Book review: A ‘rational’ loss of faith is compounded by rejection, disgrace

Book review: A ‘rational’ loss of faith is compounded by rejection, disgrace

Shulem Deen’s journey from Skverer Hasid to Brooklyn unbeliever is a fascinating, disturbing memoir of loss — loss of faith, family and a once-certain future.

His former community, taught not to question, might see his exile as punishment for having tasted from the tree of secular knowledge, but it’s not that simple.

“There was no moment, no solid line across time to which I could point and say: “That’s when I became a  nonbeliever.’”

But buying a tape player for his children and his eventual, inquisitive use of its radio begins his exposure to a world avoided in New Square, N.Y., a Hasidic haven 30 miles north of New York City. Founded in the 1950s by the grand rebbe of Skver, Yankev Yosef Twersky, and supposedly intended to be named New Skver, this “American shtetl” is a place of strict social codes and limited general education into which Deen provides a peek.  

For example, he is taught that “it is improper to call your wife by her name” — guidance he is careful to follow. When his wife, Gitty, becomes pregnant, they realize that neither knows how a baby gets out.

For Deen, one transgression leads to another: public libraries, encyclopedias, the Internet, even television. Ideas he’s accepted as absolute truths – such as creation – become dubious. His doubts grow in long discussions with fellow Skverer Chezky Blum, who teaches – out of town – classes in rational belief.  

“Nothing, however, had a more-shattering impact on my faith than the realization that … the Hebrew Bible had the markings of human rather than divine authorship,” he says. How else to explain its disparate literary styles and retellings? “The Bible was an endlessly fascinating window into the world of our ancestors,” he says, “but as a basis for theology, to me, it simply fell short.”

This realization doesn’t come happily to a father of five with a wife committed to the ways of the society that had arranged her marriage.

“Losing your faith is not like realizing that you got an arithmetic problem wrong,” Deen says. “It is more like discovering your entire mathematical system is flawed, that every calculation you’ve ever made was incorrect … except you seem to be the only one who realizes it, and how is that possible?” he says.

“My inner turmoil left me dizzy with grief over my lost faith. I wanted it back.”

But it wouldn’t return. “Chezky had tempted me with the rational, and I had succumbed to its allure.”

The friendship with Blum begins in 1996, when Deen is 22, and “by 2002, “I no longer thought myself a believer,” Deen says. He is leading almost a double life, but it can’t last. At age 30 — married 12 years — he is expelled from the community, a rejection and disgrace with which the book begins.

“The truth was, I no longer belonged here,” he says. “This was a community of the faithful and I no longer was one of them.”

The family’s move to nearby Monsey doesn’t go well; Gitty and the children become increasingly isolated. A tearful divorce ends their 15-year marriage, Gitty moves back, and slowly the children begin seeing him as the goy they’ve been taught to shun, even abhor.  

Deen relates this calmly, neither gloating in worldly superiority nor wallowing in self-pity. But it is impossible not to feel his anguish.

In Deen’s first forays – still a Hasid — from Yiddish-speaking New Square into the New York business world, he’s told that his English is weak. But now, Deen is a writer, editor and founding editor of the website “Unpious,” and his memoir shows he’s mastered the difficult art of making direct, simple and clear writing appear effortless.

“All Who Go Do Not Return” is an unforgettable story of the power of belief – both the beliefs that bound Deen to his community and the questioning and unbelief that broke those bonds. Heartbreaking, it is absolutely spellbinding.

Neal Gendler is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and editor.