By Debie Thomas
Shulem Deen, All Who Go Do Not Return (Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2015) 288pp.
For much of his life, Shulem Deen wore long sidelocks, studied the Talmud, attended prayers, walked strictly on the men’s side of the street, spoke Yiddish, deferred all life decisions — what to wear, whether to obtain a driver’s license, whom to marry — to his rabbi, and knew nothing of the outside world except that it was dangerous and forbidden.
And then he lost his faith. Not all at once, but slowly, achingly, and at great personal cost. For a while, he tried feigning piety — saying his prayers, observing the myriad laws of his community, suppressing his questions — but he couldn’t tolerate the duplicity for long. The pain involved in lying, in hiding “the smoldering embers” of his dead faith, became too great to bear. He started telling the truth.
At its heart, Shulem Deen’s wrenching memoir, All Who Go Do Not Return, is a story about honesty and its sometimes excruciating consequences. Deen was in his early thirties, a husband and a father of five, when he was branded a heretic, and expelled from his ultra-Orthodox village of New Square, New York. He lost his wife, his children, and the only community he had ever known. His memoir recounts the story of his fundamentalist upbringing, his loss of faith, and his precarious journey into the secular world.
The memoir is a must-read for several reasons. Aside from being beautifully written, in a tone that is gracious, searching, and astonishingly free of bitterness, it opens up an American subculture — set amidst all the bustle and modernity of New York City — that few Americans know exists. It’s a world where eighteen-year-olds have arranged marriages — and call their rabbis on their wedding nights to learn the basic mechanics of sex. “The law says you must tell her you love her,” his rabbi tells a fumbling and bewildered Deen. The law also dictates that Deen kiss his bride exactly twice. “Once before the act and once during.”
The memoir also traces Deen’s intellectual path, highlighting the deep curiosity and passion for learning that leads him to commit such scandalous “sins” as listening to the radio, surfing the Internet, and sneaking into the children’s section of the public library to read encyclopedias.
What’s perhaps most engaging about the memoir is its level-headed portrayal of religious fundamentalism. Long after Hasidism ceases to make sense to Deen, he writes tenderly — even nostalgically — about its virtues. Deen is never vindictive, even when he has good reason to be.
All Who Go Do Not Return is a brave book. It will resonate with anyone who has voiced doubts his community cannot tolerate, or given up the life she knows best in order to preserve her soul.
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