But this young Hasidic man did not grow up watching his father pray for hours on end, eat only rice or drink water, walk the desolate streets at midnight testing his faith, run from collectors and wait on welfare lines even though he was highly educated and surely was able to work. That is, Deen’s brother-in-law did not have that kind of piety as his model. A son who grows up with that sees two things: intense honesty and equally intense dishonesty. Such a childhood does not breed apathy or compromise. Nor does it breed weakness.
In some way, then, Deen’s piety is the inversion of his father’s. The honesty for him is embedded in disbelief and his willingness to pay the price for it, because honesty, like heresy, comes at a high price. I once suggested that idea to Deen over lunch and he smiled and nodded. I don’t know whether he thought of it before. Oh, to really lose one’s faith. What an act of piety in part because to lose it means one once had it! And in New Square to lose it is a high-stakes game; to become a crypto-heretic, a spiritual crook, or an honest human being and live according to your (dis)belief.
In an interview in Yiddish Shulem did with the Jewish newspaper the Forward, he began by saying, almost in passing, “I am an apikoros (heretic).” It’s an arresting sentence because we don’t often hear it, at least among Jews. The ownership exhibits a sense of honesty that is almost painful. Most Jewish nonbelievers either don’t know what the term means, or they don’t care. Or they justify their non-belief as part of their Jewishness. But Deen knows better. And he cares. That is what really makes him an apikoros. An apikoros has to really care. And that is also what makes him pious. And that is what makes him his father’s son.
The final scene in the book is a masterful coda to the history of the heretic. And also to Deen’s life with his father, which may be the same thing. After a visit with a few of his children, Deen drops them off at their mother’s house. As he drives away he sees his son Hershy, who was not with him on that visit, zoom by on his bike. He honks to get his attention but Hershy doesn’t hear. So he makes a U-turn to circle back and say hello to his son. But when he gets back to spot where he saw him, he is gone. The book ends with the following sentence: “He was here a moment ago. And now he is gone.”
There are no U-turns for the heretic. That is Deen’s final lesson. And that moment reaches back to the last vision of his father. A gentle touching of his hand, a child’s vision of a man whose prayer indeed took him elsewhere. “He was here a moment ago. And now he is gone.”
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