One of the most highly anticipated memoirs in the OTD-sphere, All Who Go Do Not Return is a memoir by celebrated blogger, heretic, and all around righteous dude Shulem Deen. For many years, Shulem has been a fixture in the nouveau-boho-exChusid scene, which auxiliarly includes formerly-Modernishes such as me.
My first exposure to Shulem was an article in the Village Voice, The Sharer of Secrets. This was in the summer of 2003. I was working a McJob working a concession stand at Giant's Stadium for a Bruce Springsteen concert. The last bus to my parents' house had already departed, so I had to find a ride into the city. Since it was past midnight, and there would be no more buses back to New Jersey until at least 8am, I was stuck in Midtown Manhattan with nothing to do for 5 hours. So I took a Village Voice (because it was free), walked over to the Hudson River, sat on a bench, and started reading.
Up to that point, I had very little first-hand exposure to the Hassidic underground. I had one friend, Steve, who was a senior at MTA. Steve used to be a Satmar Hassid, but for some reason, his parents sent him to MTA (which is Modernishe). One summer, Steve got an internship at a Goyyishe firm, and everything went downhill: the payyos came off, he was now smoking weed, when he wore a yarmulke it was no longer a big velvet one, and he no longer kept Shabbos. Steve once told me that the Satmars were constantly calling him, begging him to come back, and several times even threatened to drive over to Washington Heights to abduct him and force him to daven with them. Steve still deftly evaded them.
Other than that, I had never actually met a bona fide Hassidic Rebel. When I read this article, I discovered that Steve was not alone. There were others who were Hassidic and no longer believed. Only Steve was still in high school and surrounded by Modern Orthodox Jews, so he had an easier way out. The people described in the article were still completely clandestine. The article inspired me so much, that when I got home, I looked up Hassidic Rebel. I found it intriguing. After reading a few posts, it was clear to me that Hassidic Rebel was a very well read, energetic man who was not content to be cloistered in whatever Shtetl he hailed from.
After a spell, I didn't give Hassidic Rebel much more thought. But over the years, I was more and more exposed to the Hassidic Underground. Half a year later, I was working a job at NYU. An old friend of mine, Sholom, was a regular customer there. One day, Sholom brought in a girl named Malky. Malky was a student at Hunter College who was doing a project with Hassidim who wanted out. She called it "Footsteps". At the time, Footsteps was just an experimental project. Both she and Sholom were former Lubavitchers. But she promised me that at her meetups, there were former Satmars, and other more hardcore Hassidim, whose stories were completely gut-wrenching. So Sholom asked me if I wanted to check this Footsteps out.
I regret now that I never did. Though I am glad to see that Foortsteps has since become a tour de force. Many of my current acquaintances have at some point passed through their doors and been aided in one way or another: whether it's getting a GED, applying to college, applying for benefits, improving English, or merely support. Although I myself am not a member of Footsteps, I still laud this wonderful organization.
In about 2011, I joined the OTD Facebook group. Here, I was finally exposed to a cadre of ex-Hareidim. Some still had fake names like Rachmuna Litzlon or Fence Sitter, Others were already out in the open. Through this group I made many contacts with people all across the formerly-frum spectrum. Some were flaming Atheists; some were merely Orthoprax; some simply became Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal/Revivial, et al. But all in one way or another no longer believed in the Yiddishkeit they were nourished with.
Shulem Deen was one name I would sporadically come across in the group. Once in a while, someone would post a link to a blog called "Unpious", which contained literary posts by ex-Hassidim. But one day, while drunk at an OTD meetup, someone told me that Shulem Deen was Unpious and formerly Hassidic Rebel. Yes, I had heard all three names: Shulem Deen, Unpious, and Hassidic Rebel. But at that moment, though I was completely soused, I somehow retained that all three were the same entity.
I first met Shulem in the flesh at a protest against the "Asifah." The Asifah was a huge gathering at CitiField to warn people of the dangers of the internet. Some OTDers and sympathizers threw together a protest for what they thought was the real issue at large--molestation. For years, this issue was swept under the rug in the Hareidi community. Because Jews are supposedly forbidden to report each other to secular authorities, these issues are supposed to be handled internally. But many times, they are not. And so, we were trying to protest this issue. They complain about the evils of the internet, but they don't realize that there are much bigger fish to gefilte in their communities.
After that, I met Shulem several more times. He always impressed me not only with his erudition, but also his unique perspective about the world. I knew from reading his blogs that he was extremely well read. But even his blogs barely exhibited the breadth and depth of his knowledge. For example, I brought up JB Soloveichik for the sake of argument. I explained that Soloveichik was a man who was completely versed in secular philosophy but had no problem also being frum. His system was a Hegelian synthesis of the profane and the religious. What I did not expect was that Shulem had perused "Halachik Man," and was able to systematically explain why it did nothing for him. If someone were to ask Shulem why he went from one extreme (Skver) to another (Atheist), he had quite the educated reason.
Coming into the book, I knew bits and pieces of Shulem's story. For example, I was there the night he discovered that his oldest daughter was getting married and he wasn't invited. I remember the blog post, recounting the time he was coerced into rescinding custody of his children, limiting him to several times a year. An abridged version of that post made its way into his memoir. It was a tearjerker moment. But at this point, Shulem seemed to have "accepted his lot". Like Elisha ben Abuyah riding off into the sunset saying "All may repent except for Acher", his melancholy manner that night definitely undercut his usually stoic demeanor.
Shulem's memoir is not just another OTD story. To say that Shulem is a master of his craft with a unique voice would be comparable to saying Bill Gates is wealthy. I especially enjoy how accessible he makes it. He is not abashed in explaining scandals, the Va'ad Hatznius, the politics of his world, and what the Rebbe was really like:
- The Va'ad Hatznius is a group that is so clandestine, that I like to joke "The first rule of the Va'ad Hatznius is you do not talk about the Va'ad Hatznius. The second rule of the Va'ad Hatznius is you do not talk about the Va'ad Hatznius." Several parts of his story brought up the perpetual fears Hassidim had of this Va'ad Hatznius and what happened when they came for you. Think of it as the kosher version of Men in Black.
- The Rebbe. An elusive character. I knew that Rebbe:Hassidim :: Pope:Catholic. But what I got from Shulem's story was that for many, the Rebbe was actually just another unimpressive old man with a big beard and a pimp streiml. To a Hassid, the four corners of the world converge around teh Rebbe. But to a skeptic, one would ask if he's really as pious as the stories say he is. The Skverer Rebbe was no exception.
Shulem's story will make you laugh. Shulem's story will make you cry. But most importantly, Shulem's story will draw you in. As one who was raised Orthodox, I was more than intimately familiar with many of the references. However, I can't help but wonder how this story would read to one who was not raised religious. I think it would be readable. He does, after most Hebrew/Aramaic/Yiddish phrases provide an English translation (where the context does not make the meaning obvious). I wonder if years down the line, it will be as readable. I am reminded of the time I took The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft from the library. Even without the annotations, his writing was readable. But the annotations brought the work to life. I felt like maybe if I lived in his time, in his place, I would not need the annotations, it would all make sense to me. Shulem's world is close enough to mine that I could make sense of most of it on my own. I wonder if future readers are going to need an annotated version to make sense of his world. But whether or not they will, even unannotated, his words speak very loudly and lucidly.