Acclaimed Jewish writer Shulem Deen said he was born into a world of complete passivity, with major life decisions made for him, including whom to marry and what names to give his children.
That was true until he left the Skverer sect of ultra-Orthodox Judaism.
Now a critic of ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Judaism, Deen detailed his experience growing up in the insular Skverer Hasidic village of New Square, New York to Cornellians at a lecture Tuesday.
Deen, author of the award-winning memoir All Who Go Do Not Return, gave an account of his life-changing decision to abandon ultra-orthodox Judaism and its many harrowing ramifications.
Deen described the Skverer Hasidic worldview as one of “cultural fidelity,” characterized by an insistence on “maintaining a cultural identity above all else.”
Hasidic lifestyle, Deen said, is based on “communitarianism.” The interests of the collective are far more important than those of the individual.
“Individualism as it is known in the secular world does not exist in the contemporary Hasidic world — adherents are deprived of meaningful, individual choice,” Deen said.
Deen said that this denial of individualism characterizes the Skverer sect of Hasidism. Even the Satmar Hasidim, known for their fierce anti-Zionism and ultra-conservatism, consider the Skverer to be extreme, he said.
Deen described that he first began to understand how radical his community was when his marriage was arranged for him at age 18.
Until that point, he had been prohibited from having any contact with women. Despite his marriage being arranged, Deen’s matchmaker refused to show him a photograph of his wife-to-be, let alone grant him permission to meet with her.
Forced into marriage, Deen then began questioning the Hasidic way of life. In the years that followed, his skepticism grew when the naming of his five children was left up to the community rabbi.
“I was doing everything I was told to do. There was no real choice for me … no concept of choice,” Deen told the crowd.
However, integration of technology — including radio, television and movies — into Deen’s world slowly but surely pushed him from the Hasidic world into the outside, mainstream culture.
This introduction of technology did not come without its risks.
Deen said that when he chose to watch the Yankees play in the World Series, he violated the basic tenets of Hasidism.
This gradual exposure to the outside world culminated in Deen’s regular ventures to the public library. There he read encyclopedia that taught him “fascinating subjects from literature to science,” Deen said.
“Through my reading, I discovered all that I had been deprived of in my life,” he added.
These discoveries led Deen to make an active decision that changed his life forever, leaving the world of passivity.
“I no longer believed in the principles of Orthodox Judaism,” Deen said, determining that the Hasidic lifestyle was not for him.
Deen refused to sacrifice himself to his Hasidic community. He left New Square, and with it, his wife and five kids.
During the question-and-answer session that followed Deen’s speech, he was asked whether he regrets having broken off all contact with his children. In his response, Deen invoked the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who once said “man is condemned to be free.”
“I ultimately chose that state to which man is condemned. It is a decision that I do not look back on,” Deen said.
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